I spent most of my school life in the hallway, sent out of classes – I was a terrible talker. My reports always said either “Tessa distracts herself” or “Tessa distracts others” because I was so, so utterly bored. But never in English. I didn’t miss an English class and I think that says it all.
Mr Whittington taught me at Downer Grammar, up to and including O level. I left Downer in 1973 and the year after it became a comprehensive, which I believe is now called Canons High.
I didn’t really know about literature, or plays, until Mr Whittington opened my eyes to this world. We used to have to read out loud in class – sometimes chapters of books, sometimes we took parts in plays – and then we’d discuss what we’d read as a group activity, where we all combined our thoughts. I found it amazing. I was an only child, so I didn’t have any of this at home. To hear other kids discussing a subject we’d just read about was fantastic. Enlightening.
But it was when we read plays out loud that I started thinking, “Oh my God. This is amazing. You can explore what a character is feeling and it echoes with you, the reader. The actor.” It opened that whole area of drama for me, an area I had no idea about, really.
'He made his classes come to life'
Mr Whittington was so enriched and so passionate in the way he talked about the subject. He made you think about elements of the text that weren’t obvious; a theme or a viewpoint. He suddenly put an idea out to the class and you’d be stopped in your tracks and think, “Wow. I never thought of that.” He made it invigorating, you know? It was the only class I actually looked forward to. All the others just felt like an exercise in ticking boxes – a means to get a grant to get to drama school.
He made his classes come to life. He loved his subject and he wanted us to be as passionate about literature, plays, authors and playwrights as he was. And it sure worked on me. To this day I still think about things we discussed and debates we had. I think that’s pretty incredible, to be honest – years later to still reference discussions in school.
Without wanting to say the bleeding obvious, I think the reading of the plays out loud contributed to my ability to act, without a shadow of a doubt. In a room hearing other people do the same, it was emboldening. Hard for some of the kids, I don’t doubt that, but for me it was perfect. Hey, I was struggling in every other class, so this was the one for me, right? The perfect prompt to explore an area of education I loved. I was aware of feeling that it was working, too. I think that’s rare in school life – that conscious ability to spot that a class is having a profound effect. You’re going through so many other things as a teenager, but I remember the part his classes made on my overall plan to get into drama.
This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Mr Whittington in the press. I acknowledged his role in my career in an interview some time ago. I described him as “an elderly man with a dark-reddish beard”. Someone sent him the interview and he took the time to write to me. “Thank you for your kind words,” he wrote. “I was actually only in my mid-thirties when I taught you, but I guess when you’re 16, you think everyone is ancient!”
Ah, the innocence of youth.
Tessa Peake-Jones is starring in The Winslow Boy at theatres around the country until 19 May. She was speaking to Tom Cullen