Many happy returns

28th July 2000 at 01:00
When a junior school in Suffolk wanted to celebrate its 50th birthday, it was able to call on the professional services of a former pupil to write a musical for the occasion. David Newnham waxes lyrical over the result.

Francis Goodhand can remember the year he discovered dance and drama. It was 1982 and his Year 5 class teacher at Whitehouse junior school, Ipswich, had started an after-school dance club. Francis got involved, and he loved it. "I'm sure I was better behaved that year," he says. "I was doing things I enjoyed. And, for the first time, I could really express myself."

Francis had always been musical, but now he was taking part in school shows and helping to devise mini-stage productions for morning assembly.

When he grew up, he too would teach music and drama. Or at least that's what he thought when he was at secondary school, and later as he studied music at Liverpool university.

He took a PGCE in the subject, and even began working as a teacher. But one day, halfway through a production of Cabaret, the truth dawned on him. "I realised that this, rather than teaching, was what I needed to do, and I would never feel fulfilled unless I was doing it all the time."

Meanwhile, things were happening back at Whitehouse junior. Di Gooding, the teacher who introduced Francis to musical theatre in Year 4, was now the head. And her dance club was going from strength to strength.

In the early days, she had found it difficult to get boys involved. But she had overcome that by persuading the games teacher and the entire football team to take part in a show one year.

Since then, as many as 40 children have been attending regularly, with more being drafted in for productions. And the educational benefits have become clear for all to see. "In terms of self-esteem, confidence-building, teamwork and social skills the spin-offs are fantastic," says Di Gooding.

"And for some children, it gives them a real chance to shine - a chance they might not have with other subjects."

But as the last millennium was drawing to a close, a minor crisis was looming. For Whitehouse junior, built in 1950 to serve a post-war estate on the edge of town, was approaching its 50th anniversary. A special production was clearly called for - something to suit the occasion rather than the usual Cats, Joseph or Annie Get Your Gun. But such shows don't grow on trees.

Then Di Gooding bumped into Francis's mother. "I asked what he was doing now, and she said he was moving back to Ipswich and doing music full-time.

She also said he ws writing. So I got in touch with him."

Francis had come a long way since those first dance and drama sessions. A musical director with the National Youth Music Theatre, he was now writing songs and shows professionally. He was only too happy to offer his services to the school that had fired his enthusiasm all those years ago.

But what sort of show would fit the bill?

At first, he and his one-time teacher toyed with doing an adaptation, but nothing seemed right for the age group. Then Francis remembered a story his mum had told him about the day the king's car came through her Suffolk village and she and the other children were taken to wave flags. (When the king arrived, she didn't recognise him because he wasn't wearing a crown.) Francis swapped the limousine for a royal train, and wrote a tale about a group of village children celebrating the 50th anniversary of the railway that runs through their village.

Using Fifties-style music with folk and New Age undertones, the show follows the children's rivalries and squabbles as they try to find presents for the king. And it tells the story of Jane, a girl from a poor family who has nothing to offer but the gift of music.

The King's Train was perfect for the school's celebration, planned for the middle of July. So Di Gooding set to work on the choreography, and in the course of workshop sessions with dance club stalwarts the story was honed into a show with speaking parts for about 40 children and enough material to keep the entire school choir occupied.

Other former pupils were recruited to play in the band, the reception area was turned into a station ticket office for the opening night, and everybody pitched in painting sets, putting up bunting, making costumes and printing T shirts.

"The whole school was involved," says Ms Gooding. "And by the time we'd finished rehearsing, all the parents knew the songs. You would hear people whistling them wherever you went. As for the children, you could tell from the energy they put into it that they really enjoyed doing it."

The show ran for three nights, from July 13-15, and was sold out. The school was on local radio, and Ms Gooding would like to make a recording of the performance. But for Francis, there was an unexpected bonus.

"I've got the same buzz from doing this as I got when I was here," he says.

And he knows it's a feeling that few forget.

l For more information about musicals for schools, contact Francis Goodhand at: or visit his website at

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