My Best Teacher - Kenneth Branagh
Two Teachers Made a Lasting Impression on This Actor, and Still Keep a Watchful Eye on Him Today
TES Magazine, 3 April 2009
I went to Whiteknights Primary School in Reading when I was about nine and it was there that I met Beryl Levitt. She was an excellent primary teacher who I remember for her compassion.
I was too paralysed by fear to admit that I hadn’t learnt a word of French at my previous school, Grove Primary in Belfast. So when I tried writing French, I wrote we instead of oui. She was so sweet about it. She made a point of saying that it was a brilliant effort for someone who’d never done French before.
Ms Levitt was a slim woman, perhaps in her late 20s, with twinkly eyes and glasses that made her look a little severe. When I was 10, she put on the The Magic Roundabout and cast me as Dougal, which we performed to a local nursery group. That was a good experience for me. Ms Levitt believed in the therapeutic power of drama and used it to communicate and entertain.
I then changed catchment areas and moved to Meadway School in Reading, where I met another huge influence, Stan Grue. He was the deputy head and an English teacher. Like Ms Levitt, he was interested in drama, and had a strong understanding of its value. He didn’t think it was just for people who wanted to be actors - he felt it was a medium to express your imagination in different ways.
I remember him introducing us to Romeo & Juliet. He kicked off the lesson by playing the Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye track “You Are Everything”. It starts with a lot of low moaning as Marvin mutters “Oh, baby” and then she lets out a series of high-pitched squeals. There was a lot of sniggering among us 14-year-olds. Then Stan said: “So, tell me what that is all about then?”
He was met with red faces. He said, straight as a die: “It’s sex, isn’t it?” He was not searching for titillation. It was just a great way of introducing a central theme of the play - primitive love and the awakening of sexual desire.
He said: “Listen, you ignorant lot,” with a twinkle in his eye and genuine warmth, “everything we’ll learn in Romeo & Juliet is what you’re already experiencing: crushes, gangs, friendships, loyalty - it’s all there.” It removed the barriers surrounding Shakespeare.
Stan did not make us read texts out loud. We broke it down and debated what was happening. He challenged us and encouraged independent thought. He had deep respect for texts, but it was never hallowed reverence. Nothing was above a critical approach.
Poetry was not just a finite set of coded hints and metaphors to Stan. He encouraged a poetic response and made it clear that there was no one answer - everything was a justifiable response as long as we could argue our case.
Stan and Beryl come and see my plays. When they arrive in my dressing room, the years fall away. The difficult thing is calling them by their first names and daring to give Beryl a kiss on the cheek.
They’ve retired now, but still talk about their pupils and how the education system has changed. For them, education is about watching curiosity and knowledge grow. I was incredibly lucky to be taught by such excellent teachers.
Kenneth Branagh stars in the film ‘The Boat That Rocked’. The TES Film Academy and Film Education are offering a free DVD of teaching resources to accompany its release. Email filmacademy@film education.org.uk for details. He was talking to Hannah Frankel.