A moment that changed me: Patrick Stewart on the teacher who spotted his talent – and saved him

I skipped the 11-plus and was failing at school. Then I met Cecil Dormand, the extraordinary English teacher who transformed my life for ever

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.

Sir Patrick Stewart, pictured with his parents, Alfred and Gladys, in 1954.
Patrick Stewart, pictured with his parents, Alfred and Gladys, in 1954. Photograph: Courtesy of Patrick Stewart's family

“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.

Patrick Stewart, centre front, in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School production of Sheridan’s play The Critic, 1959.
Patrick Stewart, centre front, in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School production of Sheridan’s play The Critic, 1959. Photograph: Courtesy of University of Bristol Theatre Collection

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.

Patrick Stewart and Cecil Dormand in 2004 at the University of Huddersfield graduation ceremony, when the retired headteacher was made an honorary Doctor of Letters.
Patrick Stewart and Cecil Dormand in 2004 at the University of Huddersfield graduation ceremony, when the retired headteacher was made an honorary Doctor of Letters.
Photograph: Courtesy of the University of Huddersfield

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.

Contributor

Patrick Stewart

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A moment that changed me: ‘My mother taught me to face impossible tasks – and so I carried the coffin at her funeral’
From an early age, she encouraged me to be strong, physically and mentally. Those gifts helped me through the day we buried her

Sarah Hall

20, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: meeting the rescue dog who comforted me through unfathomable loss | Shirley Manson
When I first held my dog Veela in my arms, I was grappling with my mother’s dementia, which was followed much too soon by her death. The teachings of my little red dog helped me survive

Shirley Manson

21, Jul, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: my dead father haunted my dreams – until I drowned his caul
My late father would often appear to me in nightmares as a zombie. But I realised if I wanted to move on, I had to set him free

David Keenan

06, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: my mother died – and I became my brother’s legal guardian
I had told my mum that I would look after Declan after her death. But standing in an airport car park, the ramifications began to rush through my head

Niall Doherty

28, Jul, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: I met my soulmate at Istanbul airport security
As a recently divorced British Asian Muslim, I didn’t expect anyone to understand my mix of culture, faith and life experiences. But the woman who became my best friend saw past my aloof exterior

Saima Mir

11, Aug, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: when I failed my O-level in my favourite subject
The results for my art exam came in and I felt talentless, a dunce. For decades I was too scared to pick up a paintbrush, until a powerful woman entered my dreams

Michèle Roberts

29, Sep, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: The haircut that liberated me as a butch lesbian
I came out in my late teens, but still felt repressed by my appearance. Almost 10 years after first booking a short back and sides, I finally took the plunge – and immediately felt revitalised

Ella Braidwood

24, Nov, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: my teacher said my work was trite rubbish – and totally destroyed me
I thought I had unleashed the full force of my student intellect in a history essay. The formidable Betty Behrens let me know I did not understand what scholarship was

Joan Bakewell

08, Sep, 2021 @8:56 AM

Article image
‘You never stop grieving’: why bereaved parents need more than two weeks off work
Under the new Jack’s law, workers who lose a child will finally get the right to statutory paid leave. It’s a positive step forward - and many hope it will lead to more change

Amelia Hill

03, Feb, 2020 @5:59 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: a man had a massive heart attack and died in my arms
I had gone to stay in a camp in the Australian wilderness. One minute, my host was pouring drinks – the next he was on the floor, 90 minutes from the nearest medic

Douglas Kennedy

15, Sep, 2021 @6:00 AM