The school’s now called Valentines High, in East London, but it was originally Ilford County High School for Girls. It changed from a grammar to a comprehensive midway through my time there. It was a fairly unremarkable school – neither brilliant, nor bad – but Joe Meltzer, my English teacher, was brilliant.
You know in TV detective shows you always hear about maverick cops who do things their way? Joe was a maverick. He had absolutely no time for minor matters like the syllabus, or GCSEs. How he would have coped in today’s educational climate, I do not know. He would probably have given up.
What he was interested in was literature and how one responds to literature. He had this Wild West attitude to teaching English and he had it in a school where most of us actually just wanted to tick the boxes and get good exam results. He wanted us to get fired up by literature and it worked on me from day one. He opened my eyes to challenging works, to looking at stuff in a non-reverential way, asking awkward questions and poking fun at texts. He was inspirational. I mean that.
He looked like a barrister – pin-striped suits, a tad overweight, thinning on top a little. He would slump into the classroom with a slightly world-weary air about him. An “Oh God, not another day at the coalface” sort of aura, but that was all part of the sardonic humour. Part of what was funny and engaging about him. But intellectually, he was lightning fast.
I remember, on one occasion, he was teaching us Julius Caesar and he asked if we could identify a particular quote from the play – to not only find it, but to interpret it. There was no Google back then, so to find a quote you had to read the entire book, and he said the first person to do so would win a Mars bar. I was swotty as hell and I found the quote and I interpreted it in the way that I thought it was meant – wrote a paragraph about it and I got the Mars bar.
To my delight, a day or so later, I stumbled upon a Shakespeare quote in another play that read something like “And I like Mars”. I, of course, sent him a note pointing this out, and immediately earned myself another Mars. He had that effect on you. If you bought into his way of teaching, he gave back more and more each time. He made our learning playful. Exciting.
Joe was really into theatre and he was delighted to talk to me about productions he had seen. He was really into the idea of me being an actor and I remember him saying to me on one occasion when I was about 14 – you know, a really self-conscious about one’s looks sort of age – something like: “You’ll be a terrific actress because you have such a forgettable face.” I wasn’t offended at all and the weird thing is that this has absolutely been my strongest asset. I don’t get typecast. I barely ever get recognised. He was spot on.
Joe passed away, sadly, and I don’t think that I ever got to tell him that he was my hero. I went to his funeral and his son mentioned how much Joe had loved theatre and what pride he had in the fact that some of his students had become actors, and he mentioned me as an example. I had assumed that Joe was quite pleased that I had done alright in my career, much of which is down to him, but to hear it said out loud was immensely touching.
He was a brilliant man.
Rebecca Front was speaking to Tom Cullen. War and Peace is available on the BBC Store (bit.ly/BBCWarPeace). She will appear in Doctor Thorne, an adaptation of the Anthony Trollope novel, airing on ITV in the spring
Thick of it
Born 16 May 1964
Education Ilford County High School for Girls
Career Bafta award-winning actress best known for her performances in The Thick Of It, Grandma’s House, The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge and playing Anna Mikhailovna in the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace