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Principal's a panto king, oh yes he is

Melton Mowbray College has got its act together. Ngaio Crequer goes backstage

The evening draws on and the college principal steps into something rather more suitable.

Ken Masters, principal and chief executive of Melton Mowbray College in Leicestershire really does don, as he puts it, "slightly different gear" in the evenings. "I suppose I am what you call Val Parnell, an impresario."

Because as well as running the college, he is chairman and chief executive of Melton Leisure Services Ltd, a public limited company and wholly-owned subsidiary of the college.

The company has its own extensive sports and leisure centre and pride of place goes to a 350-seat theatre with computerised lighting, full sound system, orchestra pit, technical workshop, dressing rooms and television studio.

"Surely I must be the only college principal who is just as interested in how well we are doing at the box office and how well we are doing over the theatre bar as in our student recruitment and retention rates, " said Mr Masters.

The college and the local education authority decided at the time of incorporation to transfer the concept of community provision to the college. The theatre, next door to the college, was transferred at the same time. As Melton Mowbray already had a performing arts department it was a logical decision to refurbish the theatre, add a bar, improve the dressing rooms (helped by some lottery money) and head for stardom.

"We run it as a business, " said Mr Masters. "It is non-profit-making but it pays 20 per cent of my salary, that of my director of finance, and of the finance office. So it reduces the cost of running a college of further education." The theatre turnover is Pounds 400,000 a year, and has trebled since incorporation.

This month the theatre has been playing to packed houses. Double-decker buses have been ferrying schoolchildren to the Toyroom at Izgood Palace where all the Christmas presents are made but where the evil Wozgood-Wonce is up to her naughty tricks.

The college panto was written and performed by the students and staff, with students involved in all the other aspects of putting on a show. As well as acting, singing and dancing they take the bookings, learn about health and safety in the theatre, understand sponsorship, take on front of house duties.

Richard Smith, theatre manager and head of the performing arts department said: "The students have to generate an audience. They produce the programme, for example, and sell the advertising space, as part of the marketing skills they have to acquire. " Professional companies come into the theatre as part of the students' education. But it also provides a full year-long season of public performances. Ken Dodd, Rowan Atkinson, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Ralph McTell and the Vienna Ballet have all appeared.

The leisure centre next door, with its sports hall, squash courts, fitness studio, saunas and solarium, helps to keep the cast in trim. It also has meeting rooms which can be hired out to student societies and outside groups.

"Anything the students want to do is charged to the corporation as though we were an outside body," said Linda Hallam, the leisure centre manager. "We need to do that to make ourselves viable."

The centre is heavily used by both students and the local community, from football or gym birthday parties, to teas for local friends' associations, to courses for people with special needs. For the students, the facilities are very cheap - 80 pence a day to use the 17 specialist fitness machines, including treadmills, rowers, step-ups and bikes.

As the students and members of the public work to improve fitness, the sound of the children enjoying the panto, suddenly and inadvertently comes through the public address system. Some 347 children have been placed in their seats in less than seven minutes.

Next day the Val Parnell of further education is looking at the books: "I am running this as a business, so I want to know what we did on the bar last night, what are the daily ticket sales. We may need to decide whether some shows stand, or whether they fold."

FE is known to be entrepreneurial and Mr Masters has had to apply old skills as well as learn new ones. "I am an engineer by background. The only experience I had like this was when I ran a folk club in my youth in Weston-super-Mare. I sang in a folk band when I was 20. But I am supported by a very able team. When some principals are thinking about going home, here am I running a theatre. "

His technical training does come in handy. When there was a shortage of technical staff for last year's panto season, he stepped in to operate the follow spot for the show's run.

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