The Beginnings
by Dr. Peter Clarke

🎭The Beginnings

By Dr. P.L.P. "Peter" Clarke (Head of English 1955-1965)

Dr. Watson was anxious to see some development in ‘school drama' which could be put before parents and of course encourage an interest in drama throughout the school. As was common, the English Department was asked to oversee this.

However there were difficulties. To begin with there was no tradition of drama in a new school to fall back on. We had to start from scratch and we had no senior students to bring in. But we did have some interested and capable colleagues to help with scenery, costume, lighting and so on. A junior drama competition for a school audience only laid the groundwork. From there we progressed to one-act plays like ‘The Crimson Coconut', which gave us an idea of the interest and talent for acting in the school.

In 1957 we risked an evening's programme for parents and pupils. This took the form of excerpts from Moliere's ‘Bourgeois Gentilhomme' (translated for us by John Richardson - Head of French) and some scenes from a ‘Midsummer Night's Dream', including the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe' play. Peter Buck and Charles Goodwin came forth as particularly promising actors in those plays but all the casts did well.

The First Full-length Production

Encouraged by this effort we undertook a full-length Shakespeare play in 1958 - ‘Henry IV Part 1'. Particularly memorable was the sword fight between Hotspur (Michael Johnston) and Bolingbroke (Charles Goodwin). Ron Komatsu (Head of Chemistry) had been a fencing blue at his university and he carefully and strenuously  rehearsed the actors. The result was rather frightening and today Health & Safety might have intervened! But the audiences loved it.

In 1959 we presented one of the best productions of my time in the form of ‘Journey's End'. It was not that long after the war. So a number of parents had been involved and some grandparents in the first world war. The cast entered fully into the spirit of the play and the performances of Charles Goodwin (as Osborne) and Clive Saunders (as Stanhope) were outstanding; but the whole was excellent. After the first performance word got out and we had to add an extra evening to the three planned to meet the demand. Brian Tilbrook had designed the very effective set. The end of the play has Stanhope leaving the trench to the rattle of guns and shells outside. Brian then arranged a mighty explosion, the wreckage of the set and then absolute silence. It was very effective. I now know that Brian and his pupil assistants had used thunder flashes and sacks of peat to produce the effect.

We continued with our aims to produce a full-length play every year. Our next effort was ‘The Government Inspector' by Gogol. The play is a satirical comedy and demands quite sophisticated acting from the cast. The success achieved was in part due to the comic skills of Russell Allen. One of his scenes (in which he wandered from the script) with Vic Bryant had a school play audience shaking with laughter- a rare feature in school drama.

Drama was now sufficiently well established for us to tackle quite challenging plays. ‘Julius Caesar' is perhaps the most suitable of Shakespeare's tragedies for a school. It is easily understood, the students can appreciate the political issues that lead to the conclusion and there are some powerful scenes to create interest. Antony's speech to the crowd (‘friends, Romans and countrymen') has to be delivered with confidence and command of the audience. Malcolm Wilson gave a memorable performance: he had examined Marlon Brando's portrayal of Antony in the recent film to good effect.

After ‘Julius Caesar' we felt able to tackle rather more esoteric plays, for example Bridie's ‘Jonah and the Whale' which not many schools choose because it is rather unusual in its theme. Much of the success of our productions resulted from, again, Brian Tilbrook's extraordinary sets, including a tree which evoked much interest. Critics describe the play as a ‘modern dark comedy' and ‘a biblical problem play'. In other words, the cast could not react to the play as if it were simply ‘funny'. One particularly remembers Duncan Rooke's portrayal of Jonah caught up in the events of the plot.

‘Few will dispute that the performances of Robert Bolt's ‘A Man for All Seasons' were the most distinguished and exciting of all the Drama Society's productions so far.' So wrote the reviewer of this production in 1963.

The school had applied for permission to put on the play before it was released, so to speak, from the professional theatre and we were therefore one of the first schools to attempt it.

The cast was headed by Stephen Bacon who played Sir Thomas More; it was a remarkable portrayal by an eighteen year old which those who saw it and, one suspects, Stephen himself, will not easily forget. However, the whole cast entered fully into the spirit of the play which made a considerable impact on all who saw it.

Probably the most demanding of the plays I was concerned with was Brecht's ‘The Life of Galileo'. With hindsight one can question whether even talented young actors can manage to come to terms with a play that stretches the best in the professional theatre.

Brian Ludlow, who bore the burden of the acting, did remarkably well with a performance that reflected the tremendous amount of work and the insight he had given to his performance. It earned for him the Parent's Drama Prize for the year.

So ended a decade of plays at St Nicholas Grammar School. A school play involves scores of pupils apart from the cast and much work in Art and Craft rooms. It also needs the active help of a number of staff as well as the producers and in that connection I should like to mention co-producers Pip Appleby and, later Alan Tisdall.


The Future of the School
(1956 Summer Magazine)

PA Drams Double Bill (1964)

The Old Boys' Association
(1961-62 Magazine)

The Headmaster
(1956 Summer Magazine)