THERE’S more to Lizzie Webb than being known as “Mad Lizzie”.
The 70-year-old is best known for her decade-long stint as the fitness presenter on ITV’s old breakfast slot TV-am, during which she earned the nickname for her colourful costumes and energetic routines inspired by her background as a dance teacher.
But Mrs Webb, who lives at Kingwood with her husband Douglas Cameron, has spent much of her life helping disadvantaged children and adults to turn their lives around.
Since 2004 she has been working with Olympic rower Debbie Flood, who lives in Henley, on a range of educational projects through their joint venture Creativity in Sport. The pair teach dance and exercise on a non-profit basis both for fitness and as a way of reinforcing academic subjects like English and maths.
They started out working in prisons including HMP Huntercombe in Nuffield, which at the time housed young offenders, and with pupil referral units and excluded students across the Thames Valley. Now they are rolling out similar schemes in primary schools to help children who are already struggling.
In 2013 the pair resurrected Joggy Bear, a children’s character Mrs Webb created in the late Eighties, for a numeracy and literacy programme for pre-school children. This was recently assessed by educational psychologists at Oxford Brookes University who will soon present their findings.
Three years ago they launched Lizzie’s Active Multiplication Programme, which uses similar principles to teach times tables in primary and secondary schools. They now teach this to others who can pass on the benefits and hope to run workshops in Henley.
Mrs Webb, née Beveridge, was born in Barnet and learned ballet, violin and drama while growing up before taking a teacher training course in English, drama and dance at the New College of Speech and Drama in Hampstead. This included a brief stint in a borstal which gave her an appetite for helping challenging children.
After graduating, she asked the Inner London Education Authority to give her the toughest school in the capital and she was assigned to Henry Thornton School in Clapham, a struggling comprehensive with about 1,400 boys. On her first day, she stepped into the classroom to find one student stabbing a desk, another swinging from the blinds and a third about to hit a classmate over the head with a chair.
She said: “I’ve never known fear when I’m teaching and I’ve been in some very dodgy situations. I think having drama training is helpful as I have a very loud voice and can project it, which startles people. In many ways, I suppose teaching is a performance.
“On one occasion I saw a young boy trying to violently break into a locked room so I shouted ‘what the hell are you doing?’ and he said ‘I’m trying to get in, aren’t I?’
“I said ‘oh, I’m sorry, let me help’ and unlocked the door to let him in. He followed me like a lamb after that. People struggled to deal with pupils like that but he’d just been sent over from Jamaica to live with his grandmother and felt like a fish out of water. He was angry at his life and no-one had spoken to him respectfully or said ‘sorry’ before.”
She started a lunchtime drama club with maths teacher Andy Webb, whom she married in 1974. They had their son Ben in 1976 and divorced amicably a few years after that.
Mr Webb wrote plays including musical numbers which his wife would direct. This inspired some pupils to pursue careers in the arts including Jeff Thacker, who is now a television and dance producer, and Garry Noakes, who had a long-running role in West End musical Starlight Express. Their successes caught the eye of several London dance studios who hired Mrs Webb as an instructor in the Eighties, which saw her teach alongside choreographer Arlene Phillips and future Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli.
She was invited to audition for TV-am in 1983 by a student who recommended her to Greg Dyke, its programming director. The franchise had launched to poor ratings so wanted to improve its output and was seeking a rival to Diana Moran, BBC Breakfast’s “Green Goddess”.
Mrs Webb said: “My student told Greg I was quite mad and made dancing fun so he was interested in meeting me. I said no at first because I didn’t see myself as a performer but I went and was told I could do whatever I liked with music, routines, clothing and things like that.
“They clearly had a lot of faith in me so I accepted and had a hugely interesting 10 years. It was hard to adapt at first because I was talking to this big camera instead of a class of people. In the first two weeks I was shaking quite a lot, which didn’t make it easy!
“I came up with ideas to make exercise as easy as possible for people to fit into their lives. I never wore a leotard or tights because I wanted to show that it was for everyone.”
The show’s celebrity guests often worked out alongside her including former Henley resident George Harrison, who appeared to promote his 1987 single Got My Mind Set On You. It reached number two in the UK charts and Harrison later phoned Mrs Webb to thank her for giving it a boost. He also sent her a Christmas card featuring a photograph of the pair.
Mrs Webb said: “I was touched that a star of his magnitude would take the time for such a lovely gesture. I’ve got a lot of gold discs from record labels thanking me for my help as I had such a big audience that people wanted to listen to ‘whatever music Lizzie’s using this week’.”
When TV-am lost the franchise in 1993 she was living at Bourne End with Mr Cameron, a technician she met on set in 1986. The pair moved to Kingwood in 2000 and married eight years later to celebrate Mrs Webb’s 60th birthday.
She met Mrs Flood in 2002 after being invited to train the GB women’s rowing squad for the 2004 Athens Olympics. This was meant to be a one-off but the results were so promising that she regularly coached them.
The pair worked at Huntercombe from 2006 until 2008, after which Mrs Flood continued working as a prison officer. They devised a course called Body Rocks to help troubled children and adults improve their behaviour through exercise, which they later offered as a qualification.
Mrs Webb said: “Our work is a labour of love as grant money is very limited but it’s so rewarding to see pupils become teachers themselves. Some of our students had no qualifications and this was the first time they felt in charge of their lives — they had found their voices where they would previously have used their fists.
“There was a sad moment at Huntercombe where a pupil found out I’d been on the television and asked ‘what are you doing teaching scum like us?’. They felt I must be different from them, like I was on a pedestal, so I did everything I could to show they were just as capable of great achievements.”
The pair launched the schools programme as they wanted to intervene before pupils became difficult to manage. They teach unique routines for each times table with gestures based on pop music, TV shows, sport, emojis and other popular subjects.
Mrs Webb said: “It works well. I’ve seen some boys who are clearly very smart but were struggling with boredom in class and were starting to misbehave. We would love to work with schools in Henley as there are problems beneath the surface in every town, even ones which are seen as affluent.
“I’ve had a wonderful life and will continue teaching until I drop because I just love it. It keeps you young and it’s great to have that fitness behind you.
“TV-am was fun but it ended at the right time and now if I can make youngsters feel worthy and ultimately help others do the same, that’s great.”
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