Queen of drama in search of a fitting role

27th June 2003 at 01:00
DOROTHY HEATHCOTE'S STORY - biography of a remarkable drama teacher. By Gavin Bolton. Trentham Books pound;15.99

Dorothy Heathcote's story is that of a perennial outsider. "I knew from an early age that I was somehow remarkable; I don't think I have ever just wanted to just fit in with everybody." But despite that bold claim, her story, at least as told by Gavin Bolton in this curious, intriguing and often irritating book, is a tale of a working-class woman's lifelong struggle for professional and personal acceptance and recognition.

Heathcote was born into a poor, single-parent Yorkshire family and adopted by the doctor who delivered her. Although a bright child - "of course I was top of the class" - she failed the scholarship examination and left school at 14 to work in the local mill. From the earliest years of her life, when she and her best friend at elementary school were known as "the two fatties", through her wartime work as a mill girl, to her failure to become an actress because of her physical appearance - "...you are not the right size for your age, for the roles you can play..." - she had to work hard to discover her part.

She became a teacher of drama, a subject that remained, despite her efforts, stubbornly on the margins of educational orthodoxy, lacking the status of more conventional academic disciplines. She taught it by placing herself "in role", at the centre of the action, exercising control of the class through an outsize personality and, usually, having an audience. She may have failed at drama school, but she became and remained a performer throughout her professional life.

Heathcote's dramatic approach to teaching certainly appears to have had a profound effect on those who observed her performances with children, not least Gavin Bolton. For him, she is nothing less than an "esteemed visionary and genius", a "media star" whose work explores "the deepest problems of humanity, ethical, cultural, political and spiritual".

Bolton and other eager followers (and there are many of them) hurry to sign up to her "greater crusade" and share in her "mission", which is nothing less than the transformation of our education system. He is her knight, ready to defend his heroine from any real or imagined slight, especially if it comes from what he calls "the frigid arrogance of academia". This is the real enemy to the fulfilment of Heathcote's vision, the hostile sceptics and non-believers, a rogue's gallery of "university professors, directors of education, senior inspectors and other distinguished members of the intellectual hierarchy" whom she scorns, relishing "her separateness, her independence from its narrow strictures".

The subject of this biography is, then, not just any dusty old academic hot for certainties, but a teacher whose work "is not an intellectual, rational, logical working out of things; this is the artist's instinctI " Perhaps, but why privilege instinct over logic, why set up a binary opposition between the intellectual and the creative? The non-committed reader is struck by just how defensive much of the text is.

Rather than letting Heathcote's work speak for itself (the most interesting parts of the book are when Bolton describes her teaching), the author spends too much time building up his subject with an almost revivalist religious, hyperbolic fervour. Heathcote, like all interesting people, is full of paradoxes and contradictions. Her biographer tells us she has "never been able to cope with watching television drama or a video film"; doesn't feel at home in a public library although she has many books at home; won't "waste money on restaurants"; is teetotal, "profoundly spiritual" and "in touch with the mystical" but doesn't follow any established religion.

The "artist" married an engineer, Raymond, who was "not a laughing kind of man" and who threatened his own parents with residence in a "nursing home" unless they "live up to their own past standards". They had a daughter (like her mother, an only child) who became "an ardent follower of the Anglican evangelical movement", while her mother's career as an "authentic" university tutor involved her in facing up daily to entrenched opposition from "the grey men" who policed the academic discourses of the very institutions (Durham and Newcastle universities) that gave her work status.

These are tantalising glimpses of a remarkable personal drama, but one taking place just off stage. Now that the "official" biography is completed, the tributes paid, the monument erected, I wait for someone to tell another, fuller story of this remarkable woman.

Peter Reynolds is head of the school of arts at the University of Surrey, Roehampton

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