The Daily Telegraph
Drama teacher who nurtured performers such as Daniel Kaluuya, Kathy Burke and Linda Robson
ANNA SCHER, who has died aged 78, was an enterprising drama teacher who founded a successful school in north London; while not aiming to create stars, doing so became a happy by-product of her work, with Kathy Burke, Gary Kemp and Patsy Palmer being among the big names of television and theatre to pass through her doors.
A casual observer might have mistaken the fast-speaking, flamboyant and colourfully dressed Anna Scher for a free-spirited hippy. But behind the beads, bracelets and flowing blonde hair lay a ferocious discipline. Susan Tully, who appeared in Grange Hill and Eastenders, recalled her rules being “Don’t be late, don’t chew gum, be considerate to other people,” and: “If you’re just on time you’re late, because you’re not ready to start.”
The Anna Scher Theatre started in the late 1960s to get children off the streets of Islington, not then the gentrified area it is today. Soon there were classes of more than 70, some as young as six and each paying 10p a session. Many were working-class and some could not read, but Anna Scher knew them all by name.
At the core of her teaching was improvisation, which she said made for “very believable actors”. The actress Linda Robson told how in contrast to more upmarket drama schools, 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.
Peace and reconciliation were part of Anna Scher’s work and she used communication skills and role-reversal exercises to tackle conflict resolution while referencing names such as Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. She also took her “integration through improvisation” philosophy to places such as Northern Ireland, Israel and Rwanda.
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.”
Anna Valerie Scher was born into an Irish-jewish family in Cork, Ireland, on December 26 1944, one of four daughters of Eric Ascher, a dentist of Lithuanian origin, and his wife Claire (née Hurwitz).
She recalled blissful days as the only Jewish girl at St Angela’s Convent, Cork, where the nuns encouraged her to recite for the class. Her unusual talent was also spotted by Eileen Cavanagh, a local song-and-dance teacher, who took young Anna under her wing. She was rehearsing at Cork Opera House on the night it burnt down in December 1955.
Anna Scher was 14 when her father, anxious for a larger pool of Jewish suitors for his daughters, decided without consulting the family that they were to leave Ireland for good. They sailed in the Innisfallen, taking a rough crossing from Cork Harbour to Fishguard, and settled in Hove, East Sussex, a town she described as “cold and grey and suburban”.
From being “the Jewish girl” at St Angela’s, she was now “the Irish girl” at Hove Grammar School. On one occasion she was baffled to be asked if she was Orthodox, Liberal or Reform. “I just went blank… I’d never heard of such fine distinctions in Cork,” she said.
She enrolled at Brighton School of Music and Art, where the formidable Olive Von der Heyde suggested a stage career. Her mother agreed, but her father insisted that she should do something “socially useful” such as dentistry. Eventually her mother walked out on the family, while father and daughter came to an uncomfortable compromise, agreeing that teaching could be socially useful.
After a brief period as a columnist for the Islington Gazette she began teaching in Ecclesbourne Junior School, north London, working with children whose first language was not English. In 1968 she started leading drama classes in the school library during lunch breaks or after hours. Two years later she moved to a nearby bingo hall, where the future Birds of a Feather actresses Linda Robson and Pauline Quirk were among her students.
In 1975 she moved again, taking over an old church in Islington that was renamed the Anna Scher Theatre. Gradually, the gentrification of Islington featured in her intake and among her pupils in the 1990s was Euan Blair, the prime minister’s eldest son.
An amateur video from the school’s 20th anniversary party in 1988 depicted Gillian Taylforth making lurid suggestions with a German sausage and a wine bottle. The film was introduced in court by George Carman QC and led to the collapse of the Eastenders actress’s 1994 libel case against The Sun newspaper, which had accused her of performing a sex act in a parked car.
In March 1999 Anna Scher suffered a breakdown and lost her position as principal of the school that bore her name, which later became the Young Actors Theatre. In time she fought her way back, reestablishing the Anna Scher Theatre in a nearby church hall.
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. More recognition came that year when the actor Daniel Kaluuya, who grew up on a Camden Town council estate, thanked her while receiving his Bafta as rising star.
Anna Scher’s idea of relaxation was eating a Marks & Spencer sandwich while watching Neighbours or Eldorado. In 1976 she married Charles Verrall, who helped to manage the careers of his wife’s young thespians. He died last month; they had a son, John.
Anna Scher, born December 26 1944, died November 12 2023