Beyond the laughter

29th August 1997 at 01:00
Well, help ma boab, as they used to say in a popular Sunday newspaper. Out of the country for less than a month on my hols and when I return I find that someone's been up on their hind legs at a conference suggesting that school drama productions should be abandoned because they disrupt pupils' studies.

The proposal was comprehensively rejected, and I'm also happy to acknowledge that the amount of pupil and staff time spent on preparations for these productions is immense and does cause some disruption to the "normal" timetable. However, I really had thought that we had moved to a position where virtually everyone accepted that the positives far outweighed the negatives in such an undertaking.

The variety of skills and talents that are activated can largely be related to the curricular content of a whole raft of "academic subjects", from English through music, art and electronics. At least as important as this, however, must be the strong and lasting effect on pupils who enjoy this opportunity to work co-operatively with a wide range of fellow pupils and staff, in "abnormal" circumstances and to a common end. It is an experience that far outlasts any memories of desk-bound learning.

Across nearly 40 years I can still vividly recall the glare of the lights and the dryness of my throat as I spoke my first ever lines: "There is no room in the inn, but there is a stable round the back . . ." Still to the forefront of my memory is our primary school production for charity in one of Liverpool's larger theatres where my appearance as a pirate was spoiled slightly by a rubber dagger that wobbled and my forgetting to pull down the patch over my eye.

Even for the audience, it's a memorable experience. Our all-male fifth form were invited to the neighbouring girls school's production of The Tempest by way of being a study aid. I fell in love with Sebastian, played by Jane Weller, the star of the hockey team. The fact that I can still see her as Sebastian when I study the play with my classes nearly 30 years later probably says more about me than it does about her acting talent or Shakespeare's wordcraft.

Involvement in staff-pupil productions over the years has brought a wealth of positive memories, none more so than our 1976 pantomime, Cinderella.

For many the highlight was the assistant headteacher's unfortunate rewrite of the script when, as an Ugly Sister, he urged the fifth-year Cinders out of her dream by shouting, "Snap out of it Cinders, you're not sleeping with the Prince now!" In vain did I as scriptwriter seek later to assure the assembled religious representatives that he was supposed to say "dancing". My preferred moment was when the same AHT sat down heavily on an antique chair that had been snaffled as a prop from the head's office and snapped it in two. How was he to know it wasn't insured?

Last Christmas I learnt that the girl who played Cinderella had died in an accident while still in her mid-30s. Claire was a magic pupil in every way, talented, friendly, self-effacing and hard working. She had married a Mallorcan and lived on the island. In response to my letter of condolence, her mother told me that when she was in Mallorca for the funeral Claire's husband had produced a newspaper cutting Claire had shown him shortly before Christmas. It was the Edinburgh Evening News photo of the cast and crew which she had kept for more than 20 years.

For all the disruption for staff as well as pupils, school drama productions are much more than an excuse for a good laugh.

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