I’m not one of those people who looks back at their school days through rose-tinted glasses. I was always the outsider with pale skin, messy hair and and bad teeth but things improved when I was 16 and stayed on at the sixth form college. The worst kids left, we didn’t have to wear uniforms anymore (although maybe that wasn’t such a good thing when I think back to what we wore in the ’90s) and could go home early. Comfy chairs and sofas were spread out across a couple of large common rooms in which loud music played. Amazingly, I managed to concentrate and switch off enough to sit in a corner and read classic novels which had the added advantage of annoying the other students who not only thought that I was strange but also stuck-up. “Oh God, he’s so depressing,”one teacher exclaimed as she saw me reading Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’. But my favourite teacher was the head of the sixth form. Also a teacher of chemistry, biology and psychology, he had scruffy long hair, tied back, wore violently coloured ties, chain smoked, swore and was a committed Trotskyite.
He took me to the sixth form bookshelf and recommended me works by Lao Tzu and Nietzsche, as well as lending me his personal copy of The Communist Manifesto.
The most important day came though in one of our General Studies classes when we brought in the TV and told us he was going to show us and talk about some of the greatest films ever made. We started off with Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’. In the opening scene where the heavens part and some strange and foreboding voices rang out, he asked whether we expected this to be a happy film, then went through it discussing all the key scenes which had influenced later directors like Scorsese. It was unlike anything I had ever seen but utterly compelling and the remarkable face of the leading actor, Max von Sydow, was forever burned in my memory that day.
But there was more to come – Chaplin, Keaton, Ginger and Fred, Busby Berkeley, Godard’s ‘Week-end’ which I later hated, ‘Blow-up’, ‘La Dolce Vita’, John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’, Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samourai’. I went home that day feeling inspired in a way I had never done before and couldn’t wait to tell my my mum all about it. Of course, a huge cinephile herself, she already knew all of those films so well and on our next shopping trip, we called at the music store to pick up a video of ‘The Seventh Seal’ which was incredibly expensive back then. She ordered more and more titles from classic and world cinema and our little collection grew and grew. I have never stopped watching films and couldn’t imagine life without cinema.
When it came for me to leave for university after finishing my A-levels, I gave the head of the sixth form a large poster of Visconti’s ‘L’innocente’ which my mum had kept from her days running film clubs and he told me that the director was an aristocratic Marxist. I never saw him again after that but always remembered that film lesson with huge affection and wondered if any of my fellow classmates had been similarly affected. I often considered writing to him to tell him how much that lesson had meant but I never did. Then a few years ago, someone posted on a local site that he had died. I felt as if I had lost a part of myself and deeply regretted not writing. But each time I see a truly great film, I think of him and maybe that’s the best tribute of all.