Mrs Spry by Milton Jones

25th September 2015 at 01:00
Prone to flinging a blackboard duster as a warning against ‘being smug’, this austere headmistress taught the comedian valuable lessons about his shortcomings – and how to overcome them

When I was 9, I went to a tiny prep school in south-west London, Kew College. It was technically fee-paying but I think it cost, like, £30 a term. It was run by Mr and Mrs Spry, a bad-cop, even-worse-cop married couple. Mrs Spry was a real old-school head – almost a caricature of a headmistress, complete with ridiculous wig. She would walk around with arms folded. Everyone was scared of her. She was like something out of a 1950s film.

Kew College was effectively a boot camp to get middle-class kids into better schools. Mrs Spry’s skill was appraising pupils, telling them exactly what was what and putting them through an academic course that would make them sink or swim.

It was old-fashioned values, you know? The textbooks were so old, you’d be told to ignore the sums that mentioned shillings. There weren’t any dinner ladies – the students served the dinners on a rota. And we didn’t have games classes, we went on a run around the block with no supervision; two sides of the block were main roads – bear in mind we were kids under 11. It just wouldn’t happen today.

There were no nut allergies in that sort of place. Pull yourself together, play chess, do your homework, shut up. It was a bit like being in Colditz. We rallied together and I still know some of the people I went there with; it was truly bond-forming. And the parents were up for turning a blind eye because Mrs Spry got children into good schools.

I vividly remember her telling me: “I don’t think you’ve got it in you, you won’t pass anything at all.” At the time she was right. It was like I was a championship club footballer who moved to Manchester United and Alex Ferguson decided I needed the hairdryer treatment to get the best out of me.

It worked. I did put the work in and I did pass exams. I was quite a sensitive child in some ways and it was difficult for me to hear the truth. I hope I’m not overthinking this, but it was the beginning of me wanting – or needing – to hear the truth about myself, which I took through into what I did with my career. Comedy is the most honest art form there is because you know immediately if you’re succeeding or not. You need to be utterly self-aware and realistic about your own abilities. Stand-up is very brutal and I guess Kew College, and Mrs Spry, was the beginning of me being able to deal with that.

It was a time when corporal punishment was frowned upon but not illegal. I certainly felt the wrath of the board duster suddenly coming my way. She’d fling it across the classroom if you were talking. Anything worse than talking and you’d be out of the school. That was Mrs Spry’s whole thing: her way or the highway. Suffice to say, it didn’t work for everyone. She’d tell some pupils they weren’t up to it and they left. It was up to you to prove her wrong.

Another thing she hated was smugness. You weren’t allowed to look smug in any way. I did 20 questions once when I was only supposed to do 10, so I got the board rubber for that.

Other teachers adopted the arm-around-the-shoulder approach, but in terms of getting results from me, Mrs Spry was the best teacher I had.

I came from a nice home, with nice parents, and I went to a school where I thought I was clever. Mrs Spry showed me the gulf between where I was and where I needed to be, and she showed me how to bridge that gulf.

When the time came for her to retire, she put the school into a trust. She didn’t cash in on it and that summed her up. She lived for education but there was never any warmth to it.

Milton Jones was talking to Tom Cullen. His UK tour, Milton Jones and the The Temple of Daft, runs until 29 November. For tickets, visit www.miltonjones.com

A bit of a laugh

Milton Jones

Born 16 May 1964, Kew, England

Education Kew College, Richmond upon Thames

Career Having won the Perrier comedy award for best newcomer in 1996, he has become a star of Radio 4, as well as appearing regularly on Mock the Week, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Live at the Apollo

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