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My best teacher - Nigel Havers

Features | Published in TES Newspaper on 29 August, 2008 | By: Pamela Coleman

An eccentric man who quaffed whisky and smoked in class was the first to recognise this actor’s star quality

When I was six I was sent off to board at Nowton Court Prep School near Bury St Edmunds, a wonderfully romantic mock Gothic building in glorious parkland. “Don’t cry and never sneak on your mates,” my father advised wisely.

The school was run by an eccentric whisky-quaffing trio, two brothers and a sister - Charles, Neville and Betty Blackburn - who encouraged pupils to call them by their first names. Charles was the eldest and in charge of the Shakespeare productions put on in the school grounds every summer. He picked me out to appear as Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale and so was entirely instrumental in my choice of career. From that moment I knew that I wanted to be an actor.

Looking back, Charles was modern in his approach to education. He had an open and friendly manner, and yet he was strict concerning manners and discipline. We felt we were treated as adults. We were given responsibilities. We were left alone a lot, to learn and to go off to do things. There were about 40 acres to knock around in and we didn’t have to be in bed until 9pm. We went fishing in the grounds, rode bicycles, climbed trees - did almost anything we wanted to do.

Neville Blackburn didn’t teach but organised all the costumes for the school plays and painted the scenery and was in charge of school administration. Betty taught divinity and some sport.

Charles brought us up on Shakespeare right from the beginning and we all loved it and understood it. It wasn’t a hurdle for any of us. I’ll thank him for that for the rest of my life. A lot of people have been put off Shakespeare because they were badly taught. It was of no relevance to them, but to me it was relevant, fun and interesting.

Charles was tough, yet kind. He was a big man with a moustache and receding hair. He wore glasses and dressed in tweeds and sometimes smoked in class. He was well-educated and had been to Oxford. He loved the theatre and was knowledgeable about it.

The Blackburns had a number of pretty high-profile friends in the artistic community. George Baker, the actor, was a friend and also Angus Wilson, the writer. Angus was one of the guys, who having seen me perform, told Charles he had to convince me to go for acting as a profession.

I was an average student, I just chugged along. I didn’t do any more or less than was needed, except when it came to doing the plays, and then I put in long hours. As a child I think you only excel at things you enjoy. I liked cricket and football and was in the school teams.

I became head boy in my last year but I was pretty bad at it. Phil, my elder brother, had been a particularly good head boy and I suppose the Blackburns were hoping it ran in the family. But I didn’t want to discipline people; I wanted school to be a free for all. It didn’t work, but it was fun while it lasted. I let the boys get away with murder and even introduced cigar smoking on to the curriculum.

At 13 I went off to the Arts Educational School (AES). My brother had gone to Eton but I realised pretty quickly it wasn’t the place for me.

Soon after I went to the AES, the school’s resident theatrical agent called me in and I got my first professional job - playing the part of Billy, Mrs Dale’s grandson in the radio programme, Mrs Dale’s Diary, mainly because I had the right speaking voice.

I kept in touch with Charles Blackburn right up until he died and he followed my career closely. I owe him a lot.

Nigel Havers is best known for appearing in the film Chariots of Fire and on TV in The Charmer. He was talking to Pamela Coleman.


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Comment (6)

  • I was also at Nowton Court but 10 years before Mr Havers. I was sent there because the school gave a good discount to the son's of the clergy, the Blackburns being children of a Bishop of Ely.
    I remember the Blackburns well although some what differently to Mr Havers.
    Charles was the Headmaster, Neville seemed to be (at least to an 9 year old) in charge of the house-keeping! I only remember him walking around the school with a feather duster in his hand while Betty did the school's accounting and was distinguished by a brown nicotine stain on her face as she was never seem without a cigarette out of her mouth.
    Charles took me for Latin and History, both of which were taken in that same class room. It had pictures of the Kings and Queens of England on the walls and I still, to this day sixty years later, can see them arranged with William the Conqueror behind the door; on round to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I etc. on the left side of the window and finally round to the other side of the door with the Georges. Latin was beaten into me every Monday for not knowing my grammar. I remember distinctly the moment it dawned on me that the only way out of this was to learn the stuff, so I did - like a parrot. Life then became considerably better. Charles beat all offenders - it seemed to be the only punishment. Every night in the bathroom you could see the evidence of it - three line bruises on behinds. If someone stole anything, the whole school was lined up against a corridor wall. Charles would then tirade us and wait (for what seemed to be hours) for the offender to own up who was then taken off to be beaten. There was one unfortunate chap who was beaten twice in one day and we all witnessed that evening that it had broken the skin.
    But it wasn't all bad, we had some great times. As Mr Havers has said, the grounds were extensive with a lake, an excellent playing field for soccer or cricket and a lot of woodland. We would have a time in every week for forestry when we would tend to the trees and be taught about wildlife and how to use an axe properly etc.
    Charles did sometimes 'make the punishment fit the crime'. I was late to the bathroom one night and Charles was on duty. He made me, instead of playing in the cricket match the following day, report to him in my pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers while he and parents watched the game. I would then have to report to him in my everyday clothes and so on. I did it twenty-three times! I have never been late for anything since.
    And then there were the Summer Term Shakespeare plays done in the open air theatre. I think they were first introduced while I was there. I well remember the first was Midsummer Night's Dream and the boy taking the Demetrius part became ill and for some reason I was picked to take his place. There was a week to go so I was taken out of classes and instead lay under a big cedar tree with a friend to learn the part (it was a great sunny summer) and rehearsals on the stage going on late into the evenings.
    I shall never forget the cats! There must have been quite a number of them in the school. I don't ever remember seeing them outside - but there was definitely evidence of them being inside.
    Every morning we would come down to our classrooms to discover whether they had left there what they should have done outside! The smell was something I've never forgotten as nobody cleared it up and was there during our lessons! How, or even why, the staff put up with it I'll never know! Ah! The staff . . . but that's another story.
    I have been a musician all my life - teaching, composing, arranging, directing - and found out that music was the best thing in the world at Nowton Court, because they used the BBC Schools Programmes Adventures in Music. They were excellent - what a pity they are no longer available.

    Tony Royse (aphrys@tiscali.co.uk)

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    23:52
    21 January, 2010

    Tonyharvey

  • I also went to NC... in 1968/69... With the now infamous Jeremy Bamber!! I have no idea why my parent's selected the school, we lived in Nigeria at the time and maybe it was within the budget allowance paid by Unilever at the time!!!

    I remember only small things - the boot locker downstairs and making mud balls and baking them on the pipes... having a bike was also fun and we used to race these though the muddy pathways in the winter... Also the cold baths on Fridays, supervised by the nursing sister - I think... New underwear afterwards was always a good thing..!!

    My mother always got the gardener to scrub me down when I got back to West Africa for the holidays as I was almost brown from ingrained dirt!!

    I also remember Betty reading in her study/lounge area - Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and other Narnia stuff... Meals... Bread with dripping, powdered eggs and then having to spend time in the kitchen washing what seemed like a million plates, knives forks etc, milk in little glass bottles with foil tops...

    Class - Latin, History and Geography are all I remember Geography in a big classroom with windows all the way to the ceiling...

    Michael Cranfield (mcranfie@logic.bm)

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    20:17
    25 January, 2010

    MCranberry

  • My memories of Nowton are for a short three year period around 1974. My memory of the Blackburnes was rather less pleasant than Mr Havers, however the school left me with fond memories.

    The juxtaposition of freedom of being allowed to make ones own entertainment in the grounds with the boys either on our bikes charging around playing hare and hounds, flicking our penknives between our opponents feet called splits or even estate duty with Sarge and his labrador. Carving our initials in the treetrunk near the main house or for the brave climbing the hundred foot tree (maybe it was the 108). Charles drumming it into us that commas were used too much and we should avoid them – I still try to follow his advice. The harsh discipline of Charles and his selection of canes which I came to know all too well was the downside. Once when being canned I was caught with a pink blotting pad down my grey cords to soften the blows and being told by Charles after being canned to remove it and being canned again! Not being able to sit for a while and showing the other boys the cane marks.

    The education process I cannot remember in detail but it was unique and from a different period in time. The younger teachers managed to provide a certain amount of modernism amongst the more traditional ways of the others.

    At the end of each term we were made to line up and be ranked in order of our performance by subject. A ritual humiliation for me as I slowly was moved down the line to bottom.

    The dining room appeared massive at the time but upon my visit in later years is small and I remember eating Sunday breakfast of soft rolls, bacon and marmalade all together. Evenings were spent after kitchen chores doing prep in the dining room or listening to music in the music room or playing battleships. On occasion we were shown films and I remember watching the Cockleshell Heroes, Metropolis and the Italian Job on a large screen in the dining room.

    Betty’s weigh-ins in the south dorm were strange but harmless affairs. Or the ritual of queuing up to get stationary from Charles from the stationary cupboard under the stairs. Of course we weren’t allowed generally to use the main stairs instead the two by the tuck shop (I remember the queues for tuck on weekends) or the rear stairs by the dining room and the games/duty board with the coloured discs showing our names/team and relevant duty/games.

    The basement was a fun place where we played ping pong charging round the table or changed from our football boots in our various teams (mine was Red team). The large marble bath in the basement was always a mystery as to why it was there for no apparent reason.

    Carpentry lessons were fun in the Stable block where I learned to hammer in screws to wood and many other life skills. The choir lessons took place in the small room next door where upon once looking rashly at my watch I was removed from the choir. In my time singing in the choir we did indeed sit at the front in our own stalls. Following a long walk along the roads in our Sunday best and yellow caps/tie or via the farm track to church. Maybe when lucky we’d go in the Plowrights Volvo. Which I remember also going to away matches in. Mrs Plowright gave me my love of Hockey. My son now sings in a school choir in Cambridge. I see from reading my letters home it was the same school we played cricket against years ago.

    Mr Plowright’s science block was something to behold and to think now of the experiments with chemicals they performed is amazing.

    Letters home were written I think on Sunday afternoons and were quite a chore. You had to be careful what you wrote as they were checked for spelling handwriting and any attempt to mention ‘our’ distress about the terror that Charles managed to garner.

    In the summer we were allowed to swim during the evening in the small swimming pool we ran across the lawn in our trunks with towels from the back of the school. If you were playing in a school match the next day when Squadron Leader Plowright would not allow it so that the chlorine didn’t affect your sight!

    Matrons were fun and I remember Miss Pullen who we called push-me-pull-you due to her size. She was epileptic I think and one lunchtime a load crash was heard on the chandelier in the entrance as she collapsed in the matrons office above. I spent quite some time getting to know the corner of the corridor outside matron’s office as I was usually made to stand in the corner where I read the Shell posters. Or in the evening write out hundreds of lines.

    I seem to recall there was vespers taken by Charles in the entrance hall with possibly mugs of chocolate around the round table in the middle in front of the wooden boards with inscriptions of various old boys and schools they went on to.

    School matches could be fun if your parents attended and I recall David Croft-Sharland’s dad David Croft of Dad’s Army fame visiting in a six door Mercedes to watch matches.

    Matches were played on either the lower pitches on the cold wet spongy ground or the main pitch. There was the pavilion (know at Ravenswood Hall) which we played British Bulldogs in I think or used to throw a heavy medicine ball around in during games. Rather ominously in the other small hut around the main pitch were to be found boxing gloves, if these were ever used it wasn’t on the curriculum in my time.

    Every now and gain there was an exeat which was upsetting in that it pulled us out of school after we had overcome the homesickness and sent us briefly back to home only to be quickly returned to school on a Sunday with all the various parents cars spewing out homesick children. At the end of term there was the massive excitement of going home, little sleep the night before in our dorms and then the coach down the Bury station were our train pulled up bound for London via Newmarket Cambridge etc with our reserved carriage and our trunks loaded. The whole process reversed at the beginning of term.

    Dormitories were our somewhat safe zone where we rested on black metal framed beds with horsehair mattresses (and hospital corners) after meals and read our books, ate tuck or chatted. After lights out in the evening the torches were used to light the ceiling and try and catch each others torchbeam. However not all was safe as there were sometimes dorm raids or Charles or other teachers entering a dorm to resume order.

    James Wells (james.wells@ntlworld.com)

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    14:45
    31 January, 2010

    Worldged

  • I was at NC in 1949/51 as a 9/11 year old and my memories are more in line with Tony Harvey than Nigel Havers. In my two years or so at NC I was on the receiving end of a couple of corrective treatments administered in the heads study.
    Prior to my being sent to board at NC I had been in Primary and Junior school in Cambridge and NC was a real shock to the system.
    French and Latin were not even on my radar when I arrived at NC but the rather harsh teaching methods must have worked as I can still recite the verbs to this day even though I have not studied either language since.
    One bonus of my time at NC was that I had no problem with my service time at the age of 16.
    The grounds were good fun for children as long as one remembered the rules. The one food memory that really stands out was the evening (after Latin and French prep) supper of bread and milk !!! To this day I cannot face that combination but as it was only just post war we ate everything we could.

    Robbie (Robin) Wright
    robbie@rmwright.co.uk

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    12:00
    26 March, 2010

    ExecR

  • I was at NC for just a year and a half from January 1955. Like other correspondents here, I remain with mixed feelings about the place. On the plus side, the most important gift I was left with was a great love and appreciation of opera. Why? Because every two weeks or so, Charles invited interested boys to come and listen to complete operas (on a Thursday evening I think) on what was for those days state-of-the -art Hi-Fi, a Pye 'black box'. His taste in opera was wide-ranging, and I can remember soaking up everything from Offenbach via Wagner and Strauss to Benjamin Britten ('The Turn of the Screw', which scared the pants off me!). Also, academic standards were undeniably high, and I left with my Latin and English well on the way to 'O' Level standard. I also took a (very) small part in the Shakespeare performances, and well remember the magic of the floodlights coming on as dusk fell.
    The teaching staff were on the whole friendly, with rather odd backgrounds (two Naval Commanders, for example!), but Charles himself could be quite terrifying to a sensitive nine-year old. I recall one occasion when he gave a beating to anyone who had scored less than full marks in a Latin test. We sat in dreadful silence as, one by one, the miscreants walked to an adjoining room for punishment, the thwack of the cane resounding down the corridor.
    I remember Betty's story-telling with some affection ('The Hobbit' during my time there), but her teaching of country-dancing with nothing but fear-- Strip the Willow was quite literally drummed into us, her big hands cuffing us for every wrong step.
    I remember the terrible home-sickness even before boarding the train at Liverpool Street, but the visits from home were great, and we usually made for 'The Swan' at Lavenham, with its enormous log fire.

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    17:11
    19 July, 2011

    goodwin

  • I fell that the comments here are accurate and balanced. I feel that the main challenge of NC was the inherrant inconsistancy of mood. Certainly there much that was wonderful and happy, the culture - music and drama, the grounds, Charles when he was in a happy mood, excellent French teaching, the maintenance gang, the long periods of freedom. All of this has to be put against the underlying atmosphere of instability. All the positive side of NC could suddenly change to heavy menace. The standard Charles beatings for talking afterr lights out, failing to get top marks in a Latin test or failing to correct spelling mistakes could be scary and intense, but there was worse than that. Suddenly someone was beaten with 12 stokes for no stated reason. One teacher would pick two boys up by the hair and bash their two heads together, rather terrifying. And there is the experience remembered by consistently by different people of a set of severe beatings where one boy emerged from the study with part of his forehead bleeding. It was all survivable but some of it was considerably excessive and unnecessary.

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    Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
    20:21
    14 September, 2012

    survivorandenthusiast

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