One day when I was 12, Cecil Dormand, my English teacher at Mirfield Secondary Modern in West Yorkshire, handed out copies of The Merchant of Venice. He announced Act 4, Scene 1: the “Trial Scene”.
He cast the characters, and gave me my first go – of six subsequent shots – at playing the character of Shylock. Sir said: “All right, start reading,” and we did, silently, to ourselves. “No, no. Out loud, this is drama, not just poetry.” And from that moment on, Shakespeare became a part of my life.
It is an odd thing, as I was not at all academic, but I was never afraid of Shakespeare, intimidated or bored. I guess, even though so much was incomprehensible to me, I just “got it” – and I have gone on getting it ever since, with an ever-deepening adoration and respect.
No Cecil Dormand: no acting career for me
As an aside, Mr Dormand also put me in my first play with adults and was the very first person to ask me if I had thought of becoming a professional actor. I hadn’t: it seemed a crazy and impossible idea, but the West Riding County Council held residential courses for amateur actors, directors and designers every spring. I went on my first course and a lifetime’s love of theatre began.
It wasn’t until many years later that I worked out that Mr Dormand and my school had paid the fees for the course. So no Cecil Dormand, no acting career for Patrick Stewart. Everything began with him, as I reminded him when I called him on his 90th birthday this past summer.
Cecil would have made a fine professional actor himself, but, thank the Lord, he stayed in teaching. Over the decades since I walked out of the school gates aged 15 and two days, his influence on me has been profound.
He was a well-organised teacher, but at ease in front of a class – I have even wondered if that was also his stage. He was humorous and fun. He managed to melt the distance between his educated self and the working-class lads and lasses in front of him. He rarely raised his voice – but he would not tolerate inattention.
Lively class environment
He had a deadly aim with pieces of chalk and, though rarely, with a blackboard rubber. All, of course, conduct that would simply not be allowed in today’s politically correct environment. He was ironic, enthusiastic and loved provoking his class to argue or disagree with him. I remember on more than one occasion when, during a lively disagreement between him and the class, the door would suddenly open and the face of the repressive and (at times) sadistic headmaster would appear. “What’s going on in here?” he’d demand. “Oh, nothing headmaster,” Sir would respond. “Just a discussion about the merits of blank verse.” We loved him for that.
At a delightful luncheon given in my honour on the day that I received my knighthood, Cecil and Mary, his wife, were guests. Each person around the table was invited to say something about the Sir Pat Stew that they knew. When it was Cecil’s turn, he said: “Well, it’s rather awkward. When Patrick was my pupil, he called me Sir, now I have to address him in the same way.” Irony, humour, self-deprecating: my English teacher, Cecil Dormand.
Make it so
Sir Patrick Stewart
Born 13 July 1940, Mirfield, West Yorkshire
Education Mirfield Secondary Modern
Career Star of stage and screen, best known as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men series of films. Between 1966 and 1982 he was a core member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and was made an RSC Honorary Associate Artist In 1967. His most recent RSC productions include Hamlet, The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and The Merchant of Venice. He was knighted for services to drama in 2010
My Best Shakespeare Teacher
This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It is estimated that around half the world’s population first encounter the playwright’s work while at school.
To recognise this, TES has joined forces with the Royal Shakespeare Company to celebrate the role that teachers play in making those early experiences as inspirational and enjoyable as possible.
My Best Shakespeare Teacher explores the influence that teachers have had on some of the country’s brightest talents, honouring people whose passion and drive can ignite an appreciation of Shakespeare and the arts that can last a lifetime.
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