After his success in Teachers, Navin Chowdhry tells Madeleine Brettingham what it's like to be back in front of pupils at Shakespeare's Globe
The main thing preoccupying Navin Chowdhry right now is the prospect of being booed off stage by a crowd of rabid Year 8s. "School kids are the most honest, welcoming and yet daunting crowd," says the actor, in a back room at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on London's south bank. "They're so vocal and they've got so much attitude. It's not like going to watch Shakespeare at the National Theatre, where everyone nods along and knows when to laugh."
Navin is busy preparing for the lead role of Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, the latest play to get a pupil-friendly spin from the Globe as part of its Playing Shakespeare initiative, which gives free performances to children from inner-city schools. It's also Navin's first bash at the Bard. He's heard ominous tales of actors being shouted down for boring the Globe's mainly teenage audience so he's keen to come prepared.
"I went to a Shakespeare play recently and saw some kids coming out going: `God, that was boring.' Of course it wasn't, but with Shakespeare you've got to present it in a way that kids can stay with you. It's your job to bring the beauty of the writing to life."
Much Ado, in which Navin plays the passionate and impetuous Claudio who abandons his lover after she's framed for adultery by the scheming Don John, promises to do just that, re-imagining one of the central love songs as a Grease-style ballad. The lively style is designed to fill the circular bear-pit theatre with the Renaissance rowdiness for which it was originally built. "It's a special place and it's great that the kids will share in this amazing venue," he says.
It's not the first time 36-year-old Navin has faced down a mob of cynical secondary pupils. He is, of course, remembered for his performances as the geeky-but-loveable Kurt in Channel 4's Teachers, a sitcom that did for the education profession what Sweeney Todd did for hairdressers, but is loved for its cheekiness nevertheless.
"We got a nod and a wink from a lot of people in the know, young teachers in particular. It was never supposed to be a documentary, but there were things in it that people recognised," he says.
Navin recalls getting slapped on the back by drunk staff while out drinking with the cast, congratulating him for his mischief-packed, if undignified, depiction of the profession. Kurt's antics involved downing pints in the local boozer and attempting to seduce a single mum at parents' evening. And those were the moral high points.
However, one teacher he bumped into in a London nightclub wasn't so pleased. "I remember we were out and this guy came up to me and started saying: `Oh, it's all a laugh to you isn't it, but teaching isn't like that.' I thought: `Hold on. It's 3am on a Wednesday and here you are smashed off your face.'"
So popular was the series, it ran into a fourth season, unprecedented for a home-grown Channel 4 drama. And he still gets recognised now.
"I went out to a pool hall recently with Adrian (Bower) who played Brian (Steadman, the show's beefy-but-dim-witted PE teacher) and all the bar staff were in shirts and ties. They were looking at us in a bemused way and it turned out it was a school uniform night. I think they thought we'd pocketed a couple of quid to put in a guest appearance. It was typical," he laughs.
Born to Indian parents and raised in Bristol, he studied at Elmlea Junior School and the fee-paying Bristol Grammar School. Navin came to acting early in life. His first break was at the age of 10 playing Wizard Grumble, an evil sorcerer out to ruin the festive season by kidnapping Santa Claus in the junior school's Christmas production.
"The people who saw that probably talk about it more than Teachers," he jokes. "I was out bowling with the cast in Bristol and a girl from my old school came up to me and said: `It's you. It's Wizard Grumble.' That's my nickname whenever we go bowling now."
A part in 1988's Madame Sousatzka, a Golden Globe-winning drama about a young piano genius, propelled him on to cinema screens aged just 15. After that, he played in a series of promising but ultimately disappointing films, including The Seventh Coin with Peter O' Toole, studying for his A- levels in between. He achieved three Bs in chemistry, biology and French ("although this was the early Nineties so that was quite good") by cramming in the holidays. "It made me realise how much time was wasted at school." Then he quit acting to go to university. "I thought: `Do I want to be hanging around waiting for the phone to ring?' The lack of control at that age is not a good space to be in."
Studying biochemistry at London's male-dominated Imperial College was a weird experience, although he made long-lasting friendships. "It was one of the biggest beer-drinking unions and there were a lot of scraps, because of all this testosterone flying around and no girls to impress," he says.
Smiley, self-deprecating and thoughtful, Navin is not one of nature's show-offs. He still hates seeing himself on screen, describing it as like hearing your own voice on tape, "times a thousand million". But he persists in the hope he'll meet his own expectations one day. "When you're moved by people you've seen acting, I suppose you hope to emulate that in some way and you just hope you're not deluded, like one of those X Factor contestants."
He'll certainly find out when he steps out into the footlights in front of 1,500 restless schoolchildren next week. So raise the curtain and let the teenagers decide
FREE BARD FOR 10,000 PUPILS
The Playing Shakespeare scheme provides schools with free tickets to see plays at Shakespeare's Globe on London's south bank. They are offered specifically to support pupils at key stage 3.
This year's play is Much Ado About Nothing, which will be performed to selected London schools from March 10-14. There is also a free public performance on Friday, March 14.
About 10,000 pupils will see the play over its five-day run. Those not able to attend a performance can download a podcast of the play, together with interviews with the actors and resources from the website.
The initiative, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, also provides training days for teachers and workshops for children.
For more information on the play and other Globe Education work, visit www.shakespeares-globe.org.