‘Och. What’s your musical about then?’ BJ’s slurping some cereal at breakfast, milk dribbling down his chin. ‘Has it got a name?’
‘It’s called “Darkheart.”’
The plot itself is relatively straightforward. But more importantly, I want it to be on a grand scale, to involve as many pupils as I can; make the prep school buzz with it. That should show The Wife of Parse and help convince Spicy he’s not made a mistake trusting me. But how many pupils might be interested? What if none of them volunteered?
I’ve already put up notices the previous summer term, advertising the production. Fizz had bounced up, frowning. ‘Oh sir, it’s so unfair. I’m going into Uppers. I’d have loved to have been in it. Can’t I come back?’
My worst fears are allayed. The notices are plastered with names by the end of the first day of term.
I find Biggles in the Common Room. ‘I’ve got over thirty. I’d really like to involve anyone who’s keen. What do you think? Can you manage?’
‘Fine by me,’ said Biggles. ‘Can you? That’s your domain.’
Oh. So it is.
‘Have you got a choreographer yet?’
‘Er. No. Not yet. Any suggestions?’
He mentions Miss Dazzle. Mrs Chisel Face. ‘Why not chat her up? I think she did dance at college.’
I find her by the lacrosse pitches. I still have to fight an inner rage at the nagging and gnawing thought of her with Chisel Face. ‘Hi. Sorry to bother you.’ When I tell her I’m working with Biggles on a musical, her face lights up. ‘Really? Oh that’s exciting.’
Encouraged, I take the plunge. ‘Actually I was wondering if you might consider helping. He tells me you’ve done some dance before.’
She raises her eyebrows and purses her lips as a silence develops. Will she?
‘All right. Why not? But I might need to enlist some help. Would that be all right?’ And there’s that annoying jealous tremor in me again as she turns her eyes fully on me.
‘Fine. Yes. Great. Thanks.’
Back in the old gym, I sit in front of a blank piece of A4, turn on the cassette to play some Paul Simon, ready to draw up a list of jobs. I’ve got an MD and choreographer, but there’s a set to be built, a backdrop to be produced, costumes to be hired or made, tickets and posters to be manufactured, some sort of sound system installed to boost young voices, lighting rigged, and make-up to be attempted. I can’t do it all. Don’t know how to. All very well having grand ideas, but who’s actually going to front up to help with it? And what have I missed out?
‘…the answer is easy if you take it logically…’
The following afternoon I approach someone the kids call Chippy, who runs lessons in woodwork. He’s quite old, grey haired, wears a light brown overall, smokes rollups, and confesses to me that he hasn’t got any sort of teaching qualification. ‘I used to be the odd jobs man here, then one day the Master asked me to do a bit of woodwork with the boys as an activity. Pretty soon it was a full time job. Proper lessons.’ He shows me some of his own handiwork; beautifully crafted pieces of furniture, inlaid boxes with dovetail joints.
‘I don’t suppose you’d consider doing some work for me? I need stuff for my set.’
He puffs on his rollup. ‘I wouldn’t mind. No one’s ever asked me before. What sort of things do you want?’ And he stubs out his dog end, reaching for more baccy.
‘Want a cuppa Robert?’ That night when I’m in Cowdray’s on duty, drinking tea with Matron while the boys settle in their dorms, I tell her about “Darkheart.”
‘Oh that sounds great,’ she says, then tells me about her time working abroad. ‘My parents lived in Honkers.’ Middle aged, jolly, buxom, she describes her experiences in a school in Hong Kong. ‘There was quite an active drama culture there. I used to help with the costumes, that sort of thing. I was a seamstress before becoming a Matron and a member of the local ex- pats Am Dram society there.’
I ask if The Wife of Parse has ever asked her for help. Matron rolls her eyes. ‘She wouldn’t know me from Adam.’
‘Would you like to help me?’ Please! ‘Do the costumes?’
Her face lights up. ‘I’d love to. What have you got in mind?’
Next morning I approach the Prep Art department. A guy with a long nose, sly eyes and bearded tight mouth, runs it. He looks like Rasputin. Would he consider painting a backdrop for me? I know he has a downer on games staff removing his pupils, and that I’ll be associated with that, but surely, for the school play things will be different?
Rasputin’s bent over sugar paper, sketching. ‘I’ve no time, laddie.’
‘I’m not here to be at the beck and call of everyone. If I said yes to you, I’d be inundated.’ He shakes his head, and returns to sketching.
‘What about posters? They wouldn’t take too long would they?’ Am I pushing my luck? Come on, Rasputin. Loosen up.
He screws his eyes. Sighs loudly, then looks up from his sketching. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, laddie. I’ll organise a competition between the pupils to design it for you. How about that?’
It’s better than nothing. In fact, as I reflect, it might well add to the buzz round the place. ‘Thanks. That would be great.’
Later I confide my irritation with Rasputin to Taff.
‘Oh, he’s a miserable so and so, boyo. He used to work in Uppers you know?’
‘Got moved on last year. Cutting costs. Sent down to you lot in the sand pit.’ He has this way of describing the Prep School just to wind me up.
‘What about you? Would you do it?’
Yes, I know, it’s a massive ask even of a mate.
Taff blows out his cheeks. ‘I don’t like to let you down, boyo, but I’ve got Uppers to do. That’ll take me weeks.’
OK. Fair enough. We sit in silence until I’m struck.
‘Have you got an idea of what you’re producing? Maybe I could use it as well. What’s he doing anyway?’
‘Something by Chekhov. “The Seagull?”’
‘And what’s the backdrop?’
‘I’ll show you a sketch next time we meet if you like.’
That Friday night we meet up in the Flyer and while I attend to the jukebox – “Baba O’ Reilly” - good value - Taff unrolls a scroll of paper on the table. It’s a watercolour of parkland, with a lake, trees, a mansion in the background with imposing chimneys.
‘That’s utterly brilliant.’
He gives a self-conscious laugh. ‘It’ll do. I can’t be spending all my time on it.’
‘Can I use it as well? It’d be perfect.’
‘As long as I don’t have to do any more to it, boyo. Except a bit of touching up.’
Fantastic. I stand up and pull out a five-pound note. ‘Thanks, mate. Let me buy you any number of drinks.’
I’ve put off my final conversation. It’s with the guy who’s in charge of production; the technical impresario. The same guy I saw at “The Winslow Boy” with the white hair and beard, like I imagine Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings”. ‘He’s a wizard with all that stuff,’ says Biggles, ‘but a difficult so and so. Teaches Science. Old school.’ He blows out his cheeks. ‘I mean, he’s been all right with me, but then I don’t have to deal much with him; but I’ve heard some stories. He owns most of the stuff in the hall. Gives him the whip hand.’
I’ve already left a couple of notes, asking when might be a good time to meet, but received scrawled notes back. “Got to take the kids swimming; maybe next week?”
Eventually I pluck up courage to wander over to Uppers and find the Science Department. That smell of chemicals and biological stuff. Posters of intestines. The Periodic Table. I wait outside his lesson until the bell goes, and skulk as pupils file past, before knocking on the door. ‘Hello. Can I come in?’
Gandalf glances over and busies himself, wiping the board. Is that a scowl on his face? ‘I’ve got another class,’ he growls.
‘Right. Just wondered if we could meet up sometime? Talk about lights and things?’
Gandalf growls again and reaches into his pocket, pulling out a pack of fags, checking it. ‘I can’t now.’
‘Well, I’m happy to fit in with you,’ I say.
He grunts again. ‘What are you doing Saturday night?’
Now as it happens, I’m due to go out for a skinful and a curry with BJ and Taff; been organized for days. ‘Um…’ I falter.
He grunts. ‘Huh.’ Picks out a fag and pops it behind his ear, checking his watch. ‘I’m staging a production in the garden of “The White Lion.”’ He mentions a local town. ‘”The Canterbury Tales.” Eight o’ clock.’
Hmm. ‘Um…I’ll see,’ I manage. Lamely.
‘Huh,’ grunts Gandalf, pulling out his lighter and striding out.
When I tell the others, opinion’s split.
‘Och. Get a grip,’ says BJ. ‘A few beers and a curry. No contest.’
But Taff’s more considered. ‘I’d go,’ he says. ‘Sorry, boyo, but for the pain of one night, you might get a few years of assistance.’
Of course he’s right. I look up bus times, and wave off the others. The bus takes me along country lanes and busy roads into a local town’s square. I ask directions and head off past the War memorial until drawn by the sound of a PA system pumping out the unmistakable sound of Fairport Convention. OK!
There’s a kiosk at the entrance to the garden of “The White Lion” where I ask for a ticket. The woman serving looks me over, and enquires, ‘are you Mister Hopebourne by any chance?’
‘Oh I‘ve got a ticket for you,’ she says reaching into a drawer. ‘Though I wasn’t sure you’d make it.’
‘He’s over there,’ she says pointing into the garden where a small stage is set-up. And there, on a set of steps, is Gandalf, wearing these ridiculously tight shorts, pouch of gadgets on a belt, fiddling with a light.
‘Right,’ I say. ‘I’ll leave him to it. Is there a bar outside?’
‘A cider bar,’ says the woman. ‘I’ll tell him you’re here.’
The performance is a rollicking adult-humoured romp through Chaucer’s Tales. There’s a decent audience, and I join the constant stream to and from the cider bar as the laughs develop.
At the interval Gandalf collars me. ‘There you are,’ he growls. ‘You’re the first colleague that’s ever come to one of my shows outside school.’ He almost smiles as he lights up a Silk Cut. ‘We’ll have a drink after.’
The second act comes and goes, and last orders are called before I try to escape. The woman from the kiosk turns out to be his wife, and is ready to drive us both home. Gandalf can talk for England. There’s nothing about a parcan, follow spot or stage flat that he doesn’t know or can talk about. I go into glazed eye overdrive as the cider and his rambles take effect. ‘Have you ever considered a son et lumiere?’
By the time I’m dropped off at home, I’m in a permanent cidric haze, stumbling and bumbling, but can take comfort from Gandalf’s continued incredulity at my actually turning –up to the performance. ‘Never thought you’d make it,’ he says, gruffly, and often, sparking up another Silk Cut.
So, instead of a few beers and a curry, I’ve ended up with several pints of scrumpy and some sausage rolls. Even succumbed to a Silk Cut. Falling on my bed, I briefly consider the evening before feeling my head swim - one of those wipeout moments that signal too much booze. I stagger to the door and to the bathroom, retch and stumble back to the bed. Blackout.
Back at school the following week, I stick to my guns and accept everyone who auditions. ‘Thanks, sir. I never thought I’d get the chance.’ I put up a rehearsal timetable starting the following week. Biggles hands me tapes of his music. ‘Saves me from having to be there all the time.’
At the first rehearsal with the whole cast, Miss Dazzle turns up in grey leggings, track suit bottoms, tight, and a body- hugging black T shirt. ‘I’ve worked a few steps out,’ she says. ‘I’ll spend more time on it when I get a moment.’
Biggles starts to bash out some notes with the cast. I marvel at how positive he remains, making a joke of things even when they go wrong, plodding through notes, line bashing. ‘Good. Now, let’s do it again, and open those mouths for me. Let me see your tonsils.’
I store away his methods.
Later we try some dance moves. Miss Dazzle tells me her strategy. ‘Something uncomplicated. I’ll try to keep it really simple.’
Part way through, she claps her hands. ‘Stop!’
She takes up a pose in front of the cast. ‘Look, it’s left foot first, step, then right, step.’ She demonstrates the moves. Graceful. ‘Shall we try again?’
I have to stop myself staring at her.
At the end of the session I get the cast to do some improvisations, watching, hawk-like, to judge their performances. ‘Good. Does anyone want to audition for some solos?’ A few hands go up. I nod at Biggles. ‘Talk to sir.’
A few weeks into term, the early excitement of “Darkheart” has dissipated. ‘There’s a bug going round.’ The initial buzz has been replaced by weary attendance on freezing dank afternoons and evenings. ‘Do we have to rehearse tonight, sir?’ After half term, they come into the Old Gym, breathe visibly and start complaining. ‘Ugh! This place smells so bad. Isn’t there any heating in here, sir?’
I try playing the clown. ‘It’s got walls hasn’t it? Jump on the spot like me.’ Anything to get them started, keep them on track. ‘Just think, a few weeks time, you’re on.’ Warm ups are literal. ‘Race you to the wall bars!’ I play some upbeat music to get them capering about. “Hocus Pocus”; always a winner with its yodeling in the middle bringing laughter to the cast.
At least the dance rehearsals and the singing take place in the fug of classrooms.
Every phase now seems to take an age and progress is slow. ‘What have you forgotten to do there?’ Actors are still on scripts that hinder movement. ‘Please, I can’t learn lines for you.’
I’ve blocked out moves and positions for Act One, but any other spontaneity is missing and we haven’t touched Act Two. The dances look clumsy, and there are still routines that we haven’t started. Even Biggles’ note bashing seems to have ground to a halt, and the cast’s collective volume seems inadequate, despite his assurances. ‘You’ll see.’
Whenever I visit dance rehearsals I’m faced with Miss Dazzle. I can’t help myself watching as she goes through moves, picturing her naked with Chisel Face, in a Maynard Road bed. Need to get a grip.
On duty in Cowdray’s I go up to Matron’s small room that’s covered with costumes hanging from every available picture rail. ‘They’re absolutely fantastic,’ I say. ‘I don’t know how you do it.’
Matron beams. ‘I’m really enjoying it. Makes me feel more a part of the place.’
She arranges fittings, pins up garments, welds herself to her sewing machine. Once she asks me about a budget. ‘How much can I spend on material?’
Shit. I have no idea. Resolve to make an appointment as early as possible to speak to Spicy.
He greets me cheerfully. ‘How’s it going?’
When I ask about money he nods and tells me that the budget comes out of the English Department. ‘Which means you’ll have to speak to our mutual friend.’
I approach The Wife of Parse with some fear and trepidation. Our relations have been quite frosty since she decided to “take a break” from the school play. She’s doing some marking.
‘I can spare you a hundred pounds,’ she finally states. ‘That’s what I spent last year.’
Thanks for nothing. I leave the meeting with her feeling like I’ve dropped a catch. It’s as if she’s deliberately trying to sabotage everything I’m trying to achieve.
Later I meet up with Biggles. ‘I don’t know how we’ll manage. Matron’s already spent eighty pounds on material, and we haven’t even thought of hire costs for sound or for Chippy.’
He purses his lips. ‘Hmm. I’ve promised the band I’ll slip them something as well.’ He looks sheepishly at me. ‘Can’t expect them to do it for free.’
Nodding, I consider things. ‘And my photocopying costs will be enormous. I just put it on the English budget.’ Heaven knows how The Wife of Parse will react to that.
But Biggles’ face brightens. ‘What about ticket sales?’
Spicy has told me that tickets are always free for the Prep school play. ‘It’s difficult enough getting an audience in the first place without charging on top.’
‘I’m not allowed.’ I see Biggles’ face darken as I tell him what Spicy’s said.
‘Leave it to me. I’ll go and see him.’ It’s the first time I’ve thought of Biggles intervening, playing the Uppers teacher card. Pulling rank. ‘We’re about to put something special on. Massive marketing. Of course people should pay.’
I don’t hold out much hope but next day he seeks me out, a grin breaking on his face. ‘Pound a ticket. And he’s promised to find some discretionary fund from somewhere to help us out.’ He winks at me. ‘He trusts me.’
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
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Paul Simon – 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
Saw Paul Simon play Hyde Park a few years ago – the 30th anniversary of “Graceland.” But I’ve always been a massive fan ever since I was a youngster listening to Simon and Garfunkel albums like “The Sounds Of Silence” and “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” Right up there with The Beach Boys as teen faves of mine. “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” is from the LP “Still Crazy After All These Years” from 1975. Grammy award winner. Legend.
The Who - Baba O Reilly
From the album “Who’s Next” which also included the amazing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” this is the opening track - and what a start! This’ll be another of those albums that I possibly heard first from my bro’s room. Released in 1971, so I’d be all of seventeen and gradually moving away from a folk and prog rock diet to some other sounds.
Fairport Convention – Come All Ye
OK so English folk featured pretty prominently in my early teens, mainly cos my close friends were all folk-heads; proper finger in the ear folkies listening to Steeleye Span, Amazing Blondel and Ralph McTell. I loved the electric sound that Fairport added, and of course, they had Sandy Denny fronting – surely English folk’s best female singer? Discuss! This is from my favourite album of Fairport’s – “Liege and Lief.”
Focus – Hocus Pocus
“The best rock yodeling ever” is how a friend of mine describes this, and who am I to argue? Focus were from the Netherlands – of course they were! No-one would surely consider yodeling like this unless they had ample stocks of hash to consume? They followed this hit from their big-selling album “Moving Waves” in 1971 with another instrumental, “Sylvia”, in 1974.
About the Author: Richard Parsons
I’ve been fascinated with writing since I was a youngster; creative writing in English lessons was my favourite part of school life along with swapping music with mates or playing sport.
When I decided to quit teaching after many happy years, I applied for and won a scholarship to do a Masters at Plymouth Uni in Creative Writing. Drama was really the main string to my bow, but I soon became hooked on the idea of crafting short stories, and, eventually, the longer form of narrative. After graduating with a distinction, I cut my teeth writing for women’s magazines, but this was never in my own “voice” and was always formulaic. “Given Circumstances” is the real me.
Hope you enjoy it!