Days of Jerusalem and tight trousers

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Rugby school provides an authentic backdrop to a version of Tom Brown's Schooldays. Adi Bloom reports

A stern schoolmaster in mortarboard and gown strolls leisurely through school grounds, peering at gambolling boys over half-moon spectacles.

In the background, pupils walk, run and play, their velvet overcoats catching the wind. As their headmaster nears, they turn, stand up straight and reach to doff their top hats. Then a voice from behind them pierces the air: "And...cut! Get it quiet. Hold the chat for takes, please!"

The boys in top hats are pupils at pound;6,870-a-term Rugby, the 400-year-old Warwickshire public school. The broad stretches of sports fields, the 19th-century architecture and the towering chapel spires are all backdrop to a TV adaptation of Tom Brown's Schooldays.

Thomas Hughes's 1856 novel tells the story of Tom Brown, a relentlessly bullied schoolboy, and his experiences at Rugby under Thomas Arnold, the reforming headmaster.

The production, which stars Stephen Fry as Arnold, will be shown on ITV1 at Christmas.

Suzan Harrison, programme producer, believes that it will present a side to boarding-school life that is unfamiliar to the Harry Potter generation.

"Before Arnold, boys were living unsupervised," she said. "They went out whoring and gambling from a young age. We've come a long way since then.

But bullying still happens. This story still has relevance."

The school was paid several thousand pounds for allowing its extensive grounds to be used for filming, including a chapel scene and a game of rugby.

Patrick Derham, Rugby head, said: "People say that public school is an artificial world sheltered from the reality of life. But we're embracing real life whole-heartedly here. Though, ironically, the real world is coming into our school to create high artifice, so where is reality?"

A number of pupils were drafted in as extras, selected according to their ability to fit into ready-made 1850s schoolboy costumes and paid pound;15 for three days' work.

"I want to be an actor, so this will look good on my CV," said 18-year-old Alex Warren, who appears in a funeral crowd. "I was emoting in the role. I had a real tear in my eye."

Many were underwhelmed though by the realities of the experience. "I didn't realise how long it would take," said 17-year-old John Penticost. "We had to sit in chapel and sing "Jerusalem" over and over again. It used to be my favourite hymn. Sunday sermons are bad enough. But this was a whole day in chapel. In tight trousers."

However, while contemporary pupils complain of restrictive leg-wear, Tom Brown's story of bullying, fagging and roasting has brought back memories of greater discomfort for some participants.

Stephen Fry, who has written about his unhappy time as a boarder at Uppingham school, admits to an enduring unease around school premises.

"It's a little doorway into a memory," he said. "Hearing the boys singing 'Jerusalem' instantly took me back to my childhood. That mixture of broken and unbroken voices is very redolent. But this is a TV set. The authenticity is there, without the butterflies."

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