Scotsman Obituaries: Anna Scher, drama teacher who helped make working class London kids into stars
Anna Scher began teaching drama as a lunchtime activity in the 1960s at the primary school in Islington in London where she worked. Her first batch of students included Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, who would in due course go on to star in Birds of a Feather.
By the mid-1970s the lunchtime drama club had evolved into the Anna Scher Theatre with its own premises, 1,000 students – largely from working-class backgrounds – and 5,000 on the waiting list. It was not a full-time drama school – students would attend after their regular schooldays. The cost was 10p a session, but those who could not afford 10p got in for free.
It was one of the first establishments of its kind, with Scher encouraging naturalism, self-confidence and improvisation.
“I fell into that quite by chance,” Scher said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in 2004. “Because a lot weren't too hot at reading, improvisation fell into place."
Over the years alumni included Kathy Burke, Phil Daniels, Susan Tully, Gary and Martin Kemp, Gillian Taylforth and Patsy Palmer – the school was a prime recruiting ground for the soap opera EastEnders. Students came not from Etonian privilege but from single-parent and dysfunctional families and some had first-hand experience of domestic abuse and neglect, from which they could draw inspiration and understanding.
The school has even scored some success in Hollywood and at the Oscars, through the recent Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Kaluuya, who came from a London council estate and whose credits include the thoughtful horror movie Get Out, Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther and the political drama Judas and the Black Messiah.
The eldest of four daughters, Anna Valerie Scher was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1944. Her father was a dentist of Lithuanian-Jewish descent. She described herself “an Irish Jewish Lithuanian integrationist”.
She attended Catholic school in Ireland. She loved singing and dancing and performed in pantomimes and revues as a child. In her teens her father decided to move the family over to the South of England because he felt the prospects of his daughters marrying nice Jewish boys were better there.
Her father was a domineering character and her mother walked out one day, leaving only a note to say she had had enough. Scher would not see her mother again for years.
Scher wanted to become an actress or dancer, but her father wanted her to become a dentist.
Dentistry was a family tradition and her grandfather was reputedly the first dentist in Ireland with an X-ray machine, just a few years after the First World War.
Scher settled on a sort of compromise with her father when she agreed to train as a primary school teacher, and she was soon running drama classes in the lunch break.
Her headteacher felt that the sessions were getting in the way of school work and Scher left her teaching job and established the drama school in its own premises.
The theatre was featured on ITV arts programme Aquarius, it went from strength to strength and it became a regular port of call for casting directors for the likes of Grange Hill, EastEnders and even the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Scher was an effusive, hippy-type character and readily admitted she was a little crazy. She was dismissive of the notions of stardom – she saw too many actors go “gaga” following their elevation to celebrity status.
She discouraged her charges from doing more than a day or two’s work at a time. “I don’t really want them to have two days off school to sell detergent, that is not what we’re about,” she said.
Kathy Burke waited three years for a place at the school and wrote in the Guardian after Scher’s death: “You watch the others work their way through situations set by Anna. Kids from different backgrounds pretending to be their parents, teachers, friends or foes.
"Putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Understanding life from another’s point of view.
“And when someone is brilliant or hilarious or both, the exuberant roar of appreciation and manic stomping of feet from us, the good audience, is f***ing exhilarating.
“You’re exhausted. You’ve never felt like this before. You’ve never respected and loved a teacher like this before. In the shortest amount of time, this magnificent woman has become your everything.”
In 1976 Scher married Raymond Verrall. He helped run the school and its associated agency for many years and co-authored several books on acting with Scher.
She also developed close links with Zimbabwe, giving acting lessons, promoting children’s rights and educating young people about Aids.
There was a highly acrimonious split at the school after she took sick leave with depression in 2000. She was off for two years before declaring herself fit to return.
The board told her that they had appointed a replacement principal and they had seemingly repossessed a flat at the complex that had been her home.
The board effectively rebranded the school in her absence. Unable to return to her old position, she continued to teach under her own name. She became an MBE in 2013 for services to drama. Her husband died in October this year. Anna Scher is survived by their son.
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