Sir Patrick Stewart - I’m glad I didn’t go to a grammar school
10:15 10 October 2016
Sir Patrick Stewart is one of our most recognisable English actors, respected on both sides of the Atlantic. Though he now can place himself among his childhood heroes – Gielgud, Olivier and Guinness – Yorkshire-born Patrick says life changed for him on the spring mornings he played by the river.
SCHOOL for me was largely a foundation to my career that followed, but not in a conventional way . . . or at least, not at first. I attended Crowlees Church of England Junior and Infants School and Mirfield Secondary Modern, both in Kirklees.
It was a tough family upbringing in the shadow of the Second World War. For many young children, school was a useful release because times were tough, yet for me it didn’t really galvanise me. I wasn’t academic, never have been, and was always looking for something less regimented and more creative.
I didn’t really mix with other pupils and would truant. I could spend hours wandering around the Calder Valley and for me it was freedom and inspiration, the like of which I’d never have in school. In fact it was the decision to skip school that meant I went to Mirfield Secondary Modern and not a grammar school, and I’m glad of that, because it led me to meet Mr Dormand.
Mr Dormand – Cecil – was a bold and enthusiastic man, someone who clearly had a passion for written matter that he would delight in telling anyone about. I’ve met a good number of literate types over the years, as you would expect, but to my young brain he embodied the kind of widely-read passion for literature that is rare to find these days. It seemed to me you could ask him about any author, any era, and style of writing, and he would come back with names, examples and ideas. And that to me was something that really inspired; fired the imagination. It was comforting to know that sort of knowledge could be accumulated, and unique at the same time to see someone so engaged across so many different specialisms.
But while this man’s base of literature and drama was wide, the one subject that really stood out above all the others was Shakespeare. He was the first to really explain to me the power and purpose of William Shakespeare. This wasn’t just a book to be read and consumed in the mind. Oh no, this was to be performed… and that’s exactly what he instructed us to do! We’d be thrown into the lion’s den of standing up in front of our peers and reciting off great, long passages, of which even the best of us could understand only in part. But it really set the scene for me; it gave me something to invest my time and imagination in.
I’ve said it before but education is so important as the first part of an actor or performer’s life. Every one of those at the top have been inspired by an English master.
This isn’t something you just accumulate at home across the course of a few quiet Sunday afternoons – it has to be taught from the heart and from those who respect and have such a deep passion for a text that, conceivably, it leads them into teaching. And theatre is usually at the heart of that too – the ultimate opportunity to bestow the virtues of something you are passionate about.
Once that seed of how I could channel all my energy was planted I couldn’t stop myself. I remember being called to a number of productions and drama schools and with every one I sensed I was growing as an actor, and so much of that was down to Mr Dormand.
Teachers like him come along once in a generation - they’re not constricted by curriculums. Why? Because no child ever got inspired by government directives. What inspires kids is to see that the person teaching them has a passion and cares passionately about the subject. That is true teaching.
So I worked as a journalist for a while before getting a place at the Bristol Old Vic. We had no money so I was heavily reliant on a grant – it was called a County Major Scholarship – and it got me through; it gave me a start.
They say the life of an actor is tough now but it was just as bad then. Work was slow and generally unfulfilling, something Mr Dormand and other drama teachers had often referenced. But if you care enough then you will invest enough, and I guess that has been my life.
People speak as well about where they came from and the leg-up that’s apparently needed. Well I didn’t have one – I’m proud of that fact now, although for a long time wasn’t.
I had a plain, largely poor upbringing, and had to fight myself for the breaks. But I also had a great teacher, a great master, and no amount of privilege can guarantee you that. And now, for me, it’s a case of trying to pay that forward in whatever way I can.
Name: Patrick Stewart (OBE)
Job today: Actor
Born in: Mirfield, West Riding of Yorkshire
Lives in: Brooklyn, New York
Best subject: Drama
Finest moment in school: Missing his 11+
Most important thing learned: True learning only comes from those who truly care