A life of drama

7th January 2000 at 00:00
The call of the stage led Bill Graham to tread the boards at the same school for 40 years. He looks back with Julie Morrice.

Harold Macmillan was prime minister; Fidel Castro had seized control in Cuba; a Soviet spacecraft had just transmitted the first pictures of the dark side of the moon; the bubble car was all the rage; Buddy Holly and Adam Faith were topping the charts; and Some Like it Hot and North by Northwest were packing in the crowds at the cinemas.

The year was 1959, and Bill Graham was beginning his career as a drama teacher at Larbert High School. At the end of last term, he celebrated 40 years in the same job. At the party, four members of his very first registration class were there to applaud his achievement - they are now Larbert High's assistant rector and its principal teachers of guidance, history and computing.

Ties of place and family are strong in this former iron-working town north of Falkirk, but even here few stay the course as long as Bill. The secret of his astonishing job satisfaction may be that, as one of the first drama teachers in Scotland, he was able to invent the job to suit himself, something few teachers can do nowadays.

On screens and walls around Bill's drama studio are photographs of the big school shows he has directed. There, in black and white, is the cast of The Merchant of Venice, performed in 1963; here the face-painted crowd who took part in 1995's Jungle Fantasy. Behind the superficial details of hairstyle and costume, the faces wear the same expressions of delight and pride in performance, whatever the year.

There is no annual drama production at Larbert High this year. "It's increasingly difficult to get senior pupils to commit themselves to a production," says Bill. "They all work after school, and lunchtimes are taken up with finishing work for other departments."

The increasing emphasis on academic subjects is having an effect lower down the school, too, he says. For the first time S2 will not have drama on their timetable. "The inspectors wanted them to spend more time on literacy and numeracy.

"As a general educationist, I can see the need for more time," he adds, reasonably.

A knot of pupils sidles into the drama studio. "We wondered if we could borrow your sheep," they chorus. "A sheep?" echoes Bill. Then, with sudden recollection, he bustles off to reappear with a sleeveless nylon sheep costume, but he denies their request for a selection of kipper ties.

"At secondary school I wanted to be an actor," says Bill. "I got no backing, of course, and if anyone had suggested teaching to me then I would have said 'Oh no'." Instead he was pushed into accountancy. In his spare time he completed several external qualifications in drama from London and, against all good advice, launched himself on to the professional stage when he was 19.

"I discovered I didn't have the temperament," he says. "So I wrote to Stirling council to ask what qualifications I would need to teach drama. The director of education wrote back saying, 'I can't answer your question about qualifications, but in the meantime, would you like a job?' I taught for 10 years uncertificated.

"I started teaching in a first-floor classroom with a wooden floor, metal chairs and metal-legged tables, directly above the classics department," he recollects.

"I was attached to the English department, but for the first month I didn't actually meet the head of English. There was no syllabus for drama and no one came by to ask how or what are you teaching." So Bill just got on with it.

During his time as a pupil at Falkirk High, drama had consisted of choral verse speaking, and he recalls the terrible treatment meted out to anyone unfortunate enough to have a speech impediment. "There was no way I was oing to start from the elocution angle. I knew I had to start by engaging the pupils' interest."

So, with tables and chairs creating Zeus's thunderbolts for the scholars below, his pupils flung themselves into one act plays and improvisations. "I've always been against drama as an elitist thing," says Bill.

When Higher drama came in, he realised that as a one-man department, taking a few pupils on to Higher would mean having to drop some of the S1 and S2 classes. He opted to keep drama on the syllabus for the younger pupils, and has discouraged pupils from taking the Higher.

"It is weighted very much on the literary side," he says. "Standard grade is different. It's a good thing for pupils to have on their CV. Employers look and say 'Drama: good communication skills'."

He has always been afraid of encouraging pupils to make a career in drama, even when they were very talented. He has never forgotten the advice he was given himself by one of the old Scottish music-hall performers: "I widnae advise you to do this unless you widnae be happy doing anything else."

"If anything, I've dissuaded them," says Bill. "But if a talented pupil says they're thinking of applying to drama college, I'll tell them they've got a good chance of getting in, but to do the teaching qualification. After all, 82 per cent of Equity members are out of a job and you can't even guarantee a teaching post."

Bill did his teaching qualification at Jordanhill in 1970-71, in a class which included Bill Paterson and Bill Torrance. With 10 years' teaching under his belt, he was struck by the unrealistic expectations of the students on that course. "They thought they would walk into teaching jobs and have resources for the asking."

Bill knows different. His rather seedy drama studio, due to be demolished in the summer when Larbert High moves to a new building, has been his for only two years. Before that he was teaching in an ordinary classroom, with access to the assembly hall when nobody else was using it.

Changes have come and gone in teaching over the past 40 years, and appear to have left Bill largely unaffected. He talks with delighted sarcasm about "the wave of creative drama" which hit schools in the 1970s. "Any form of performance was to be discouraged. Pupils must not be assessed on communication skills. We were to go into the drama studio, preferably painted black, close the door, draw the blinds, put on very loud music and wait to see what happened."

The difference between then and now is that in the 1970s no one came to check what was going on. So Bill could ignore the recommendations and get on with introducing his pupils to the joys of performance.

He regrets that he cannot give a list of famous actors who have passed through his hands. One or two are making a living out of television and panto seasons, but for the majority of his former pupils, drama is something they do for fun or just a happy memory.

Bill measures the success of his 40 years in the feedback from pupils and the wider community. In a newsagent's recently, he was hailed by a middle-aged woman, who said: "We're having a reunion for our 50th birthdays. Will you come to the party?" "I realised it must be 35 years since I taught her, and I didn't recognise her but, sure enough, the invitation arrived," says Bill.

He describes himself as the oldest living inhabitant in the school and is waiting for the day a pupil will say, "Sir, you taught my granny".

Looking back on 40 years of teaching, it is the camaraderie of the staff and the affection of his pupils that he values most and will miss when he retires at the end of the school year. "I haven't thought about what happens then. I'll tick off the 40 years, then I'll sit back and think what to do next."

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