Obituary: Anna Scher

Drama 'legend' who taught Islington children truths beyond stardom


When she began teaching working class kids to act, she was a poetry-loving thespian facing a class more likely to threaten to “smash your face in”than quote Shakespeare.

But through hard work and a philosophy of love, peace and understanding, Anna Scher educated a generation of street-wise children — some to become stars but all to be strong individuals in their own right.

Some did evolve into stage and TV performers, like Nathalie Cassidy, Daniel Kaluuya, Kathy Burke and Gary Kemp. With Scher’s death at the age of 78, they gathered to sing her praises, mourn her passing and recall how she made them what they are today.

In 1968, Scher founded the Anna Scher Theatre, a co-ed performing arts school in Islington, the first to shine a light on working class talent. Initially it was a means of getting children off the streets. But soon more than 70 of them enrolled, some as young as six, paying 10p a session.

Much of Islington is now gentrified, and former students included Euan Blair, the former PM’s son, but at the theatre’s launch some kids could not read. By 1975 there were 1,000 pupils and 5,000 on the waiting list.

Actress and anti-knife crime campaigner Brooke Kinsella aptly identified Scher’s special quality: “No one believed in us working class children…She changed the course of so many lives”. The real point, she added, “was to discover what was great about themselves”.

"Children bereft of compliments and self-belief were changed, lifted by her belief in the poetry of the arts and the power of goodwill”, said Spandau Ballet musician and actor Gary Kemp, who said her theatre changed his life.

According to actress Linda Robson, Anna Scher produced a naturalistic style of acting. “We weren’t like drama-school kids with jazz hands and tap shoes. Kids from Anna’s did gritty drama like Scum”, she told The Guardian.

“I’m very quick to spot a star-struck teenager,” Scher told one interviewer. “If you want to be a star, you will get a rude awakening. You need to walk before you run”.

She prioritised discipline, patience, learning to be an individual and dealing with rejection.

On punctuality: “If you’re just on time you’re late, because you’re not ready to start”.

A distinctive figure in Islington with her flowing, blonde hair, colourful beads, long scarves and headbands, Anna Scher had a disarming manner, an open smile and the air of a gentle hippy.

She offered many mantras: a smile is stronger than a scowl. Integration through improvisation: keep your eye on the ball. I am the ball.

As for teaching elocution she would say: “I like my students to keep where they come from. But I teach received pronunciation as a dialect”.

Her teaching methods could be reduced to five principles: posture, balance, projection, direct loosening of eye contact and friendly tone of voice.

She challenged bad behaviour by giving students role-reversal exercises, putting the boot on the other foot, using a tambourine to keep order and handing out an olive branch when she sensed tensions rising.Above all, she believed in having fun.

Many former students saw her as a legendary figure who taught them something beyond drama alone.

The value Scher placed on mutual understanding through learning and professionalism derived from her heroes: Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Their words — or words she attributed to them — would pour out of her mouth to inspire the class.

And through the osmosis of great thinkers she passed to her students an understanding of diversity, respect and equality, and a love of poetry.

Many praised the way she grounded them and gave them the skills and tools they needed to get by in life. Kidulthood and Adulthood star and rapper Adam Deacon praised her for “all the wisdom and resilience you instilled in us.

"You always had the warmest heart and the strongest of morals. You were never judgmental and would always go out of your way to help anyone”.

With these goals it was not surprising that Scher was invited to lead peace workshops in Northern Ireland and Rwanda.

But if talent and stardom were only by-products of Scher’s ambitions, her theatre did, nevertheless, quickly attract directors and talent scouts.

Directors Alan Parker and Alan Clarke swooped in to seek out stars for Bugsy Malone and the borstal drama Scum.

Anna Valerie Scher was born into an Irish-Jewish family in Cork, one of the four daughters of Eric Ascher, a dentist of Lithuanian background and Claire, née Hurwitz.

As the only Jewish girl at St Angela’s Convent, Cork, the nuns encouraged Anna to recite for the class, where she was talent-spotted by an early mentor, Eileen Cavanagh, a local song-and-dance teacher.

But when she reached the age of 14 her father became concerned about the limited pool of Jewish husbands for his daughters and moved the whole family out of Ireland.

After a rough crossing in the Innisfallen, from Cork Harbour to Fishguard, they reached their new home in Hove, East Sussex, a town she described as “cold and grey and suburban”.

No longer “the Jewish girl” at St Angela’s, at Hove Grammar School Scher became “the Irish girl”.

Asked one day if she was Orthodox, Liberal or Reform — “I just went blank… I’d never heard of such fine distinctions in Cork”, she replied.

She pithily described herself as an “Irish-Jewish-Lithuanian integrationist”and trained as an actress at Brighton School of Music and Art, in pursuit of a stage career.

Her mother was in sympathy, but her father argued for a “socially useful” career such as dentistry.

She compromised by entering the teaching profession. She briefly worked as a journalist with the Islington Gazette and reviewed plays for the Times Literary Supplement.

But it was at Ecclesbourne junior school, teaching children whose first language was not English, that she launched her lunchtime drama club in 1968.

Two years later she moved the club to a local community hall, where the future Birds of a Feather actresses Linda Robson and Pauline Quirk were among her students.

She moved again in 1975 to establish the Anna Scher Theatre. There were no auditions, just a waiting list of 5,000 names.

She appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2011, was appointed MBE in 2013 and received a lifetime achievement honour at the National Film Awards in 2018.

Her many plaudits included the Woman of Distinction Award from Jewish Care and she was patron of the Israel-based peace movement, Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam – Oasis of Peace.

Above all else, Anna Scher believed in the individual. “That’s one reason I’m against classical ballet” she told The Times in 1993.

“To see little girls’ hips being measured, and then out they go because they’re not a certain cloned, balletic type, gives me a shiver. It’s like Nazis measuring Jewish noses”.

In March 1999 Anna Scher suffered a breakdown and lost her position as principal of her eponymous school.

She eventually re-established the Anna Scher Theatre in a nearby church hall. In 1976 she married the writer, director and acting coach Charles Verrall, who predeceased her in October this year.

She is survived by their son, John.

Anna Scher, born 26 December, 1944. Died 12 November, 2023

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