This month was a sad one for me as a man who had a huge influence on my life passed away.
When I moved to Leicestershire as a young teenager I was already a bit of a performer. I had appeared in shows at primary and high school before becoming a pupil at the grammar school. There, a young English and Drama teacher called Anthony (Tony) Howkins, began to enthuse his students with his passion for literature and theatre.
He was a performer himself and we acted out the text we were studying for O-levels with enthusiasm. Our Shakespeare was ‘Macbeth’ and I vividly remember spending a large part of the summer holidays making a reel to reel tape recording of the whole play with three of my girlfriends. We played all the parts between us including music and sound effects. The tape reappeared a couple of years ago and was transferred to digital recording for posterity. I’m pretty sure that all four of us gained grade A in our English literature O-levels that year.
We were taken to productions at several local professional theatres and Mr Howkins directed some great shows on the stage of the school hall. I was Dorothy’s mother in the musical ‘Salad Days’ and Hero in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. In that play the costumes were hired from the Royal Shakespeare Company and oh, the thrill of imagining that we were wearing something that had been worn by Diana Rigg or the young Judi Dench!
When I went up to 6th form his wonderful teaching continued. The history of English literature, it’s poetry, prose and drama were illuminated by his enthusiasm and vast knowledge. He encouraged several of us to apply for The National Youth Theatre. I remember going on a trip to London to see a fellow student as a soldier in the ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ production that featured the then unknown 18-year-old Helen Mirren. This proved to be a breakthrough role as the sensuous Egyptian queen and the rest is history!
A few years later I became a member of the National Youth Theatre myself and performed in ‘Fuzz’ and ‘Zigger Zagger’ at the Jeannetta Cochrane theatre in the Strand. What a wonderful opportunity.
Mr Howkins helped me choose audition pieces for professional training and I was fortunate to gain a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to study acting and teaching.
When I returned from London in the early 1970’s I joined him as an actor and director at the newly built Concordia Theatre in our town. That theatre has now been successfully running for almost 50 years and, until quite recently, Tony was a popular performer and director with several companies there.
He was one of life’s genuine gentlemen and I will always be grateful to him for the guidance he gave me when I started out. I’m glad to say that he was aware of this as when I was published in 1996 on ‘Introducing Shakespeare to Young People’, I dedicated the book to him.
So thank you, Tony Howkins, for making me who I am today and for helping me become (I hope) a good teacher, just like you.
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