The Beginnings (by Peter Clarke)
Drama at St Nicholas Grammar School with Peter Clarke (by Brian Tilbrook)
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
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 grand parents 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.
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.
Dr PLP (Peter) Clarke (Head of
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Drama at St Nicholas Grammar School with Peter Clarke
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brian Tilbrook (Art Master 1956 - 62 and 1964 – 65) Return to top of page
The various plays
Documents and photos from the following plays are shown below
Man for all Seasons
Jonah and the Whale
The Lady's Not For Burning
The Government Inspector
I believe the actors in the photo above are, L to R: Chuck Goodwin, Clive Saunders, but I cannot name the others (sorry
Who are the actors in the above photo?
A Man for all Seasons
Shown below is the programme, a press report and a photo showing Andrew
Clarke as William Roper, Victor Bryant as The Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Bacon as Sir Thomas More.
Courtesy of Steve Bacon.