The Unsung Mentors

Encouraged by writer, Giovanna Congdon, who asked me respond to a fairly detailed Q & A about my life at her blog, I’ve been casting my mind back. The full version will be hers to post, but here’s a taster. This about experiences not previously shared, so all credit to Giovanna for prompting me.


‘Is there a mentor in your past? I am thinking of historical characters that inspire, as well as feet on the ground…’


‘Mentors. There have been many and various throughout my life. I’ll confine myself here to those who, on reflection, had the most impact in the early days, though at the time I was too young to understand or value the extent of their kindnesses.

Mel Thomas and Mollie Wanklyn at Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre. Mel was the Drama Officer for the county, and he took me to MYPT when my parents confided to him that they were worried about me. Mollie was the main tutor and director, and she enthralled me with her ‘actress’s’ voice and her inspiring classes in choral verse speaking, which hit me like revelatory lightning. Myra Silcox, my fearsomely waspish but encouraging ballet teacher, and ‘Bunny’ (Marcia) Griffiths, who cast and choreographed me in the MYPT production of Peter and the Wolf, and showed me how shyness could vanish when I inhabited another character.

Mollie Wanklyn with me and Linda Henderson, backstage during a performance of Maeterlinck’s The Bluebird


Later, in London at vocational school, my headmistress, Miss Brierly, once paid out of her own pocket for a small group of pupils to attend a performance with Gemma Jones as Shaw’s Saint Joan. We sat in a box and it was another revelatory moment. I’ve watched Gemma Jones on stage and in films all my life, most recently in the film God’s Own Country. Boy and man I’ve loved her work, all unknown to her. She is everything I most admire in an actor. Her eyes can tell you all you need to know about her character, her life, her dreams, her joy, her despair. Joan Brierly opened the door to all that for me, with the gift of a ticket to a play in which a gifted actor gave a luminous performance that became a gold standard for me as I felt my way toward a career as a director. In my teens, after I’d left the school, a letter came in which she enquired what the results of my O levels had been. She wrote, joshingly, “You children can be so ungrateful You never think we’d like to know!” And I lived up to that summation, because I didn’t reply. Awkward and unformed as I was, her words then didn’t strike me with the force they do today. Now, I wish, I wish….. but of course it’s too late.’

9 thoughts on “The Unsung Mentors

    • Sally, more than kindly remembered. Mollie changed my life, not so much by showing me where to go, but by the altogether more exciting method of lighting my blue touch paper and then retiring to watch what would happen next!

  1. ‘If wishes were horses beggers would ride.’ being said since the 1600’s…which I suppose means that us humans have been having that particular ache and always will, ‘since time immoral!’ Yes that’s a deliberate ‘mis-spell.’
    Since our conversation my head keeps replaying GJ standing centre stage saying the closing lines.” O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?” Weren’t we lucky.
    Love as ever
    B xxx

  2. Clive, I share the sentiments you express so beautifully. If only I could thank my first mentor, a successful NYC illustrator and teacher who routinely invited his students to watch him work in his studio. Can you imagine such generosity! Alas, too late to thank him properly. For years now I make a point of hugging goodbye every old chum and most especially every former mentor/professor whom I occasionally visit. I tell them without hesitation I love them and will never forget what they did for me. And then one day they’re gone, so I resolve to be a little kinder still to my students. Cheers, mate.

    • Jack, I spoke to my old school friend Berni today, to check with her that my recollections aligned with hers. I was rather beating myself up about not replying to the letter from my ex-headmistress, and B reminded me that I shouldn’t be judging my younger self by the high standards I apply now. Of course I know she’s right. And yes, you’re right too, to resolve to be kinder, as we all should, to all who come within our spheres of influence.

      When I was a young, ambitious and demanding choreographer, I was not a gentle taskmaster, a fact I took some pride in at the time. I don’t much like that young man now. I would do things differently, in hindsight. Alas, the bending of time is not allowed. But we are allowed to change our ways and resolve to be better than we once were, and I take heart from that.

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