Drama at St Nicholas
with Peter Clarke

🎭Drama at St Nicholas Grammar School with Peter Clarke

By Brian Tilbrook (Art Master 1956 - 62 and 1964 – 65)

Peter Clarke was an excellent producer for a designer to work with.  He knew what was essential and made it abundantly clear and then, happily, left one to get on with it including any special touches or ideas of one's own.

I have since done a huge amount of stage design work from late night revue to opera but I rate St Nicholas's production of ‘ Journey's End' as one of the most complete and satisfying that I was lucky enough to be involved in.  It did however have its funny side!   George Easom was in charge of the whining shell effect which brought the play and the set to a catastrophic end.  The cramped appearance of the dugout was created by a sloping roof on which was piled each night three large bags of peat.  The whole roof depended for its stage life on being held by a strong rope.  As George set the whine of the shell in motion he brought a sharp axe down on the retaining rope and the whole roof collapsed.

The first night I had miscalculated on the amount of peat and as I left the ‘stage door' I met up with Robert Watson and his VIP guests leaving - or rather shaking themselves down.  The peat dust had rolled out from the stage and physically involved the first three rows of the audience - that's theatre!

Two other things I vividly remember.  I started and finished the show with a bleak picture of dead trees and the inhuman battlefront.  It was a gauze so George Easom could fade it away and fade it back in by simply lighting at the front or back.  As it faded in and the wreck of the trench disappeared from view a choir of staff members had recorded a sad World War 1 song which, too, eventually faded away.  From the comments afterwards many people had witnessed a school production capable of deeply moving them.

I can also remember Donald Plenderleith, St Nicholas's excellent Head of Art, known as 'Bomber' to both staff and boys for helping to lead the bombing raids on Germany as a young pilot, designing for ‘The Government Inspector'.  He needed to create a poor interior with a peasant-based appearance.  I came upon him by accident working on the stage and having huge fun.  With paint pots, large brushes and rags he became a fiendish modern artist, literally throwing or spattering the paint all over the set.  It was most effective and Donald looked pretty interesting too.

I obtained my post as the assistant art teacher simply because Donald Plenderleith was so good.  It was he who designed the logos and uniform at the school's beginning.  Robert Watson wanted someone with the same background so he rang up Hornsey College of Art and asked them to select whoever most resembled Donald in college, training and outlook and I was the lucky one.  I simply went over to St Nicholas with my folder and a letter of recommendation.  We chatted about my army experience as a National Serviceman in Japan and my outlook on school art - I wanted it everywhere!  And then he said, ‘Very good.  See you in September'.  How fortunate can one get?

The Art Department

St Nicholas was my first school fresh out of training to be a teacher and early on the Headmaster indicated the need for two large paintings either side of the stage.  Donald would paint one St Nicholas parable and I another.  I chose the miracle of the two slaughtered horses and how in the dead of night St Nicholas took the heads and miraculously rejoined them to two resurrected animals, unfortunately putting the white head on the black horse and the black head on the white horse.  At the first available morning assembly after their hanging the pictures needed some explanation.  I think it was the first time I made an assembly of youngsters laugh when I tried to explain that I had not been drunk while painting the picture.  When St Nicholas sadly became a comprehensive both pictures mysteriously disappeared.  I would be very interested if anyone knows about their final fate?

The Art Department kept me extremely busy and while Donald Plenderleith offered top class art instruction along with his great enthusiasm for pottery I tended to leap all over the school as a somewhat demented graffitist.  It was particularly relevant to the dining area that I completed a mural across the middle of the hall entitled ‘Feast and Famine'.  In my first year at St Nicholas I shared with Pip Appleby the responsibility for controlling the two lunch hour sessions and as I gazed down at a long room supposedly full of ravenous schoolboys and a sprinkling of duty-bound staff I would look at the mural as I intoned, without very much conviction, 'For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful'.

Another aspect of my happy years at St Nicholas was my initially accidental involvement with the School Fair and one which was to become all-consuming.  I had watched the Fair in 1957 and helped out a little but made the tactical mistake of saying that it could be much more lively and varied and that it lacked ideas and themes.  Thus began an association with parents which provided both wonderful friendships which have lasted to this day and also the opportunity to stage or encourage all sorts of variations on a fund-raising theme.  One of the more joyful moments involved a large papier-mache horse.  On Saturday mornings I taught at Ealing College of Art.  I can remember the anticipation of the first four outstanding artists at St Nicholas whom I signed up for Saturday morning Life Classes.  Oh the disappointment when instead of a blond bombshell they found themselves immortalizing a rather large and tired-looking woman, somewhat obese in proportion and inclined to lose her pose through lack of concentration.  But I digress - the Ealing art students had created a huge horse, complete with a knight holding a long lance, to be used for their own Fair.  I promptly bagged it for St Nicholas with the considerable help of a lorry-owning parent, a very helpful Mr Mantel.

Bedecked with adverts for the Fair and accompanied by three or four boys we drove it around the local district prior to the big event, but I had reckoned without the railway bridge near Pinner.  If only we had had the Press with us as the knight charged the bridge and lost his head and half a jousting stick!

Each Fair involved me in not only planning the different displays and events but personally printing, with a duplicator and considerable typing help from the Headmaster's secretary, incidentally the only female in the entire school apart from the kitchen staff, several thousand programmes, a crucial part of the fund-raising.  Prizes were offered for the boys selling the most programmes and some of the totals were quite staggering and hinted at a remarkable degree of future entrepreneurship.  I had so many funny experiences with the Fair, but rather than confront you with so many I will focus on just one.  Morton Demmery, the Head of Music, ‘Ding Dong' as the boys, affectionately I hope, called him was throwing out the school's first grand piano.  I was planning a huge Fair banner to hang the height of the school building at the roadside end near the bike sheds.  With the help of several involuntary volunteers from the 6th Form we staggered up the stairs to the roof with strict instructions to keep away from the edge and then used the huge metal innards to weight down the banner.  I go hot and cold at the then disregard for safety in this venture.  But after the Fair was successfully over I wasn't going to involve the 6th Form boys again.  I waited until the school was totally deserted and in the gathering gloom and with an enormous heave I sent the entire innards of the grand piano hurtling to the earth.  It came to rest without a twitch and was later easily carried away by the local dustman.

I have worked as a teacher and designer in some marvelous places and Hong Kong, in particular, has been exciting and wonderfully varied.  But to this day I look back to the years at St Nicholas as very special and count myself hugely privileged.



The Future of the School
(1956 Summer Magazine)

The Old Boys' Association
(1961-62 Magazine)

The Headmaster
(1956 Summer Magazine)