Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

Ian McShane, Angela Carr and Lizzie Lewendon in the Astronauts sketch, circa 1995

Ian McShane, Angela Carr and Lizzie Lewendon in the Astronauts sketch, circa 1995

5th May 1973. It’s half past two in the afternoon. I’m standing outside the Almost Free Theatre in Rupert Street, Soho, suitcase and guitar in hand. Oh, sorry, that’s a line from a Simon and Garfunkel song. Suitcase and guitar on the pavement in front of me.

Also on the pavement are several other containers, including a round red box full of hats and something that looks like an artist’s portfolio, which is actually full of big yellow cards with song words on them. And there’s also the luggage of the two people who are with me.

The two people are International House teachers Doug Case and Annie Kimber. But three other people are missing. We are supposed to be leaving on the first-ever English Teaching Theatre tour and it’s all going wrong before we even start.

Things are about to get worse before they get better.  A vehicle back-fires somewhere to our right. We look down the street towards Coventry Street. An old, no … an ANCIENT minibus comes wheezing towards us. Please God, don’t let this be the van that has been hired to take us to Germany.

The van creaks to a halt, and the brakes make a deafening screeching sound. The driver, a small, wiry, crumpled man with a cigarette in his hand gets out and walks round towards us.

“Are you the English Teaching whotsit?”

We nod.

“I’m Harry the driver from Superior Vans and Minibuses of Dagenham.”

“How do you do?” I reply. If this is a Superior minibus, I’m thinking, thank goodness they didn’t send an Inferior one.

“Is the van all right?” I ask, looking at the peeling cream and brown paintwork on the side.

“Dunno,” says Harry, cheerfully. “First time I’ve driven it.”


“Are we ready to go?” asks Harry, coughing heartily as he lights another cigarette with the stub of his previous one.

We are SO not ready to go anywhere…

At this point, a bit of backstory may come in handy.

This was the start of the first-ever tour by The English Teaching Theatre. The ETT was another of International House founder John Haycraft’s initiatives. Like most of his initiatives, John had the idea and left it to other people to colour in the details. Someone once said that people like John hang their clothes on the floor.

The person who picked up the clothes this time was an IH teacher called Jeremy Harrison.

Three years earlier in 1970, with some help from BBC English by Radio, Jeremy had managed to write and direct a show for English learners at the Magic Circle Theatre near Euston Station in London.  There was a cast of four actors and a piano-player. The actors did a great job with the sketches and songs, but were uncomfortable with the bits in between, which involved trying to drum up some audience participation.

The following summer, they tried something different. Four actors and a piano-player, as before, but this time Jeremy himself raced onto the stage between sketches and drilled the audience, using some noisy and behaviourist sentence patterns loosely based on the preceding sketch.

This was the first time I saw the show, and I found the drilling a bit annoying. But the audience, composed mainly of English learners on summer courses in London, seemed to love it.

In 1972, Jeremy asked three International House teachers, including Doug Case, to work with him on the summer show. Their teaching background meant that the balance of the show improved rapidly. But they all thought the songs would work better if they were played on guitars, not a piano. So in January 1973, Doug asked me if I would like to work with the ETT.

“It’s just for six months,” he explained. “John has agreed to pay us to teach in the morning and rehearse in the afternoons, and then we have a tour to Germany in May.”

This sounded perfect! I had of course been asked to join because of my alleged prowess as a musician, but I was willing to try to learn the acting bit if it meant a leisurely four months of afternoon rehearsals.

Of course there was a catch. We actually had to put on a half-hour show every Friday lunchtime. And this is what we did.

The show was directed first by Piers Plowright, who later became Head of Drama at the BBC and then by Peter Menzies, taking time off from his job as programme organiser at BBC English by Radio. The other two performers were an Australian musician called Magee and a teacher called Gillie Simpson, who was Peter’s girlfriend. These were the three people who were missing when the Superior Minibus croaked its way up Rupert Street on 5th May. Magee actually arrived shortly after the minibus. But where were Peter and Gillie?

1973 was, if younger readers can suspend their disbelief for a moment, a time before the invention of mobile phones. I decided to call Peter and Gillie from my friend Alan Wakeman’s flat in nearby Denman Street. Very ancient ELT people may remember Alan as the author of English Fast. He still lives in Denman Street.

The phone rang and Gillie picked it up. She was insistent that the meeting time had been SIX o’clock, not two o’clock.

“But we’re never going to catch a ferry to Belgium if we leave at six!” I protested.

“We’re catching a ferry at midnight, apparently,” she said. “Anyway, we aren’t ready. We’ll meet you in Dover.” And she put the phone down.

So that was what we did. Doug, Annie, Magee, Harry the driver and me packed the stuff into the minibus, then clambered in ourselves. The infernal machine had side-facing seats in the back, so we spent the entire trip down to Dover staring at each other.  We had tried to leave enough space for Peter and Gillie and a little more luggage.

In Dover, we sat in the van on the approach to the ferry. A  taxi pulled up alongside us. Peter and Gillie got out and unloaded their luggage, which included …. a collapsible bed.

“Is that a bed?” I asked (yes, you CAN state the bleedin’ obvious sometimes, grammarians please note).

“Yes,” said Gillie, in that matter-of-fact tone of voice which distinguishes life’s great organisers.

“Are you planning to take it to Germany?”

“Yes. They may not know we’re bringing a driver,” was Gillie’s explanation. “They may not realise there are going to be seven of us, not six. He (pointing at Harry, who was having another surreptitious cigarette a few feet away) can if necessary sleep on this in the minibus.”

At this point, I didn’t think we were even going to make it to Germany, let alone do a two-week tour with shows in 10 cities.  Somehow we managed it. In fact, the German tour turned out to be the first of more than 250, taking the company to 55 different countries.

But how did we do on that first tour?

Tell you next time!


Comments on: "The English Teaching Theatre – how it nearly never started…" (17)

  1. Dear Ken,

    I’m so happy that ETT didn’t end there. I myself have a story to share, but instead I’ll just thank you. I attended your workshop at a national Braz-TESOL conference, in São Paulo in 2000. It was a workshop held at lunch time and which lasted for 2 or 3 days. In the occasion, you talked about drama and its positive effects in ELT.
    I came back to Brasília ready to start our own Drama Club where I worked. This had to be put off until 2003, when I started working at a place where I got clearance to finally run the project (I’d still have to do it on my own if I really wanted it to happen). Anyway, I could talk three fellow teachers into helping me out and it was a success. Needless to say, I fell in love with the experience and remained the director of the group until I left that school to start my own.
    I was fortunate enough as to have enough students interested in taking part in the theatre group in this school as well, and the show has been going on non-stop until today. Actually, this is the first semester I’ll step down and be able to let other teachers who also took an interest in that take over – time to play Haycraft a bit, huh?!
    Anyway, I’ve met you in Brazil on different occasions but never had a chance to tell you this (NESTs are always surrounded by non-NESTs, to draw from your previous post) and thank you for your workshop back in 2000. So, here I am now: Thank you!

    Best regards,

    Henrick Oprea

  2. Ken Wilson said:

    That’s a great story, Henrick! Nice to think of all the good things that came out of one lunchtime workshop!

  3. Martin Eayrs said:

    Hi, Ken – I’m enjoying this blog. I last saw the ETT in Ely in the summer of 1975 – a very hot summer as I remember – a couple of weeks before I left the UK for South America. I never thought then that it would be twenty-four years till I returned. And yes, both Mr Monday and Goodbye Rainbow graced my classrooms for many years. I particularly remember a bluesy number – was it ‘”I’m sitting all alone in my girlfriend’s home”? Enniways, keep up the blog and I’ll bookmark you. See ya around somewhere, sometime [Martin]

  4. Hi Ken – thanks a lot for going to the trouble of putting such a good EFL blog together. The last we need is another dull-as-ditchwater ‘How to TEFL’ blog!

    I’m a bit of a follower of yours, being a keen amateur thesp myself, and loved those 70s (?) books you put out. So, I’d like to interview you on my blog. It’ll be nowt painless – I’ll just e-mail you a handful of questions, and you can deal with them as you wish; even change them to what suits you best.

    Anyway, take a look at my current day’s blog posting for an idea of the type I’m going on about, and get a general feel for the site and its approach. I’m sure you’ll be positive about it (more or less!).



  5. Ken it is such a pleasure to see you in the blogoshpere and – as with your 140 character tweets – you have inspired. Your words provoke one into action – Thank you
    Shonah 🙂

  6. … by chance I googled ETT, we remember with great enthusiasm your visits in Göttingen (and your Göttingen song, “.. you may not be a woman but I love you just the same,…”), which you organized with the british council, …and some our visits in London, when Jutta stayed at Guillian homes and send some reguarily coming guests, ringing at the door, away, because she said: here is no miss imbert living, here are living menzies…
    best wishes Bastian (you will not remember me, but possibly Jutta)

  7. Oh I mixed the last names simpson menzies and imbert, …but Jutta did know only peters last name not gillies and she thought peter and gilli were married, when she sent the scholar away who came for a private lessons with gilli.

  8. This is Jutta writing another detail about my visit to Peter and Gillie: I wanted to be helpful and tidied a little bit around the flat. So I threw away dry leaves that were lying on a plate in the rather dark hall. What I hadn’t known was that Gillie had been writing a book about natural dyeing and had gathered these dry leaves for years!! I was inconsolable , she was merciful.

    • Ken Wilson said:


      of course i remember you guys!

      email me – kenwrite@btinternet.com

      Talk soon!

    • Ken Wilson said:


      it would be so great to see you people some time. Are you ever in London?

      Send me an email with your address & phone details – kenwrite@btinternet.com

      • Ken, that’s a great idea to come to London to see you. We’ve been in contact with John Colclough through alll those years. The day before autumn holidays I did “The rose is red” with my 5th year students and had them draw pictures to it. These Shakira fans sang along with you! And you should see the pictures: they drew funny monsters with huge white teeth frightening the frog and the snail! They loved it.
        Our tel. -49-551 22873 Hope to hear about present projects
        Love Jutta

  9. Dear Ken!
    Thank you so much for the ETT sketches – I’ve been using them for years here in Moscow with inevitable 🙂 success.
    Could I ask for a favour? I’m about to start a separate ETT class (an hour and a half once a week) and have to shape the course so it can include both set texts (mostly ETT sketches) and oral speech practice. I’d appreciate your advice on the site(s) offering ideas with using drama in ELT.
    Thanks in advance.
    Your devoted fan,

  10. Hi Ken I’ve just blogged about the first 10 IATEFL conferences (English Teaching Theatre make an appearance – as does a photo of a younger you – I hope you don’t mind me using it): https://richardsmithelt.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/the-1968-to-1975-iatefl-conferences-how-things-have-moved-on/

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