The story so far. In September 1977, young working class man, Robert Hopebourne has started a new job teaching drama at a school for “toffs” - Fitzrovia College. In this alien world, Robert has met and fallen for Miss Dazzle, got himself injured playing rugby to impress her, and narrowly avoided the sack having lost his cool with one of his pupils. Now it’s the first time he’ll see what drama goes on under the direction of The Wife of Parse as “The Winslow Boy” takes place.
Stanislavski believed that the truth that occurred onstage was different from that of real life, but that a scenic truth could be achieved on stage. A performance should be believable for an audience so that it may appear to the audience as truth. If actors really mean to hold the attention of a large audience they must make every effort to maintain an uninterrupted exchange of feelings, thoughts and actions among themselves.”
It’s only a quarter of an hour before curtain up, but the concert hall’s sparsely populated when I arrive with my train of boys from Cowdray House. In the foyer there are some simple posters advertising “The Winslow Boy” and some basic programmes printed on A4 sheets. A trickle of parents and other audience members wander in, including a smattering of boarders from Uppers. ‘Better than prep.’ Some classical style music is playing. Solemn. Barber’s “Adagio” according to the programme.
There are cast members milling about in costume, made-up roughly, beards and moustaches painted on, young kids trying to look grown up. Girls dressed as men. ‘Hello, sir.’
Shouldn’t they be backstage?
The Wife of Parse too is being quite “high profile.” She’s dressed smartly, ordering some people about, greeting others. ‘Darling! So pleased you could make it.’ Her voice echoes round the auditorium.
I take in the concert hall, for the first time able to see it readied for a proper production. The sound and lighting crew are housed behind curtains that have been erected at the back. There’s no soundproofing. ‘Dimmer two’s on the blink,’ I hear from a guy dressed in combats. At least the place is still so empty no one should be unduly disturbed.
By half past seven when the curtain’s due to go up, it’s pretty obvious things aren’t going to plan. Whispered conversations. Figures dressed in black scurry about. A man with a white beard, long, straggly hair, wearing a black rollneck is fiddling with lights, the stage curtain twitching as if hidden figures are still finding their place. I see the curtains briefly part and a young face poke out to stare at the audience. The concert hall’s barely a quarter filled. Voices carry. ‘I expected there to be more here, didn’t you?’
Eventually the House lights dim, the curtains open and there’s the set for “The Winslow Boy.” It looks rather amateurish to my eye and I realise that I’m surprised because everything about Fitzrovia has struck me as being of top quality.
Puzzled, I settle myself into my seat, shushing the boys who seem excited to be watching their friends, then take out my notebook. If there’s some talent on stage I’m going to make a note of their names.
By the interval my notebook has one name written down. I’ve also checked the programme and discovered that someone from the Uppers French department has painted the set. Why not the Art department?
I’m waiting for my interval cup of tea when Balls walks past. ‘It’s a bit slow isn’t it, sir?’
Then Fizz comes bounding over. ‘What do you think, sir?’
I’ve been thinking ahead.
For the staff I’m trying to prepare a diplomatic answer, something like, ‘well, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but any drama has to be a good thing doesn’t it? It’s quite an undertaking to get kids up on stage like that.’ That should do shouldn’t it?
At least I have a better answer for Fizz. ‘What do you think? You’re doing Drama.’
She screws her eyes as if deep in thought. ‘I’m not sure I understand it all. And I can’t hear.’ She wrinkles her nose. ‘Prefer what we do, sir.’
Another familiar figure comes over, a glass of wine in his hand. It’s Biggles. Miss Dazzle has talked about him. ‘So talented and so modest. And always positive.’ A teacher of History in Uppers, I know him first from the Crown when I arrived, and then the Staff rugby match, a crafty, physically strong scrum half, sporting his luxuriant facial hair.
‘Well,’ is all he says and then waits as if expectant. ‘Is this your sort of thing?’ He speaks casually, eyes twinkling.
Should I trot out my prepared answer?
His eyes invite honesty. What the hell. In for a penny. ‘Honestly? No. I hate it. It’s so outdated and however worthy as a piece of writing, it’s just not enthusing the kids at all is it? You’ve only got to see the lack of belief, the lack of enthusiasm, energy, all of that.’ There I’ve said it.
He nods, taking a swig of wine, then speaks gently. ‘Do you write any of your own stuff?’
He nods again. ‘Only I quite fancy writing some music for something. Got a few ideas for some songs. Would you be interested? In a musical? We could get together sometime and talk about it.’ Pausing he takes another sip. ‘If you’d like to, that is.’
Wow. It’s the last thing I’ve expected and the first time I’ve felt I might connect with anyone from the upper echelons. ‘I’d like that a lot.’
He smiles. ‘As long as it’s nothing like this shit.’
I burst out laughing. Surprised. ‘How about a drink later? I’m on duty but I finish at ten thirty.’
‘Perhaps not tonight.’ He peeps at his watch. ‘I promised I’d be home straight after.’ I’ve heard his wife also teaches in Uppers. ‘Why don’t you come round to ours for supper one night? What have you got on next week?’
The second act of “The Winslow Boy” grinds eventually to a conclusion. More lines are missed, the prompter working hard. At the end, The Wife of Parse comes on to stage and takes a bow to what feels like forced applause.
But nothing can dampen my spirits. I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of collaborating with Biggles, concerned only that he might think my writing “shit.”
I consider the work I’m doing with my drama groups. ‘That’s coming on well. Much more convincing and lively.’ I determine to go and see Spicy before the end of term and offer to put something on. After all, hasn’t he appointed me to do some drama? And it couldn’t be worse than “The Winslow Boy.”
I meet up with Biggles at his house. His wife turns out to be a House Mistress, a sure sign she’s an important cog in the Uppers wheel. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you,’ she says.
There’s a lasagne, and the wine flows. He’s got an amazing sound system with Wharfdale speakers, pumping out some fresh sounds. ‘Who’s this?’ I have to ask time and again, and I learn about Weather Report and Frank Zappa. There’s a piano in the corner of the living room.
Biggles’ views are soon made clear. ‘The Arts in Uppers needs a good kick up the arse. The drama Director’s stuck in a time warp and the stuff he produces is dull as ditch water. Music’s stagnating.’ He shares his vision with me. ‘I’d like to do a musical, and I’d like the band to be pupils from Uppers, not bought in from outside. What do you think? I thought we might start in the Prep School and try it out there.’
‘Great.’ I tell him my idea for the play I’ve been quietly working on. ‘It’s called “Darkheart.”’ I outline the concept. ‘What do you think?’ Then hold my breath. Will he dismiss it as “shit?”
‘Sounds good,’ says Biggles. ‘Can you get some lyrics to me?’ And he reaches for another album. ‘Have you heard of Pat Metheny? He’s a new kid on the block.’
Half term holiday takes me by surprise. Ten whole days stretch ahead without work!
Outside “The High Flyer” is iron grey; autumnal leaves beginning to swirl, windows drilling with rain. Rugger Bugger’s gone to Cornwall to be with Linda, but Adonis and I are staying on. Mum’s been on the phone. ‘Don’t feel you have to come home, because I’m quite busy at the moment.’ What’s that all about?
‘My stepdad’s at home,’ says Adonis, pulling a face. He’s on ships I know. Three months on, three off. ‘We’ll just end up arguing about politics or stuff. Besides, I need a proper holiday. Meet some women.’
We’re pretty tight now. While Rugger Bugger tries to see Linda as much as possible on any spare weekends, Adonis and I mooch around, spend time in “The Flyer.”
We’re sitting reading newspapers with a pint to hand.
‘Weather forecast’s crap,’ Adonis says tapping a page. ‘Come on. I’ve had enough of this rain. Let’s get some sun somewhere. Hunt out some totty. For a week. We’ve just been paid haven’t we?’
I’ve barely spent any money for months except on beer. And to be fair,
I fancy a flop myself. Why not? Under the circumstances.
‘Where shall we go?’
Barber - Adagio for Strings
Actually I first heard this when it was played at a drama workshop for my pupils led by my mentor Doug Ditta back in the early 80’s. He played it as part of a relaxation session before starting to unravel the mysteries of Stanislavski’s system. Until then my teaching of drama was pretty much on a wing and a prayer; certainly I had no idea of Brechtian theory or Stanislavski’s method acting.
My method for judging the merits of performance at the time was simple; if I was engaged then an audience might be too. After all, didn’t I have the shortest attention span in Europe? Since then Barber’s piece has been reworked countless times by chillout emissaries, but I’ve chosen to go with the original.
Frank Zappa - Peaches En Regalia
“Peaches En Regalia” was used as the theme tune to an early 70’s BBC TV show “One Man’s Week” and is from his album “Hot Rats.” Great cover! Interesting to note too that Shuggie Otis plays bass on this. “Hot Rats” is a great intro to Zappa at his more accessible and along with “Birdland” by Weather Report was one of those first fusion tracks to get me interested in the genre. At college I had a mate who was into Trad. Jazz…but not so much that he didn’t access Weather Report too. He played me Jellyroll Morton and even Elkie Brooks…it’s so good to meet people who want to share their music with you.
Pat Metheny - Sueno Con Mexico
Anyone who also follows my Musicto Blow Smoke Rings Across the Floor will already know how big a fan I am of Pat Metheny. The 80’s onwards for me will always mean the Pat Metheny Group and particularly after I borrowed a copy of “Travels” - the double album - purely because the cover arrested my attention! But in the late 70’s he was already attracting attention with his versatile and melodic guitar playing – very much in the jazz camp then, before his move towards fusion. This track witnesses the first move towards that accessible and beautiful style. Love it.
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!