Education: Pased/Failed - Barry Took

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The Independent Online
Barry Took, 69, is a scriptwriter, presenter and former music- hall comedian. He has written for Marty Feldman, Kenneth Horne and Rowan & Martin, presented 'Points of View', and asked the questions on 'The News Quiz'. He did the joined-up writing for 'On the Move' in the BBC Adult Literacy Campaign. He has written biographies of Max Miller, Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd. He chairs 'Guess What?' at Wednesday lunchtime on Radio 4. 'Round the Horne (The Complete and Utter History)' is out as BBC audio cassette on 1 June and as a Boxtree book in the autumn.

What Did You Do in the War, Barry? On 9 September 1939 I was due to start at Stationers School, a minor public school in north London run by a livery company and costing slightly more - a matter of shillings - than the local grammar school; but Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September. The school was evacuated to Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, but we decided not to go and I was seconded to Minchenden School in Southgate, where they had to cope with their own pupils and we were like cuckoos in the nest. We only had one afternoon a week. In 1940 we did five afternoons a week and a great deal of homework, until we were fully assimilated.

A Touch of Barry in the Flight? My father, who worked in the food industry, became a salvage officer during the Blitz. The morning after a raid, he would go round the factories and warehouses to see if the food was usable. He said he couldn't do this and look after a family in London, so I moved with my mother to Wisbech. When the raids stopped, everyone rushed back to London - but I was put to stay with a Cambridgeshire family. I loathed it and ran away. I cycled to Peterborough Station, got on a train without a ticket, put the bike in a guard's van, got off at King's Cross, and cycled back to Southgate, where we lived.

Hellzapoppin? All hell was let loose. They wouldn't let me back at Stationers School, which was now in Hornsea, and I developed impetigo, a skin disease which meant I wasn't allowed to go near anybody. Finally I went back to Stationers School. I did a year, and in 1943 decided to leave at 15. They said, "It's not worth it him staying on: he'll only get a School Cert [O-level] in art and, possibly, English."

The Good Took? Just before I left, Mr Woolley, a very good old teacher, brought out of retirement, said to me, "Read anything." That started my reading habit. I was omnivorous: I read Voltaire, Sherlock Holmes, and half of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (I've been trying ever since to complete it). I was lucky. I was extremely badly educated, but I grew up in a home with lots of literature and I found knowledge sticking to me.

And now for a Later Move? Cassells the publishers asked me to write some plays for what were cruelly called "ESN" - educationally subnormal - children. In my plays, everybody in the class had a role: building sets, stage managing. It was very heartening to see these plays being done by children who had never raised a laugh, only been the object of laughter. Then I created what became the BBC adult literacy series On the Move. Our aim was to reach men in their thirties who had slipped through the net and couldn't read and write. I suggested two lorry drivers, one of whom, played by Bob Hoskins - his first big break - couldn't read. I wrote sketches about the double "ee"; I did two sketches a week for 50 weeks. We won every award going.

A-Z? For the second leg of the campaign, called Your Move, I did a sketch featuring a different letter of the alphabet each week. They said, "Just wait till you reach Z!" but that was easy: Andrew Sachs played Zorro.