Kiss goodbye to rule before QCA can act

24th February 2006 at 00:00
When the snogging-on-stage story broke last week everyone worried about how poor Romeo and Juliet would survive under the censor's knife. My first concern was for another pair of Shakespearean lovers. Antony and Cleopatra will not be able to make do with the peck on the cheek allowed in the school play guidelines issued by the National Assembly of Wales and being considered by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

My heart went out to them because a production of AC three decades ago is my sole cherished memory from my seven years at grammar school (mainly because it was staged by the boys' school next door).

Had the Welsh Assembly been running Liverpool (which is quite near the border) in 1977, I would not have been allowed to snog Paul McGann (yes, him, half of Withnail and I) on stage for four consecutive nights, including two school nights and one of them "in front of the Archbishop", as my mother noted.

Only my friend who helped with make-up and nightly applied leg paint to queues of boys in togas had a better time, except when she had to help me crimp my black nylon wig every lunchtime.

With lashings of fake tan, glittery green eyeshadow and cardboard jewellery, a short round red-headed scouser was transformed into the Queen of Egypt, snogs and all. As the audience on preview night was 90 per cent nuns - the Archbishop came later, and sat in the front row - I don't think too many moral codes were infringed.

Anything that motivates an 18-year-old as butterfly-minded as I was to learn reams of Shakespeare that is not for an exam must be a good thing. I didn't know when I auditioned that I was going to get to kiss anyone (after all, I could have been cast as "dull Octavia" instead of the Queen of Denial), let alone a future proper actor. I was in the upper sixth (Year 13) at the time and the show represented escape from A-level slog and career anxiety. I loved doing the play (and others) not because I thought I was going to get into RADA like my co-star, but for the same reason secondary school pupils continue to form bands, choirs and orchestras, publish newspapers, make films and raise money for charity: it's a chance to be yourself and do something creative with adult approval but not overt adult control.

I now realise that we were supervised enough by our long-suffering director to ensure that we turned up to rehearsals, treated each other kindly, pushed ourselves, worked as a team and got the job done, but at the time we were allowed to believe we had worked out most of this for ourselves. Too many rules would have made it too much like real life, and ruined everything.

This weekend I'm chairing a discussion on teenage girls' fiction for the Federation of Children's Book Groups. Fresh from reading a stack of novels for 12 to 15-year-olds on the broad topic of "my-so-called life"

(reflecting concerns about relationships, image, identity, family and friends), it is clear that the snogging issue is still key.

The tendency of teenage girls to be unsettled by boy behaviour seems to be at the same semi-hysterical height as in my single-sex school in the mid-Seventies, even allowing for exaggeration on the page. At least today's adolescent girls have books in which they can recognise themselves and their obsessions.

At their age I was speed-reading Jean Plaidy's historical novels to get to the sex scenes, but the life of Anne Boleyn in her wilder moments seemed nothing like mine. Getting to pretend to be someone with grown-up feelings was a necessary part of stepping into adulthood.

Any kind of performance or creative effort that takes you out of your comfort zone might create uncomfortable emotions; it is part of the teacher's job to help pupils recognise these and separate real life from the stage.

One teacher charged with abuse is not a reason to deny young performers a crucial part of the theatrical learning experience. The Welsh Assembly should kiss goodbye to its stage directions before the QCA decides to follow its act.

Geraldine Brennan is literary editor of The TES. Paul McGann appeared in ITV's Miss Marple earlier this month

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