13 October 1998: Guardian

Learning Curve

Hard as it may be for her numerous fans to accept, the newly installed chancellor of Stirling University completed her student days back in the mid-50s.

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) was a very different place in those days. For one thing, women significantly outnumbered men, presumably because of National Service.

There were two principle student groups, she says. "There were those on scholarships like me who could not have afforded to go otherwise.

"And there were some whom you felt had made a choice between Constance Spry and RADA, and regarded the place rather as a finishing school."

Contemporaries who have since made their names included Albert Finney, Susannah York and Sian Phillips. Nowadays the course is much broader and more practical than it was then.

"We had voice, verse, fencing and movement lessons," she recalls. There were end-of-term and end-of-year productions but never enough practical experience of the craft.

"I couldn't wait to get out and act. My instincts were right because you learn most when you are surrounded by people who are better than you."

She reckons she would have far preferred to be at RADA now when students have much more opportunity to express themselves and question things.

"We just had to accept what we were told and in a sense acting is not really like that. You have to distil for yourself, use what is valuble for you and discover it for yourself."

Despite the London post-war austerity, she loved her London experience. She gorged on museums and in art galleries, which were then in short supply in her native Leeds, she says. "Then, for sheer fun, we went to coffee bars."

She recalls the Troubadour in Earl's Court, which is still going. "Somebody would be playing a guitar and we'd be sitting on cushions on the floor, and not a joint in sight. It was pre-drugs."

The low point was a stinky second-year report from a tutor, the actress Winnifred Oughten. "She said I didn't have a vestige of talent and the best thing I could do was find another job.

"My parents were very upset but I just thought she was an old bag.

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