I never sat my 11-plus. On the day of the test, I wandered around the hills near the golf club above my home town of Mirfield in West Yorkshire. I ate my lunch sitting against a dry stone wall, looking down on the town, where I could see my school pals in the playground during a break in the exams. I doubt if I would have passed, anyway. And, frankly, I just didn’t see myself as a grammar-school boy.
Had I sat that test, I might never have met Cecil Dormand, a teacher at the secondary modern where I ended up, who would change my life when I was 12, by putting Shakespeare into my hands for the very first time. It was The Merchant of Venice. He gave copies to most of us and told us to look up Act 4 Scene 1 (or the famous trial scene, as I was to learn). He cast all the speaking roles and told us to start reading. We all did, but silently. “No, no, you idiots, not to yourselves!” he yelled. “Out loud! This is a play, not a poem. It’s life. It’s real.”
The first words – “I have possessed your grace of what I purpose” – was the first line of Shakespeare I ever read. I barely understood a word, but I loved the feel of the words and sounds in my mouth. A 400-year-old writer reached out a hand in invitation to me that morning. I felt a sense of an internal, private me being released and connecting with something mysterious, alien and exciting. I was hooked.
“Cec”, as we called him, was my form master and my English teacher. I liked him at once, as did most of the children he taught. His style was very relaxed, funny and provocative, but when it came to teaching he was articulate, interesting, engaging and, most of all, passionate.
I suspect Cec had already intuited that I loved to escape into the world of fiction and out of my dull, uncomfortable and sometimes scary home life, living with an abusive father. But he made literature and language feel like a part of our lives, too.
The same year as he gave us The Merchant of Venice, he cast me in a play with adults – mostly my teachers. I had never acted before. The play was the wartime farce The Happiest Days of Your Life. I played a young pupil named Hopcroft Minor. There were 100 or more people in the audience, which should have been unnerving and intimidating, but I felt fearless and entirely at home. I felt safe on stage and I always have since. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t being Patrick Stewart but Hopcroft Minor.
Not long afterwards, Cec called me to the headmaster’s office, where I met another influencer of my youth, Gerald Tyler, the county drama adviser. He told me that the council was going to run an eight-day residential drama course at Calder high school, in Mytholmroyd, during the Easter break. The head said I could go as a representative of the school. This was where I first had formal acting lessons. Many years later, I learned that Cec must have paid for me to go on the course himself.
I was not the only person in my one-up, one-down house who benefited from Cec’s encouragement and kindness. He persuaded my older brother, Trevor, to have a go at getting into Dewsbury technical college, which he did, to great success. He also encouraged my father to become chair of the PTA. He had been a superstar in the British army – regimental sergeant major of the parachute regiment. But, by this point in his life, he was nobody. The role gave him importance and some dignity back.
A few days before I left school, at the age of 15, Cec asked me if I had ever thought of taking up acting as a career. It made me laugh, because it was a ridiculous idea, but two years later I was offered a place at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, paid for by a scholarship. Usually the recipients were exclusively Oxbridge students, but they believed I had something that, perhaps, fitted in with other young people they encountered – although from a very different background.
It took me years to find a way to thank Cecil Dormand, but, when I did, I was in my first of 12 years as chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, where I presented him with an honorary degree. A few years later, I made him a second thank-you when I invited him to the luncheon celebrating my knighthood, presented by the Queen that same morning. The host invited everyone to say a few words. Cec said: “What the heck am I going to call him now? For decades he called me Sir!”
Cec passed away a few weeks ago, at the age of 96. He saved me when I was a boy and my education was failing – and has without doubt been the most significant person in my life. If I had not met Cec, what would have happened to me? I am so grateful for his belief in me. Rest in peace, Sir.