Teachers' 'patron saint' hits the road

20th April 2001 at 01:00
John Godber became a teacher for his parents' sake and made a career from writing about it, reports Fran Abrams

There were just four people at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival premi re of John Godber's play Bouncers and two of them were the actors. Even now, he roars with laughter when he thinks about it.

"It was a complete disaster!" he cries. "One of the audience was drunk and the other was a critic from the Scotsman. The drunk got on stage and started talking to us, and the critic left. We never got a review."

Although the play did receive some favourable comment later in its week-long run, its biggest audience was 12. Twenty four years on, though, it has gained a host of awards and a West End run and is still going strong.

So much so, that, as the Hull Truck Theatre Company, of which Godber is artistic director, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it has chosen to take the play on a free tour of schools. This is no great shock, for 44-year-old Godber's life has been tied to education in a surprising number of ways. In fact, a member of the audience approached him after a recent performance of Bouncers and told him he was "the patron saint of teachers".

The accolade may have been hyperbole, but Godber did six years of drama teaching before leaving to run Hull Truck in 1984, and several of his plays have educational themes. The most famous of these is Teechers, written in 1985, but Thick as a Brick, written two years ago, explores similar territory with a plea for the future of creativity in schools. Hull Truck has also tackled Willy Russell's Educating Rita and a story called Bully, which was adapted for the theatre by Godber's wife, Jane Thornton.

Godber even wrote episodes of the school-based TV drama, Grange Hill, while teaching full-time at his old school, Minsthorpe high, near Wakefield in west Yorkshire.

But he admits that, although he enjoyed teaching, it wasn't his first career choice.

He had ambitions to be eiter an actor or a professional sportsman, he says. He played rugby and football as well as being "quite handy at table tennis" but bowed to his parents' desire for him to go into teaching.

"My mum was quite keen that I should be a history teacher. She liked history because she read Catherine Cookson," he explains, deadpan. His rugby-player's physique helped his teaching, though, he says. "It gave me presence. If I said, 'Be a teapot,' you were a teapot. I never said that, mind, but you get the point."

One recent play, Seasons in the Sun, was about his experiences 'on the bins' during summer breaks from college, and even Bouncers was based on memories of evenings around the clubs of Wakefield.

"I'd been walloped a couple of times," he explains. "I used to go around with a couple of mates of mine who were teachers, and we were all over 17 stone. We were enough trouble for anybody."

But at around the same time he was sweeping up every major award at the National Student Drama Festival. And by the time he left Minsthorpe for Hull Truck, his personal experience also included a masters' degree from Leeds and a growing interest in German expressionist theatre.

Mavis Hugill taught drama to Godber first at Minsthorpe and later at Bretton Hall College in West Yorkshire, where he did his teacher training.

She later featured in a scene in Teechers in which the pupils responded to every request by moaning that they'd "already done that" with Mrs Hugill before she left to have a baby.

She remembers a highly creative, individualistic student who listened to Nat King Cole while his friends were buying pop records. He was "a joy to teach", she said. "I met him in the bar at Bretton once when he was doing his MA at Leeds.

"There was a pause in the conversation, and he said, 'I'm going to be famous one day, Mave'."

A condensed version of 'Bouncers', aimed at Years 10 and 11, will be touring Hull schools from April 30 to May 25.

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