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Fame at last for McCartney Co

Harvey McGavin looks at a revitalised Liverpool Institute, Paul McCartney's old school, now being turned into a training college for budding actors and entertainers.

Love helps, but it isn't all you need. It has taken millions of pounds, many years of planning and more than a little help from his friends to realise Paul McCartney's dream of opening a "fame" school.

Macca's alma mater, The Liverpool Institute for Boys, was closed in 1986. Today, the shell of this classical Victorian building (motto: "Not for ourselves but for the whole world were we born") resounds to the din of drills, hammers and cement mixers.

When the work is finished, it will re-open as an institute of higher education offering a three-year degree course leading to a BA in Entertainment Studies. There will be rehearsal studios and recording facilities, radio and video suites, and a 500-seat theatre in the old school hall.

Come September, the halls of the new Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) will be alive with the sounds of music, the studios will be state-of-the-art and the canteen (like the McCartneys) will be vegetarian.

None of this comes cheap. The Pounds 13 million project has been financed by about Pounds 4 million each from various groups, including the European Regional Development Fund, Liverpool City Council and the private sector, as well as a contribution of Pounds 400,000 a year for four years from the electronics group, Grundig. McCartney himself has chipped in with one of his many millions.

The driving force behind the school's creation is LIPA's chief executive, Mark Featherstone-Witty, a former actor and private college principal. His School for the Performing Arts Trust was instrumental in setting up the Selhurst College for Technology and the Arts in Croydon, not a place previously known for its contribution to the performing arts. Liverpool, on the other hand, is the home of the Beatles, Brookside, and Cilla Black.

"It's like starting a school of country music in Nashville," enthuses Featherstone-Witty, sitting in the temporary administrative offices where the first applications are rolling in.

"When you ask people what they associate with Liverpool, they immediately say the Beatles. That and the football, of course. But the British music industry wouldn't be what it is today if it weren't for what the Beatles did in the 1960s. They gave people the confidence to make their own music and they were the first group to sell songs back to the Americans. Before that everybody was being groomed to do versions of American music."

LIPA's list of patrons reads like an all-star hall of fame - Bragg and Branson, Previn and Puttnam, Beatles producer George Martin and George Harrison. Many of them started out in the 1960s when Merseybeat was in full swing. They learned the hard way, often making a name for themselves while somebody else was making the fortune.

"If there had been training then I would have definitely gone for it," says singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading in the college prospectus. "I couldn't tell you any part of my first contract. As an artist going in, you really have no idea."

Another institute old boy, newsreader Peter Sissons, narrates the prospectus, a tape which comes disguised as a video ("suitable only for persons of 18 years and over . . . duration three years"). It's a neat example of the importance of presentation and flexibility in showbusiness today - values that LIPA is keen to instill in its students.

"What we are after is people who can demonstrate a passion for their chosen goals," says Featherstone-Witty, "because without the passion they will not have the perseverance. At the moment people might go to university and do performing arts courses - which tend to be rather academic. But if somebody comes here wanting to be an actor they will have to do some dance and some business as well."

The emphasis here will be on a cross-fertilisation of skills, and LIPA aims to turn out multi-talented performers who are wise to the tricks of the trade - all-singing, all-dancing, and all too aware of the pitfalls of the profession.

The three-year course, validated by neighbouring John Moores University, will be like a pizza with a selection of different toppings, according to the prospectus. The base will be the same for everyone and they can then choose between performance design, enterprise management, community arts, music, dancing and acting.

Featherstone-Witty likens the set-up to the system at the American Fame-style schools which were the spur for LIPA.

"In the States they have more than 180 of these schools. We have one, and yet entertainment earns more in exports than the oil industry. Unless you are supremely gifted, it's very difficult to have a long-term career in just one thing. I started off as an actor and look at what I'm doing now!" They are also setting out to dispel the notion that showbusiness success is only achieved by years of struggle and a few lucky breaks.

"The idea that you can succeed on pure chance is absolute rubbish. It's like the self-made businessman who prides himself on the fact that he is self-made. But think how much faster he would have made it and how many fewer mistakes he would have made if he had gone to business school."

LIPA is developing partnerships with other schools across Europe and has already run a succession of pilot courses in Berlin, Amsterdam and Barcelona.

There are also plans to produce distance learning materials using tapes, interactive CD-Rom and video. Songwriting masterclasses from McCartney and other patrons are promised. Featherstone-Witty claims his long-term aim is to serve as a kind of open university for the performing arts.

"There will be plenty of people who are going to be successful without attending LIPA but hopefully we are going to give those that do a better chance. The old blues singers used to call it 'passing it on'. That's pretty much what we are doing."

Inquiries should be addressed to LIPA, Mount Street, LIverpool L1 9HF

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