In The End
‘So. Inspection.’ The Big Cheese’s addressing the staff at the beginning of my fifth new academic year. In full swing.
My own relationship with him has gradually morphed from outright fear to grudging respect. In turn, he even occasionally tries to share a joke with me nowadays as if somehow, I too have morphed from dangerous deranged specimen teaching an irrelevant subject to a young radical bringing in valuable and valued new pupils.
‘The Inspectors will be coming for five days,’ continues the Big Cheese. ‘I expect things are in process and that we do all we can to give Fitzrovia a clean bill of health. More than that. Show them what progress we’ve made. After all, numbers are better. Results improving.’ He hesitates. ‘I’ve asked them to be brutally honest.’ And there’s that opaque glint in his eye as he looks round.
It’s on everyone’s lips. The Deputy Head, Mister Undercarpet’s in charge of all the minor admin. ‘Everything else must be run by me,’ says The Big Cheese.
My philosophy for inspection week’s simple. Do the same as normal. It’s obvious they’ll ask the kids anyway. ‘Was that a normal lesson for you? Does Mister Hopebourne normally bring in a full orchestra, lighting rig and professional choreographer for lessons?’
I’ve heard other departments gearing up for the Big Week. ‘Make it special.’ There’s a plethora of kids’ work up just about everywhere. The Art department will have been on parade for many a long night. Taff’s been made Head of Department by The Big Cheese. ‘I think he’s trying, boyo. Just wish he’d be more human.’
Others will demonstrate they’re up to date with lots of visual aids and tech. ‘I’ll be scanning this document live in the lesson. Should impress them. If it works.’
There’ll be some explosive chemistry lessons and pupils on the field measuring whatever they measure in Physics. Particles? Leverage? A rocket shooting up into the sky. Making somebody’s theory interesting.
My mission statement is succinct. I’ve spent hours trying to formulate it, sat at my desk, pen twiddling, listening on the cassette to whatever I hope might bring inspiration.
Eventually I put the pen down. “Our aim is to bring thought provoking drama and rehearsal techniques, into a creative atmosphere. To foster working together with a common aim and purpose. Encourage communication.”
Is that what I do?
On the Sunday evening before Inspection week, late November, cold and dark, over supper, we’re invited to meet the Big Wigs who are coming to make The Big Judgment.
Gentle Giant introduces the Big Wig who’s got responsibility for English and Drama. He’s got a double-barreled name, is quite short, wears horn-rimmed specs and comes from some school in Surrey.
‘Perhaps you’ve heard of it?’ says Gentle Giant to me. ‘It’s an Arts Academy really isn’t it?’ He turns back to Big Wig who smiles.
‘We like to think of ourselves as being in the vanguard of progressive Arts.’ Big Wig takes a sip from his glass before piercing me. ‘I see you’ve done “The Mikado”?’
Is he taking the piss?
‘And “Bouncers”,’ I say. Don’t piss me off, mate.
‘Yes. What did your Head think of that?’
The Big Cheese attended every night of performance. His eyes darted round trying to judge the reaction of the growing audiences.
‘It’s not really his sort of drama, but he lets me get on with things. Trusts me. As long as its quality, even if the content gives him qualms.’
‘Did he receive any complaints from parents or staff?’
‘Yes. He sent them both to me.’
Big Wig tells me he’s ‘looking forward to seeing something special.’ Oh. Is he? ‘And what are you putting on at the moment?’
‘A revue. Called “Kaleidoscope.” Cast of thousands.’
‘Couple of weeks time.’
The first lesson he comes to Inspect is with my Upper Sixth. The four guinea pigs. We’ve been devising a practical piece.
Big Wig’s there before the lesson starts. I hand him a short lesson plan. ‘Thank you. Should be interesting.’ He takes a seat as my class wanders in. They’re all on time; gather round chatting as “Third World Man” plays quietly over the auditorium speakers.
‘Are we being inspected, Mister H?’ asks Balls, nodding towards Big Wig.
‘Yes. For fleas and lice.’
‘What’s this playing?’ quizzes Fizz.
‘Um, Steely Dan. I’ll turn it off so we can get started.’
I run up to the sound system and back. ‘Let’s get going then. Remind me of where we finished last time?’
As usual, we sit on the floor in a circle.
‘We were talking about the children’s scene,’ says Fizz.
‘Ah yes. And what did we decide the purpose of the scene was to be?’
‘Contrast their stupid innocence with the world as a grown up,’ answers Balls.
‘Girls talking about boys,’ says Rubber Man. ‘And boys about girls.’
‘To make people laugh,’ declares Twinkletoes. She questions me. ‘What did you say it was called? Like, something about babies?’
‘Out of the mouths of babes. Yes. What does it mean?’
‘That children can speak the truth without knowing it,’ says Balls. He’s doodling and I briefly wonder whether I should stop him, though that wouldn’t be normal. Has the Big Wig noticed? He’s writing in his book.
‘Maybe we could bring some music into this bit. Sing some children’s rhymes.’ Rubber Man’s looking round at them all. ‘About boys and girls.’
‘Jack and Jill went up the hill…’ Fizz has started to sing. The others join in. ‘to fetch a pail of water, Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.’ They laugh and chat. Big Wig’s pen’s busy.
‘What about Georgy Peorgy pudding and pie?’ asks Rubber Man. He begins and they chant it through together, laughing.
Should I stop them now?
‘Wait!’ It’s Twinkletoes. ‘What about ring o ring o roses? Here! Come on, sir. You too.’ And she’s standing up, beckoning us all to hold hands and form a circle. I feel my hand grabbed by Fizz. ‘Ready?’ says Twinkletoes, and off we go. ‘“Ring o ring o roses.”’ I glance again towards Big Wig as we career round. He’s writing furiously.
‘All fall down!’ At the end we’re all breathless and laughing.
‘OK. Let’s think,’ I manage. ‘Back in our circle.’
When we’ve settled Fizz speaks. ‘I agree the action’s good, but the words aren’t really about boys. What about if we changed them?’
Everyone assimilates this. ‘So the audience recognises the tune and actions as childish but find the words and ideas are adult?’ I ask. I’m not going to look at Big Wig anymore. This is the way my lessons evolve. “Organic” as some Blue Sky tosser might say.
‘Yes,’ says Fizz.
‘Good idea,’ agrees Rubber Man.
‘And what effect do you want this to have on your audience?’ I raise eyebrows.
‘Shock. Surprise. Alienation.’ Rubber Man’s into it.
‘Good. Yes. I really like the ideas.’
Later, the bell goes. ‘Is that the end of the lesson already?’ asks Balls holding up a piece of paper. Rough sketches. ‘I’ve been thinking what we should wear. What do you think?’ Big Wig’s over his notebook again.
‘Take them with you,’ I say. ‘Mustn’t be late for your next lesson. Good stuff. Costumes’ll be really important to the look and feel of the piece. Bring them next time will you so I can have a look? Well done everyone. Progress.’
That night two Big Wigs, including The Chief Justice, come to one of my rehearsals for “Kaleidoscope”. Twinkletoes is in the annexe rehearsing a dance with a dozen others to “East St Louis Toodle Oo.” More Steely Dan. ‘Step kick!’
Gandalf and The Commander are busy. ‘I’ll put some lights up,’ growls Gandalf. Lending moral support. He’s in those shorts again even though it’s minus eighty outside. I’ve already seen the Chief Justice in a protracted conversation with him; a brief one with the Commander.
I’m running through a sketch. “The Backward Western.” Actors wait patiently, or go through moves and lines quietly in the aisles. In the middle of a complex scene I catch Big Wig engage Twinkletoes in conversation when she comes in red faced, bright from her rehearsal.
‘Howdy, I’m a stranger in town,’ says The Hero in my sketch, and raises his hand slowly. There’s laughter from some of the waiting actors.
I clap and laugh. ‘Yes! It’s backwards, get it?’
At the end of the rehearsal, both Big Wigs come over. ‘Thank you. Very instructive,’ says the Chief Justice.
‘What the fuck happens now?’ BJ and I are in my study. ‘Does the Head call us in and tell us, like, Bingo or something?’
‘We’re called in for a meeting with him and your Inspector.’
‘Och, well. Who gives a fuck anyway? I’ll be all right. Economics and Business are the most popular A levels here. Gets all the no hopers. Brings ‘em in. Bums on seats.’
‘And your lessons went well? What was your Inspector like?’
‘Och, he was all right. I used the overhead projector for one lesson which didnae work properly, but, fuck, I covered it well. And he’d no clue really. Teaches History or something. Och, I could have talked out my arse and he’d have no idea.’
My meeting for the Final Judgment is set for four o’ clock on the Friday afternoon. Talk about the graveyard slot. The Big Wigs’ll be twitchy about journeys home along strange motorways. Missing trains. The Big Cheese’ll be on information overload. Will he give anything away about how it’s all gone?
‘You can come in now, Robert,’ says The Big Cheese. Nothing. No clue. I’m ushered to a soft chair. In other seats are Big Wig and the Chief Justice. The Supreme Court. Mister Undercarpet’s there as Clerk to take notes. All ears.
Oh well. I haven’t done anything different all week. What you see is what you get.
‘As you know,’ pronounces The Chief Justice, ‘your department is given a rating based on a national scale.’
The Big Cheese’s been banging on about it at Staff Meetings. ‘If the school can improve, from “Good”, to “Very Good”, that will be a start.’ It’s like stars from Primary School. Gold star’s “Outstanding.”
The Chief Justice hands over to Big Wig to read his report. How many children’s rhymes did he hear? And what about me doing ring o ring o roses? What was I thinking? ‘The Drama and Theatre Studies department is manned by a single person…’
At the end, he lowers it and asks. ‘Are you happy that this is a factually accurate appraisal of what we have seen during our time here? Do you have any questions for us?’
‘No. I don’t think so. You’ve obviously been very thorough.’
‘We make a point of interviewing the pupils. They, after all, are the reason we are all here.’ It’s The Chief Justice speaking. ‘And I had an extensive conversation with your Technical Director. He’s been in the game for a very long time. Doesn’t appear to suffer fools gladly.’ What did Gandalf say?
Big Wig continues. ‘I spoke to your choreographer. She feels valued in the community here as a result of drama.’ He peers over his specs at me. ‘Then there was you and your exam group singing nursery rhymes.’ I catch The Big Cheese rolling his eyes. Sighing? Here we go.
‘I was wondering whether they might consider “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” as a suitable song for that scene.’ Big Wig pauses. ‘Just a suggestion.’
The Big Cheese has the final say. He’s reading the final finding of the Final Judgment. ‘… that Drama at Fitzrovia, is a jewel in the crown. Outstanding.’
Fuck me. A gold star.
The Big Cheese glances at his watch. ‘I’ll catch up soon, Robert, and we’ll meet with the Director of Studies to talk about where we go from here, but I’m aware our guests have journeys to start.’
He holds out his hand. ‘Thank you. Well done. Enjoy your Christmas.’
Third World Man - Steely Dan
From “Gaucho” their 1980 seventh and final studio album for the following twenty years (!) “Third World Man” sits well in their pantheon of great songs…and the album buzzes with fab stuff – “Babylon Sisters” is immense! This particular track reminds me of a period of my life when music was practically the only escape from the seven day slog of work…though actually I bought it in the lead-up to Christmas so it resonates with putting on a show at school and the adrenaline build-up that accompanies any performance.
East St Louis Toodleoo - Steely Dan
I used this piece of music during a drama summer school back in the mid 80’s which led to a performance in revue style. I had quite a few girls who were keen on dance, so this was the piece we decided to use! Well, when I say “we”…what I mean is …ME! Love the New Orleans feel to it and of course it just underlines how seriously varied Steely’s repertoire was.
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!