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

Part 1

Yet again, a chance conversation prompts a Memory Lane blogpost.

Last week, I spent an enjoyable evening in a pub with an old International House colleague, someone I’ve known since the early 70s. He rings me up out of the blue every six months or so, we meet at a pub called The Dove in Hammersmith and basically pick up the conversation where we left it six months previously.

The Dove in Hammersmith - 'Rule Britannia' was written there

Inevitably, we tend to talk about the old days and this time we were reminiscing about my work with the English Teaching Theatre.

I was part of the ETT for more than 25 years, as teacher-actor-guitar player, script and songwriter and eventually artistic director. I had no experience of acting before I joined, professional or amateur, and was/am a hopeless actor. I was happy to talk to the audience between the sketches or just be me with a hat on during them. Like this …

My only role-model when it came to acting was comedian Eric Morecambe, who appeared in countless TV sketches with his working partner Ernie Wise. Whatever costume he was required to wear, Morecambe always put in the same note-perfect performance, playing himself.

Eric Morecambe, also wearing hat

Meanwhile, back at the Dove, my friend asked me about my acting ‘life’ before the ETT. I said I hadn’t had one.

“Come on,” he said, “you must have done some acting at university.”

“Not really. I was in a sketch in a revue. That was about it.”

“Well, you must have been in plays at school.”

Ah yes, school plays. As he said it, my first appearance in a school play flashed before my eyes in shocking detail. A memory that I had done everything in my power to suppress in the intervening years.

I come from a city near Manchester called Salford and I went to Salford Grammar School. The headmaster, the wonderful EG (Eggy) Simm, had a special interest in public speaking and drama and the school had a deserved reputation both for its plays and its successes in Public Speaking and Debating competitions.

It was Eggy who, several years before my arrival, had persuaded a cocky young pupil at the school that his future lay in acting. The pupil in question had been puzzled by this idea, because, although he enjoyed acting and was good at it, all he really wanted to do was play rugby. He even had dreams of becoming a professional rugby league player.

Despite the boy’s reluctance, Eggy persuaded him to apply to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which was at the time Britain’s most prestigious drama school. He was accepted, and Albert Finney was propelled into the world of cinema and theatre, rather than the frankly more dangerous world of professional rugby league.

Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton in 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'

Eggy approached me a few days after I arrived at SGS.

“I’ve heard great things from your primary school about your speaking ability,” he said. “I’ll be talking to you later about the Public Speaking Competition that we always take part in.”

I was daunted and rather excited by being approached by this benign, intelligent white-haired man, so I nodded my head and said “Yes, sir.” But I was also puzzled and to this day I think that he was talking to the wrong boy. There was another boy called Wilson who had joined the school at the same time.

I think if Eggy really had been in touch with Mr Harris, the head of Light Oaks Primary School, he would have received a less than enthusiastic reference about my speaking skills.

Once a week at Light Oaks, a child from the top form was asked to ‘read the lesson’ in assembly, usually a few verses from the Bible. I remember hoping against hope that they would never get round to asking me to do it, but they did.

So it transpired that one Friday morning on a cold winter’s day, I found myself sitting in front of the entire school, on the dark wide wooden steps which led up to the stage in the assembly hall. The staff were seated on the stage itself. I was alone on the steps, feeling very isolated and exposed. Even though it was winter, I was wearing short trousers (we had to). I remember my knees being very cold.

The moment arrived when Mr Harris said solemnly – “And Kenneth Wilson will read today’s lesson.”

I stood up and stared at the Bible on the lectern in front of me. I had read the piece aloud in my room at home so often in the previous week that my brother thought I had discovered religion. I had actually learnt it by heart without even trying. But now the time had come and I wanted to get the whole dreadful experience over with as quickly as possible. I set off reading at high speed and was half-way through my Guinness Book of Records performance, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

Mr Harris had walked down the steps from the stage. He put his finger to his lips, lifted the Bible from the lectern in front of me and took it back to his seat, where he read the piece from the start. To make matters worse, he actually read about three times more than I had been asked to read, so the dreadful ordeal lasted much longer than it should have done. He then closed the Bible, gave me a stern look, and got on with morning assembly.

I really don’t think he was the one who gave Eggy Simm a positive review of my speaking skills.

Nevertheless, a couple of months after Eggy had approached me, I took part in the Manchester Public Speaking competition. I found myself in the 11-14 age category, so I was up against a bunch of boys (there weren’t any girls in the group I appeared with) who were much older than me. Not surprisingly, I didn’t win, but the judges were really nice and sent Eggy an enthusiastic review of my performance.

The next time Eggy approached me, he was carrying a script.

“I want you to be in the school play,” he said. “We’ll be doing selected scenes from a 1930s comedy called 1066 And All That. Are you familiar with it?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, we don’t normally have first-formers in school plays, but I think you’ll be just right for this part.”

He handed me the script. It was a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy. It was barely readable. There appeared to be four characters, King Charles the Second, Nell Gwynne, and two others. One was called Ho and the other called Sho. Eggy had underlined Sho’s part.

It was only when I sat down and read the script that I realised the characters weren’t ‘Ho’ and ‘Sho’. That was just the bad carbon copy. They were actually ‘He’ and ‘She’.

My heart sank. Eggy wanted me to play a GIRL!!! ‘She’ was in fact a Puritan woman whose first line was “Shame upon ye, ye sons of Satan!” (Or ‘Shamo upon yo, yo sons of Satan’, as it looked on the page).

Eggy explained that there would be three evening performances for parents, and before that … an afternoon performance in front of the whole school….

Oh my Lord….

Next time, I will describe what it was like to play a well-endowed Puritan woman in front of a hysterical, baying audience of 600 grammar school boys.

When the Beatles appeared on The Morcambe and Wise Show http://tinyurl.com/2u4g29y


Comments on: "My first appearance on stage, aged 11…" (10)

  1. Oh, you remind me of my own please-let-the-ground-open-up-and-swallow-me-whole public speaking moment at primary school!

    We were doing an assembly on historic events (I must’ve been about 9). My parents had a book on disasters through the ages, so I’d been through and picked out examples from across the period. I didn’t realise, but everyone else had maybe one or two events to mention – I had pages. Every time I got up, the audience would laugh/groan, knowing that here was another joyful piece of news to come! It was awful!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Sharon,

      I guess we all have similar memories – the interesting part is how the fear still strikes just before – or occasionally DURING – a talk these days. 🙂

  2. Hi, Ken!

    Never much of an actress myself… more of a dancer, which is similar in a sense… Thankfully never had such an experience! But can´t wait to read about the performance itself!


  3. Hello Ken,

    I love your anecdotes. Hearing how you started wows me because you are such an incredible performer. I really enjoy watching you speak whether it is a performance or a workshop you manage to make the material interesting and come alive. I can hardly believe you had such a difficult beginning. I was in debate competitions and remember struggling with the speed. In our debate competitions, the students would read so fast you’d hear high pitches of intakes of breath every few seconds. We used to have to practice reading the arguments with fat markers in our mouths. When we finally took the markers out we were incredibly faster. Thank you for reminding me of such great times! I found all that hard work to prepare for competitions fascinating!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Shelly – practice with fat markers in your mouths???

      Can you explain a little more?

  4. Similar (well, almost-ish) story to mine, Ken – lost my nerve in a school play, but my review of the review got rave reviews!

    Actually, I’ve alway preferred ‘public writing’ to ‘public speaking’, maybe because I used to suffer from a stammer in my teenage years. (But if teaching ain’t ‘public speaking’, then what is it?) My teenage poetry turned into songs, and I ended up playing bass for a whole load of bands in the early 1980s. Thankfully, not a trace remains of those early attempts to dazzle the world. (Except the Fender Strat – still resting in a garage in south London right now)

    Nice piece of writing by the way – I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

    Anyway, are you still on for a cup of tea and a chat at your place in Summer? Haven’t been to Fulham for a long while – not since a punch-up at Putney Bridge tube station many years back!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Absolutely! A cup of tea AND a piece of Dede’s home-made Bakewell Tart, if you behave yourself. And bring along the Fender Strat. Do you have a Pignose or other small portable amp/speaker? If not, I can borrow one.

      That would make for a very good photo in the shed.

  5. Hi Ken,

    Great read, and you actually reminded me of my first time on stage as well – also at age 11!

    I played the naughty/evil ringleader of a group of rebel grublets in the play Nathaniel and the Grublets. I can still remember the song that formed my centre stage appearance:

    So you want to be an honest grublet?
    Here’s a fact you can’t ignore….
    We may not grubble like we used to,
    but we’re richer than- be- fore!

    Oh! Father Grublet taught us wrong,
    he had us working all day loooooooong.
    Now we’ve found an easier way,
    we cheat and steal and ne- ver- pay!

    This convinced me that I would never have a career as a singer (I’m sure the teacher chose me to play this bad guy because my awful voice contributed in some way to the evil nature of the character!).

    But it also shows me (now) how powerful song and drama can be for language learning. To be able to remember that little ditty word-for-word after 26 years…


    ~ J

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks, Jason!

      Never heard of Nathaniel and the Grublets, but they sound like a handy bunch. Could be just the characters to make a primary ELT course come to life. 🙂

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