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My Best Teacher;Interview;Oz Clarke

Last updated 11 May 2008, created 23 April 1999, viewed 1,549

I spent all my school life in a religious environment. Because there was no Catholic boys' school where I lived, I started at a girls' convent - St Anne's in Westbere, a tiny village about five miles from Canterbury, at the age of four. I was one of only two boys surrounded by 150 girls. I used to g More…et walked home by a lovely girl called Rosemary - she was beautiful and willowy and must have been 16 or 17.

The only teacher I remember from those days is Sister Bernardo whom we called Sister Banana. She was quite fierce. When I got a place at Canterbury Cathedral Choir School, she picked me up in chapel and plonked me down facing away from the altar while, in front of the entire school, Father McCarthy prayed for my soul. He said I faced eternal damnation because I was going to the Anglican church. When my mother heard about it, she renounced the Catholic faith.

We lived on the top of a hill and from my bedroom window I had a view five miles across the valley to Canterbury Cathedral. Every evening, as I watched the sun setting on this magnificent building, I'd thought how wonderful it would be to go to school there.

But I don't think the headmaster, Mr Pare, liked me because I spent the whole time wishing there was a decent rugby and cricket team for me to get into. I sang Bach and Handel and Mozart and played the piano and wanted to learn the trumpet, but Mr Pare said I couldn't because I would wake up his wife when I practised. So I had to play the clarinet instead.

The only person who influenced me at the school was the organist, a marvellous chain-smoking eccentric called Sydney Campbell, who went on to be Master of the Queen's Music at Windsor.

In a way my father was my best teacher. When I was at school I never did much work but managed to be third or fourth in the class, and thought that was good enough. My father was always saying, "If you can be third or fourth without doing any work, why not do a bit more and be first?" So every now and again I'd put on a spurt and come top, and then ease off again.

The only thing I really worked on was my cricket. I used to go up to the Kent nets to practise and was coached by two all-rounders, Peter Jones and Stuart Leary. Every morning, when I should have been doing my piano practice, I would sneak downstairs and read the sports pages of the Daily Telegraph.

Then I got a choral scholarship to King's School, Canterbury, and there met Edred Wright, the director of music, who was a big influence on me. We still keep in touch. I sang for about a year at King's, as a boy soprano, and then my voice broke. I lost touch with the musical side of things because I wanted to prove that I was a butch boy. I longed to be one of the lads and fight people on rugby fields. I became captain of hockey, which was for me one of the greatest achievements of my life.

I always wanted to do everything, and next I wanted to be a rock 'n' roll singer. I formed a group called Aftermath. It went down very badly with my mother who, to this day, thinks I ruined my voice with rock 'n' roll. The school didn't seem to mind. One morning after I'd been singing Roy Orbison songs to a crowd of 600 the previous night, Edred called me over and asked if it was me he'd heard as he walked past the great hall. Expecting a wigging, I admitted it and he said, "Right, you start voice lessons today". I then went and sang in a little group in the madrigal society. Edred understood that Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Handel and Monteverdi are all part of the same rich pattern of music.

I planned to read economics at Oxford but I couldn't cope with advanced maths and the headmaster, the Revd Peter Newell, directed me towards a theology and psychology course at Pembroke College. It was at Oxford that I began drinking wine because I thought it would make me seem more elegant and sophisticated. A wine merchant called John Avery came and arranged tastings and showed me that the world of wine was exciting. The director, Patrick Garland, also came up to Oxford, and he persuaded me to go to Northampton Rep for my first job. I was an actor for about five years, then I got an opera scholarship and became a singer, then a book writer, then I started doing Food and Drink and different sorts of television. My plan has always been to change jobs every five years or so.

Wine expert Oz Clarke, of BBC TV's 'Food and Drink', hasrecently published 'Oz Clarke's Pocket Wine Book, 1999' (£8.99) 'Oz Clarke's Wine Guide, 1999' (£9.99) and (with Steven Spurrier) 'Clarke and Spurrier's Fine Wine Guide, Growers, Appellations, Vintages' (£17.99). All published by Little Brown. He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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