The story so far? Well, Robert Hopebourne has survived teaching drama and cricket for two years at Fitzrovia Prep School. Now, after an interview with the scary Big Cheese, he is moving into Uppers, teaching the older pupils. During Robert’s time, he’s fallen for Miss Dazzle, only to see her married and move away. Searching to find himself, he’s had a night on the tiles with the Femme Fatale and taken magic mushrooms… and survived it all. Now he’s starting again.
September 1979. Year three.
I’m at my first Staff Meeting in Uppers. There’s gentle idle chatter as we wait. I’m sat next to Biggles who leans in close. ‘Saw the Master earlier. Looked majorly stressed. We could see fireworks this morning.’
Oh? I peep down to the front of the lecture theatre, where the Big Cheese is checking his watch, eyes flicking to the door where the staff must enter. It swings open and BJ walks in.
‘Have you got a death wish?’ It’s The Big Cheese, shouting, red in face, eyes bulging. All conversation comes to an abrupt end.
To my astonishment, he’s venting his spleen on BJ, who’s wandered in eating a banana. I know he’s just been for a long run. Like most of us, he’s casually dressed. More so. Jeans and T-shirt; but no more disheveled than those in muddy tracksuits or CCF gear.
What’s going on?
BJ’s stunned. So are the rest of the staff. BJ mumbles something, but it’s obvious The Big Cheese is on the warpath. ‘I’ve had quite enough of the slipshod approach some of you seem to think is acceptable here. Obviously it’s time for change. I will not have my staff - (MY staff?) - walking round the place as if it’s some kind of amusement arcade. In future there’s to be no eating in public, and you’re all to smarten yourselves up.’ He’s purple. Heart attack country. Quite different from Spicy. ‘At least try to look professional.’
The whole staff sits in what feels like fear, for the rest of that meeting. It’s one-way traffic. No one else speaks and I sit, head down so as not to attract attention. The Big Cheese reminds us we must all call him “Headmaster.” That everyone needs to pull their socks up. Like kids. Be more academically rigorous. Disciplined. Professional. ‘It’s make or break, this year.’
That there’s further changes afoot.
More staff “restructuring.”
‘Unless we can recruit more pupils. Everything must be tailored to that.’
Outside, after, there’s a straggle of us. BJ’s fuming. ‘No fuckin’ right to say that.’ I’m walking with Biggles, Taff and Gentle Giant. ‘Told you he’s got a screw loose,’ says Taff.
I’ve never seen Biggles so shell-shocked either. ‘Finances must be tighter than we thought.’ There are already rumours of stringent budget cuts. A meeting of Heads of Department tomorrow.
‘That should be fun,’ says Gentle Giant turning to me. ‘Are you going to the meeting?’
‘Not as far as I know.’
‘Well you should. You’re acting Head of Drama really.’ Really?
Then, equally disturbing, at my first Uppers assembly, in the quiet of chapel, The Big Cheese’d suddenly bawled from the lectern. ‘Don’t yawn, laddy! Cover your mouth!’ It was like an electric shock throughout the place. He’d glared. Eyes popping. Blood pumping; veins sticking out. I catch Taff’s eyes and he raises eyebrows theatrically.
Still, for now I’ve enough on my plate starting over again without getting worked up about The Big Cheese and his soaring blood pressure. I’m flat out preparing English lessons, drama sessions, preparing for “The Mikado”, preparing Larkin, preparing, preparing. I don’t need meetings. And certainly not with the terrifying Big Cheese.
The following day, I’m pinning a notice on a board in one of the corridors. “Drama Club. Sixth Form Activity. Sign Up Here.”
Someone’s standing by me. ‘Hello, sir. You’ve shaved. Can I borrow your pen? Did you have a good holiday? Looking forward to teaching us again? I’ve put my name down for drama.’
Fizz is like a bottle of pop. Huge smile. Big blue eyes. A rounding of her features and figure from her time in the Prep. Taller. She reaches past me and signs her name on the sheet of paper.
‘This is for the older pupils,’ I say.
She immediately colours up as her face drops.
‘I’m sorry. I know you’re keen on drama.’
She nods. Scrubs her name out on the paper. I feel I should apologise again. ‘But look, I’m maybe putting on “The Mikado”. Why not sign up for that?’
Before she has time to reply, we’re interrupted by some girl wearing a badge. “Secretary of the Drama Society.” She’s exaggeratedly panting as if she’s run a hundred yard dash. She’s all hair and pout. ‘There you are, sir. I’ve been looking absolutely everywhere for you.’ She grabs my arm, dragging me.
‘Where are we going?’ I’ve never been manhandled by a pupil before. Is this what happens in Uppers?
‘You’re supposed to be at a meeting in the concert hall.’
I leave Fizz standing at the notice board.
When I reach the concert hall, I’m surprised to see a small gathering, including Biggles, Gentle Giant, Gandalf in his very tight shorts and a CCF shirt, the Commander in combats holding a clipboard, and the Bursar. What’s going on?
‘I’m so sorry,’ I say. ‘I had no idea I was meant to be here.’
Gentle Giant turns to the Bursar. ‘I did suggest that Robert should be afforded Head of Department status for this project.’
The Bursar nods. ‘I agree.’ Turns to me. ‘Now, Robert, what would you like to happen in here?’
Um. ‘Well,’ I look to the gathering. ‘What do we need?’
‘Within strict limits,’ says the Bursar.
Gandalf growls. ‘A proper lighting box and sound desk up at the back is priority. I can bring in more of my lights, but if they give out, I want the school to pay for bulbs.’
The Commander taps his clipboard. ‘Maybe Robert could consider having the prep room as a study down here, and we should really spruce up the changing facilities. Update them. And if we’re doing more musicals…’ He stops. Looks at me again.
‘We are,’ says Biggles, and everyone, including the Commander chuckles.
‘Then we need some mikes. Decent ones.’
Gandalf growls again. ‘I can source some of them. But if they give out…’
The Bursar waves a hand at him. ‘Yes, yes.’ He looks at his watch. ‘Right. I’ll get some costings and we’ll try to start a.s.a.p. Robert, if you’re agreeable, I’ll set you up with bookcases and a table and chairs for your study, OK?’
At the end, Gentle Giant takes me to one side. ‘It’s been on the cards since drama was introduced in Prep. Parents don’t like the Old Gym.’ He raises an eyebrow. ‘Don’t suppose you do either. You’ll be in here for your activities and any lessons.’ He looks round. ‘It’ll be noisy when the work’s being done. You might have to go back to the Old Gym if it gets too much.’
Biggles comes up. ‘Right. I’ve had a look at the score for “Mikado.” I agree it’d be a fun piece for the kids, and should bring in the punters.’
‘OK. I’ll put up notices.’
‘It’ll be a lot of work.’ He smiles. ‘But nothing we can’t handle. Oh, and make sure you get that study. Bag it if you can. They’re like gold-dust.’
‘OK. I’ll take a look.’
It’s just down a corridor, handy for the stage. A window overlooking grass which I open to air the place. Perfect!
Later, I fetch my cassette player from where it’s been stowed in my pigeonhole and grab any paperwork to retreat to my new room. There’s already a table with a drawer, and a couple of chairs that have appeared. Bookcases standing empty. Bare walls in need of personalising. There’s even a worn armchair. I plug in the cassette and slam on an old favourite. Stephen Stills. “Old Times Good Times.”
Scanning the papers I’ve collected, there are some drama activity lists. Glancing at one, I see Fizz’s name scratched out. Have to do a double-take. What’s that all about?
Gentle Giant smiles benevolently when I ask at tea. ‘Oh the girl herself asked to be taken out of drama. Prefers to do Extra English.’
‘Does seem a bit odd. I just met her trying to sign up for a sixth form play; she’s that keen.’
Next morning, I’m standing in a corridor passing the time of day with the new Head of School. I know him from playing in the band for “Darkheart” and have heard from Biggles that he’s a top-notch rugby player. We talk music. ‘Do you like heavy stuff, sir?’ A gaggle of giggling girls are on their way towards us, all ponytails. The Head of School speaks casually. ‘Have you heard about Terence, sir?’
Terence Somebody is in the Upper Sixth. The Fire Monitor or some such position. ‘No. What?’
‘He’s going out with that young Fizz.’ He nods at the girls rushing past. ‘That one there.’ And there she is, a whirling dervish, laughing.
I heard he was gay.
I watch the gaggle disappear. ‘Well, well.’
‘By the way, sir. I’ve put my name down to audition for “The Mikado.” I’ve always enjoyed acting, but not sung much. Does that matter?’
‘No. There’s a couple of lead acting parts where singing might not be so important. See you at auditions.’
BJ’s already got his eye on the latest French Assistante. Mademoiselle Fifi laughs a lot, wears tight trousers and a colourful scarf, all Francaise. Tres Jolie. ‘Och, she’ll probably think I’m a gobshite,’ he says. ‘But I love French women.’
I’ve put up a notice in the Sixth Form Common Room. “Wanted. Choreographer(s) for “The Mikado.” Please see Mr Hopebourne.” Within minutes a bundle of blonde energy appears in front of me. She stands as if on tiptoes and is about four feet tall. Has bold blue eyes. ‘Please let me help. I’ve done tap and contemporary.’ She thrusts herself forward. Hopeful. Like one of the cast in “A Chorus Line.”
‘Great,’ I say. ‘Can you come to auditions?’ And she beams, ‘thank you, sir,’ bouncing away, all “Tits ‘n Arse.”
That evening Biggles and I contemplate the auditionees for “The Mikado”. The place is heaving. ‘Can we use them all?’ I query. ‘There’s more then fifty here. All ages.’
‘I can if you can. There’s a lot of choreography unless you have them standing still.’
‘Can’t have that. I’ve got help, but I’ll do some simple stuff too.’
‘OK. Let’s see what they’ve got. Will you take notes?’
‘Sure. Shall we start with a singsong? Loosen them up?’ And I turn and call for quiet. ‘Let’s have you all sat down, and I’ll take some names. And then we’ll have a singsong round the camp fire.’ There’s a big ‘whoo’ from the pupils. I see Fizz in the middle of the crowd. Catch her eye. She looks away.
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
Follow The Back Story On Your Favorite Streaming Platform
Alan Parsons Project - Lucifer
Alan Parsons was a sound engineer – he worked with Pink Floyd on “Dark Side of The Moon” and with The Beatles on “Abbey Road” – but he was also a song writer and formed the Project as a vehicle to get those sounds out there. “Lucifer” comes from the 1979 album “Eve.” Any scan of Wikipedia should give you a firm idea of how prolific Parsons was; he mixed and moved with all the UK rock legends and left a catalogue of “concept” albums that featured instrumental electronica. I first heard the Alan Parsons Project on long car journeys to play sport at weekends in the early 80’s when my regular designated driver played them on his 8 track!!
Stephen Stills - Old Times Good Times
Just adore Stills first album, and “Old Times Good Times” edges “Love The One You’re With” out as my favourite track. Trademark organ and guitar and Stills oh so recognizable voice. Owe my brother for first hearing the entire album; another of those examples of songs drifting my way from his room.
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!