Mr Phillips by David Morrissey

5th February 2016 at 00:00
The actor recalls a teacher who piqued his interest in history’s characters – at a time when school was the last thing on his mind

I failed my O-levels and went to a sixth-form at a grammar school that eventually became a comprehensive, where they took boys from secondary moderns from around Liverpool to re-sit their O-levels. If they passed, they would continue on to do their studies there. The school was called De La Salle. I believe that Wayne Rooney went there, too.

Even before I got to De La Salle, I had all but given up on school. My father had died and a consequence was that I lost all interest in studies. I wanted to become an actor and I didn’t think that any academic training was going to help. I played truant a lot. I’d often get the bus in the opposite direction of school and find myself reading in Liverpool Library for the entire day. I never missed a history class though, and that was down to Mr Phillips.

He had a wonderful knack of engaging me with the personal stories of history. The personal angle within broader topics was something that really appealed to me and, in hindsight, being an actor, it’s sort of obvious why that resonated. I engaged in historical moments via the personal tales within, such as the personalities of people like Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. The personalities of those three men played a huge part in how they worked together to conjure some sort of peace. The story of Roosevelt and Stalin cutting Churchill out at one point, dealing a blow to his ego, and Roosevelt’s disability and how he disguised it – those were the tales that intrigued me. They were people with personal problems, not just faceless politicians.

The people were Mr Phillips’ gateway to the subject. He was a very engaging teacher. He made eye contact. It might sound like an obvious thing, but I felt that he was looking at me and not just looking at another kid in a uniform. When I think about him now, he is looking right at me and smiling, whereas all the other teachers, when I picture them in my mind’s eye, they’re either looking away or they’re shouting at me.

He wasn’t a strict disciplinarian but, given his engaging nature, he really didn’t need to be. He was very personable, approachable and he seemed to care about us, beyond passing exams. He cared about our welfare and who we were as individuals, as opposed to just seeing us as a class full of kids. In my other lessons – and this isn’t a criticism of the teachers, but more about what that specific lower-sixth school was tasked with – the teachers placed the emphasis entirely on cramming. It was all about getting us through exams, and I wasn’t really interested in that. Mr Phillips was more interested in engaging us with the subject and that has given me a lifelong love of history.

I was a terrible speller – still am. I was never diagnosed with dyslexia, but spelling is a serious blindspot for me and he didn’t mind about that at all. He wanted me to get the sense of the subject, get the story and the facts out and down on paper, and not worry about the spelling. That was so liberating. It helped me to fall in love with the subject, because I didn’t have this constant fear hanging over me throughout essays. It really freed me up. I would get from A to Z in an essay in a third of the time. What I took out of his lessons was a sense of “don’t get it right, get it written”. When you’re approaching your work, finish it, right through to the end, then go back and finesse it. And I’ve always used that approach to my work, to this very day. I don’t hit walls when I’m writing. I keep going and correct it later.

I was fortunate enough to meet his son many years on and to express to him what an excellent teacher his father was. I don’t think I was on my own in thinking that, either – I think many kids who were taught by him thought that he was special. He was incredibly good at what he did.

David is an ambassador for Speakers for Schools’ Creativity, Arts and Culture campaign, which aims to help inspire all students to consider the arts and creative subjects, whatever their ambitions.

The talk series will involve leading executives, practitioners and performers sharing their insights and expertise on why arts should be encouraged for all state school students.

To find out how your state secondary school or college can access free talks from leading figures throughout the year, please visit

History boy

David Morrissey

Born 21 June 1964, Liverpool

Education De La Salle Grammar School, now De La Salle Academy, Liverpool

Career Having played the critically acclaimed roles of Stephen Collins in State of Play (2003) and Gordon Brown in The Deal, the latter winning him a Best Actor award from the Royal Television Society, David landed roles in Sense & Sensibility, Red Riding and Nowhere Boy. He is perhaps best known for playing the Governor in AMC television series The Walking Dead

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