This bloke's a comedian

6th July 2001 at 01:00
It's a common reaction to Ofsted inspectors. But in the case of Joss Bennathan it's literally true. He's also a theatre director and a scriptwriter. Matthew Brown met him.

By his own admission Joss Bennathan was never an ordinary Ofsted inspector. "I was kind of aberrant," he says. "The popular perception is of someone aged 95, with a face hewn out of granite, deadly serious. I was in my mid-30s and into drama." When Mr Bennathan started inspecting, during Ofsted's first cycle, the drama bit itself was unusual. "I was always a drama specialist," he says. "And back then, most inspectors who looked at drama teaching were English specialists, or into art."

Now 43, Mr Bennathan is still an Ofsted inspector - occasionally - although he is much more besides: actor, stand-up comedian, director of his own theatre company, writer of successful education books, curriculum teaching materials and, most recently, radio comedy. He has provided material for Paul Merton's Radio 4 programme, Late, which has gained positive reviews and a good audience response.

The other writers are an eclectic bunch, including an EastEnders actress and a prize-winning writer of radio commercials. It is Mr Bennathan's first foray into radio and he loves it. "It's different from theatre in that all you've got is the words," he says. "It's the mind that forms the pictures so the writing's got to create those as well as tell stories."

His sketches are all conversations between odd groups of people who've just been to the theatre, such as an impossible elderly mother and her long-suffering son; a gay couple who've split up but decide to meet again; and three blokes who've just been to see Art.

"So much of comedy is to do with punch-line stuff," says Mr Bennathan. "This is more about capturing the way people talk - the way we obscure, avoid, play for time, hide what we mean. My background in education has given me access to all sorts of voices."

Mr Bennathan was invited to write for the show by producer Sarah Parkinson, whom he has known since university, although his spell at university wasn't that long ago. He was diverted from the well-trodden 18-year-olds' path from school to college by acting and fatherhood. Later, in the early 1980s, he started an American studies course at Sussex University. After doing drama and comedy improvisation here and in the United States, he opted for teaching, applying for a PGCE course at Goldsmiths College in London.

"I applied more as a stop-gap than anything," he says. "I hadn't enjoyed school, so teaching never occurred to me. But I had such a blast on teaching practice - it was creative, and it accommodated my pastoral interests. I realised it is a very important thing to do, especially drama, which can engage kids who are otherwise not interested in learning; it helps them make sense of the world in a way other subjects can't."

Mr Bennathan began teaching at Lister community school in Newham, east London, and rapidly became head of year. He moved on to New Rush school in Redbridge, a school for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children, where he was responsible for implementing the national curriculum. Then a headship beckoned, but it wasn't what he wanted so he changed course. "I was thinking of freelancing again, and wanted to get back into drama. And there was a need for inspectors with school experience. The Ofsted work emerged out of that."

He stopped teaching and, in the spaces between inspections, started his own theatre company, Present Moment, and wrote a book on teaching drama, Developing Drama Skills for 11 to 14s.

It seems an incongruous mix, but inspecting was never just a way of earning extra cash. "Actually, I liked the detective aspect of it," he says. "There was a punitive attitude to teachers at the beginning that's done nobody any favours. With Ofsted you know what they are looking for; it's explicit and clear. It's about expectations - if you expect kids to do interesting work in drama, you can and will structure your work to get it. Kids have a right to the best education."

Today, Mr Bennathan has less time for inspecting schools, but his connection with education remains strong. His latest book, Performance Power, is an anthology of extracts from plays suitable for GCSE drama courses. "Some people looked at it and said, 'You can't do this with GCSE kids.' I say, why not?"

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