If my family hadn’t moved from Wales to New Zealand when I was 14, I would have probably ended up in a lab coat, as my best subjects were sciences. However, at Christchurch Girls’ High School I met John Kim, who taught me English and set me on the path to becoming an actress.
I don’t want to insult the New Zealand system, but the schoolwork was boring as I’d already studied it in Wales. I was moved up a year and still sat there drumming my fingers. I certainly didn’t shine in class and I can’t say that I enjoyed it. I was probably rather humourless and I don’t think I questioned very much. I just sat there and let it happen.
Mr Kim loved Shakespeare and seemed to fight against the style of the time, which was to take a speech and read round the class. You had no continuity or storyline as one girl would read Romeo, the next would read Juliet and the third would read the next Romeo speech. It was disastrous. He wanted to take Shakespeare out of the academic mindset and into the alive business of theatre. But this was a very formal school in the early 1960s, so he didn’t get a lot of support.
He was freckly with sandy hair and wore a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows that smelt of pipe tobacco. He’d studied acting and directing at Lamda [the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art] and he wanted to start an after-school drama club, which I auditioned for aged 15.
I made a terrible mistake of choosing Catherine of Aragon’s speech from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, God help me. This was a mature woman and I was 15. I also stood with my back to Mr Kim and addressed the entire speech to an empty chair. If I’d had any more intelligence, I would have been deeply embarrassed. I’m sure he was sniggering behind me. Anyway, I failed that audition – it was my first and I failed – which was a good lesson as you’ve got to learn to cope with all that. However, it meant that I didn’t get to go to his drama school.
Nevertheless I was still hanging out backstage doing costumes and props. I was becoming obsessed with the theatre and knew I wanted to work there for the rest of my life. I was also desperate to be involved in anything that stopped me from being bored so I started a magazine called It as in, “This is It!”. I left school at 15 and the only thing I got was a school certificate. It’s the New Zealand equivalent of saying “you’re literate”.
A year or so later, I was working in a clothing design company when John persuaded the council to give him money to start a professional theatre company – the first in Christchurch. He took me on as acting stage manager, which meant I acted, playing all the extras, and I worked on the props and costumes. We opened with quite a big fanfare and the productions were good, but I don’t think that we could command the audiences. Five months later, the council pulled the plug. John took it badly and disappeared. I’ve often tried to look him up, but to no avail.
I don’t think that I would have been an actor if it weren’t for John Kim. He brought out my dedication to the theatre and his desire to make Shakespeare a live experience, not a dead art form, stayed with me. A year later I moved to Auckland, and I really did fly after that.
Pam Ferris was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. Pam is a Blue Cross ambassador and is supporting the Blue Cross Paws for Tea tea party on Friday 13 May. Blue Cross pet charity helps over 40,000 sick, injured and homeless pets each year. To find out more, visit bluecross.org.uk
Born 11 May 1948, Hanover, Germany (moved to Wales as a small child)
Education Hen Heol Primary School, Llanelli, Wales; Llanelli Girls’ Grammar School; Christchurch Girls’ High School, New Zealand
Career Actress whose roles include Sister Evangelina in Call The Midwife, Miss Trunchbull in the film Matilda and Ma Larkin in The Darling Buds of May