Skip to main content

Fame is the spur

Mark Featherstone-Witty went through hell and high water to realise his ambition of a specialist school for the performing arts.Now, reports Heather Neill, he wants to tell the world about it in a book that details the famous names, the battles, the tantrums and the dream come true

It all began with a visit to the cinema. In 1980, Mark Featherstone-Witty was so inspired by Fame, the film about young performers in New York developing their talents in a single specialist school, that he made up his mind to establish a British equivalent. From this eventually grew the British Record Industry Trust (Brit) school in Croydon, and the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Lipa), a higher education establishment teaching a range of arts and technologies. But that is a long story taking many years, featuring famous names such as Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Richard Branson and George Martin, bitter disputes with the educational establishment and, finally, something like a dream realised.

Featherstone-Witty records the struggles with bureaucracy, the difficulties raising funds and the whims of celebrity supporters in minute detail in Optimistic, Even Then: the creation of two performing arts institutes. It is typical of him that he has published the book himself under a newly invented imprint: the Schools for Performing Arts Press. He is optimistic still and as entrepreneurial as ever. If the book could have done with an editor's eye, it is an unflinchingly honest account of the origins of Brit and Lipa, a blueprint for anyone thinking of taking on the establishment armed only with one brilliant idea and unflagging determination.

Over coffee in his elegant but modest office at Lipa, where he is principal and chief executive (like others in his position, responsible for creative and administrative organisation), he admits to being "in selling mode", personally bringing the book to public attention. To this end, he produces sheaves of helpful information about student numbers and where they come from. As well as 456 UK students, the Liverpool institute has 185 from other countries, from Norway (39) to Singapore (3), on full-time courses, and a floating population of local part-timers. Lipa does not forget that it is part of the regeneration of Liverpool.

Perhaps Mark Featherstone-Witty is always, to some extent, in selling mode, or at least has an eye on the business side of creative arts. It is a mixture he wants to share with students. He quotes songwriter Ira Gershwin:

"When he was asked what came first, the words or the music, he said, 'The contract'." Featherstone-Witty says he once asked Cameron Mackintosh, producer of Miss Saigon and My Fair Lady, what single characteristic was necessary for success in his field. "He said just one word, 'Charm'. You are always encouraging people to back something that doesn't exist."

So who is this man, talking nineteen to the dozen, reminding you that we are discussing show business, with an emphasis on the second word? Utterly irrepressible, no doubt sometimes irritating in his refusal to take no for an answer, deeply hurt when he was (as he sees it) cheated of his right to guide the Brit school into existence, he seems able to plough ahead, making things happen, taking people with him, against all the odds.

His own school experience - at Wellington College, a public school in Berkshire - did not inspire him. He left with one A-level "and two or three friends for life". The only thing he was really interested in was acting, but his parents dismissed this as a form of showing off ("and, to some extent, it is", he says candidly) so, reluctantly, he went into accountancy. "No doubt it was useful later, but I hated it. During this time I went on an away weekend to a Cambridge college and I thought,'Three years of this. I want some of it', so I went off to night school and did A-levels."

He also taught at prep schools and tutored some famous children privately, including Richard Olivier, the son of Laurence and now a director himself. Eventually, he went to Durham University at the age of 23 and read English, sociology and American studies. "It was good because I realised I could try my hand at a number of things and it didn't matter if I failed - which is what we tell the students here."

While at Durham, he edited the university newspaper, met Harold Evans (publisher and former editor of The Sunday Times), and afterwards applied for a job on The TES as a sub-editor. Typically, when he wasn't chosen, he wanted to know the reason, received a polite response from the then editor and has remained on friendly terms with Michael Church, the literary editor at the time, ever since. Later, Church found himself a member of the Schools for Performing Arts Trust, the charity from which the Brit school and Lipa grew.

After dabbling in acting, publishing and teaching ("At 30, I was still a scale 1 teacher and thought, 'this can't go on'"), he found himself, almost by accident, running a tutorial college, a sort of crammer, in Bishop's Stortford. "I thought, 'I can do this. I could start something of my own'."

Several business ventures followed, including two colleges that still exist, the London Schools of Insurance and Publishing. When he did eventually visit the New York School of Performing Arts, Featherstone-Witty was disappointed to find that "if you went in a dancer, you came out a dancer". This wasn't what he had in mind at all.

In his book, he gives the example of a Paul McCartney concert in which six people appeared on stage, but 175 were employed to make that possible. Lipa students must have talent in a chosen field - as, for instance, performers, sound technologists, administrators, or designers - but they have to learn other skills in related areas. "Do you know", asks Featherstone-Witty, "in a typical class of 20 dancers in a specialist school, only two, on average, will make a successful career in dance companies?" After Lipa, a dance student should find herself or himself with other options.

Lipa, now producing its third set of graduates, is based in a fine building, the core of it Georgian, which once housed Sir Paul's old grammar school. The honours board detailing academic successes, including at least one Nobel Prize winner, is still on display, the splendid wrought iron gates still stand proudly inside the entrance, and the old assembly hall, now a fully-fitted theatre, retains some original features, but any visiting Sixties teacher would recognise little else. Blood red, custard yellow and turquoise blue paint somehow does not detract from the elegance of the renovations. When Sir Paul made a nostalgic return to his old school in the late Eighties, it was virtually derelict. The rebuilding cost pound;18.4 million.

As we go down to the canteen for a dish of scouse (meat and potato stew to non-Liverpudlians), the place has an air of calm, even though this is audition week. Some courses are, of course, more popular than others. "Forty-seven apply for each acting place, but please don't let that put people off." Auditions, singly and with others, are taken more seriously than academic qualifications, although proof of some kind of entrepreneurial skill is a help. "Paul left here with one A-level. It would be ironic if a person of such genius couldn't get into the school he championed."

The relationship between Featherstone-Witty and the ex-Beatle has had its ups and downs. If no specific complaints appear in Optimistic, Even Then ("Well, we're all alive and we want to stay that way"), you can almost hear the sighs of frustration when, for instance, Volks-wagen, relaunching the Beetle, was dropped as a sponsor for a Paul McCartney tour (from which a percentage of the profits would go to Lipa) because, quite late on, Linda McCartney didn't want to be associated with planet-polluting machines. On a separate occasion, signs advertising another sponsor had to be kept out of Sir Paul's eye-line as he performed. And on another, one of the star's entourage accused Featherstone-Witty of bringing a gay man to a fund-raising event and thus being less than mindful of the McCartney image.

Despite all this, Featherstone-Witty is careful to pay tribute to his old hero, merely saying: "I naively thought my heroes were golden people but, of course, they're not, they are just like the rest of us, a mixture of things." Sir Paul, for his part, still keeps in touch and gives an individual half-hour session for every one of the singer-songwriters in each intake.

One person for whom Featherstone-Witty has only the kindest comments is the producer (and Beatles mentor) George Martin. He was involved from the very beginning, and still is; the most high-tech of the professional-standard recording studios is named after him.

Lipa wasn't Featherstone-Witty's first dream; he had set his heart on a school for secondary-age students. Now, having seen the implementation of the national curriculum, he realises the benefits of the freedom he can enjoy at Lipa, but he still smarts at the memory of the removal of the School for Performing Arts Trust from Brit's board of governors. By 1991, when the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and the Department of Education and Science were financing the fledgling school and calling the shots, those at Brit thought SPA was concentrating on Liverpool. Not one to bear a grudge - although the book implies that he was anxious to give his view of events - Featherstone-Witty says he has visited Brit recently and that some students have moved from Croydon to Liverpool.

The committee meetings, fund-raising lunches and schemes to raise money (one went disastrously wrong in the United States when holders of Lipa tickets for Paul McCartney concerts complained they had been cheated of meeting their hero), the changes in education and social funding (including the introduction of city technology colleges, city challenge schemes, and the national lottery), the wrangles over curriculum and staff appointments - are all documented in Optimistic, Even Then, and were often widely reported as they happened. Sir Paul's name always ensures press interest, for better or worse.

Now, on a spring day in 2002, while acknowledging continuing anxiety about funding and the difficulties of appointing staff with sufficient practical expertise, Mark Featherstone-Witty enjoys a sense of fulfilment. He is happily settled with his wife, Alison, and their son, Thomas, in Toxteth, and shows the visitor around the magnificent facilities with the pride of someone who has made it - with acknowledged help - against all the odds.

Everywhere, little knots of students are trying out dance steps, singing a cappella (in this case led by a teacher who has attended sessions here herself), building sets, sitting in front of banks of computers, learning to use the "flies" in the theatre, or occupying state-of-the-art recording studios, one of which is the old Today studio from Broadcasting House.

As for that problematic label "fame", "Well, it's a short word, quicker to say than performing arts, but if you look at what we do - including the first course in disability arts - it isn't really adequate."

Mark Featherstone-Witty, would-be actor, teacher, businessman, dreamer and survivor, sums up his view of Lipa: "It's the kind of place you would have liked to go to yourself."

The Brit school opened in 1992. Since 1998, 91 secondary schools have won specialist arts status. Applicants to Lipa should be over 18 on September 1 in the year they wish to start. Applicants are often educated to A2A-level or equivalent, but other factors are taken into consideration: experience; education; communication skills and entrepreneurial skills. For information: 0151 330 323231163084,, Optimistic Even Then: the creation of two performing arts institutes is published by the Schools for Performing Arts Press, pound;14.95

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you