A prime minister called Margaret Thatcher had a double impact on my life which she was unaware of. I was brought up in Barnet, north London next to her constituency of Finchley.
I met her once when I was in a play about the suffragettes, and she came backstage with some real suffragettes.
Years later she decided to close down the Inner London Education Authority and give education out to the 32 London Boroughs to deal with.
I was called in to what is now Sea Life by the London Eye and told it had been decided I would create a show in 6 months about 100 years of London education and there had to be 100 people in it. “Oh,” they said , “and you’ll have a budget of £32,000.” Unheard of.
So I set about looking for a writer (I spoke to Carryl Churchill, but she didn’t think it was for her) and a composer and then the cast which ranged from schoolchildren to elderly men and women who remembered their own school days, school inspectors and even representatives of the education authority. It was called The Best Years and the amount of effort required nearly killed me! The subject matter may sound a bit dry but it’s a fascinating story about how education came to be organised and what happened before. We had Nitty Nora the nit nurse, the mudlarks (kids who played by the Thames) and all sorts of shenanigans and lots of hilarity – some of it unexpected.
The show was a great success and I remember one of the inspectors came up to me at the end and said, “You did a great job – well done.” Being of a modest nature I said, “Oh no it was nothing. I was just part of the chain.”
“I’m paying you a compliment,” she said, ”don’t make me think I shouldn’t have said it.” It was a valuable lesson. I wasn’t required to be modest, it was about me paying her respect by thanking her for what she said – I’ve always tried to remember that.
Sometimes people ask me how I started out making BIG shows – well this was the first. I learnt lots of valuable lessons – like people said to me, “It’s too many people, it’ll be chaos. How will you control it?” It wasn’t and when lots of people go quiet in order to listen it creates a special atmosphere that no one wants to break. Another thing I realised was that there’s a special excitement that comes when many people do something together. It genuinely becomes something special. And we performed it at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London which strangely enough a few years later was where we performed the first Theatretrain BIG show.
For me the best years are now because when Mrs Thatcher closed the education authority she also closed my job as she closed the theatre that I worked at. I would have worked in that dream job forever.
But I had the last laugh because, as I was paid as a lecturer, they had to give me a year’s salary and with that redundancy money I made Theatretrain.
So you could say that without Margaret Thatcher there would be no Theatretrain. That thought does make me smile!