Macbeth joins in Happy Families

26th April 1996, 1:00am
Jonathan Croall


Macbeth joins in Happy Families
Jonathan Croall sees a school organise a book week that brought together Shakespeare and Allan Ahlberg. The first thing you see as you come into the school is a small display, consisting of some unpublished poems by Allan Ahlberg, and a jokey letter from him.

"Dear Children, Your headteacher says you're going to be doing bits of things with Ahlberg books, and also another writer - William Shakesword - Shakeaxe - or something like that. Does he write funny books as well?" Book Weeks in primary schools come in all shapes and sizes, and may focus on a variety of themes - or none at all. But few can have been as ambitious, original or sheer fun as the joint celebration of the work of William Shakespeare and Allan and Janet Ahlberg, held at the end of last term at Darell Primary School in Richmond, Surrey.

Organised by two class teachers under the jolly heading "Will Power and Wibble Wobble", the Week drew on a wide range of outsiders - parents, friends, librarians, theatre practitioners, inspectors and secondary school staff - to help mount an impressive array of "bits of things" for the school's 330 children, right through from the nursery to Year 6.

Beyond the title and the poster for the Week, there was no attempt to link the two writers. One of the organisers, Lindsay Ryan, said: "We simply wanted to choose a theme which would allow the younger children to enjoy the activities, and at the same time provide a challenge to the older ones."

On the Ahlberg front, all the teachers and a local librarian held story-telling sessions; an outside theatre group performed favourite Ahlberg rhymes and poems, for which the music teacher set Each Peach Pear Plum to music: and a children's writer worked with the special needs unit children using pictures based on Ahlberg characters.

There was also a Happy Families dress-up day, and a competition for children to invent and illustrate their own alliterative characters. Mr Slice the Surgeon, Mrs Drill the Dentist, Mr Palette the Painter, not to mention Mrs Mum the Mummy, were among the more original entries.

On the last morning, the children got a surprise: a humorous re-enactment in assembly of the celebrated Burglar Bill story. Starring headteacher Brian Thompson as the eponymous hero, complete with goggles, flat cap, stripey T-shirt and swag bag, and deputy head Brian Glover as the muling and puking baby, it set the whole school a-roaring.

The Shakespeare fare was even more varied. Parents gave workshops on Macbeth, The Dream, As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra. There were sessions on Tudor mime, the Seven Ages of Man, and "Crabbed Age and Youth" in Shakespeare's minor poetry. And Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre ran workshops on The Tempest and on The Globe theatre, which many of the children had visited before the Week.

"It's easy to be frightened of Shakespeare, and teachers have got to be confident about him," said co-organiser Sarah Pring. "We thought he would be a good means to offer children a whole range of teaching styles, whether it was through drama, writing, talking or music."

The central event of the Week was a concert, a rich mixture of songs from Shakespeare's plays and the children's choice of Ahlberg stories, the whole programme being performed by parents, teachers and the children themselves.

"We expected that the Ahlbergs would go like a bomb, but that Shakespeare would be hard work," Mr Thompson said. "But that's not been the case. The children responded really well to the Shakespeare activities: if they got bored with one, they found another that hooked them."

As with previous Book Weeks - among the themes have been storytelling, poetry, and the work of A A Milne and Lewis Carroll - the Darell teachers aimed to make the occasion fun, while encouraging the children to take pleasure in books, and to link them with their own writing.

But such an event, they stress, needs a united staff. "It has much more impact if you can give it a whole-school focus," says Sarah Pring. "But it's easier to organise if relationships are good, as they were here. A lot of it is to do with atmosphere and the support of the head."

Despite the use of mostly home-grown talent, this year's Week cost about Pounds 1,000 to organise. The bill was covered by a grant from the PTA, some sponsorship from a local publishing firm, and more than Pounds 800 from donations from parents.

Planning and organising such events can be exhausting, but rewarding. "It's very easy for teachers to feel there's no time for anything special," Brian Thompson says. "But when you get everyone in the community involved like this, it can create great excitement and have an enormous impact."

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