Before I pack it in – how did it all start?

4 1989
The English Teaching Theatre group that toured Germany and the Netherlands in April 1989. R to L: Tara, John, Stuart, Michelle, me.

For the past quarter-century, I have spent an awful lot of time on the road in different countries talking to English teachers, either at ELT (English Language Teaching) conferences, commercial events sponsored by ELT publishers, or doing training of some kind, often paid for by the British Council.

I am on the point of packing it all in. But how did it all start?

A bit of background …

In April 1989, I was on tour with the English Teaching Theatre in Germany and Holland. I was 41 years old, and I’d been involved with the ETT since 1973. The theatre was the brainchild of John Haycraft, the principal of International House, a private language school, the main branch of which is in Central London, and there are branches and affiliates in other parts of the UK and all over the world.

John had intended the English Teaching Theatre to be an extra-curricular theatre activity for English students, but it almost accidentally became a touring thing. You can read more about the first-ever tour here

I don’t think any of us involved at the beginning expected the ETT to last so long, to do so many tours or to visit so many countries. By the time we shut up shop in 2002, the group had done more than 250 tours to 55 different countries on every continent in the world except Australia. Which is a continent, right?

At the height of our world domination (!!) if there were English learners in school somewhere, there was almost always an ETT group on tour, sometimes two and occasionally three. In the mid-1980s, The Stage theatre newspaper described us as ‘possibly the most successful and certainly the busiest small theatre company in the country.’ Over the years, we must have employed about a hundred actors, most of whom enjoyed the experience of flying or driving off somewhere foreign. However, they were actors by trade not TEFL teachers, so they quite understandably used to fret that while they were on tour, they might miss an audition for a more ‘normal’ piece of theatre work, the kind of thing they had been trained to do.

By 1989, I had pretty much stopped touring. I directed rehearsals before tours and tried to help my colleague Doug Case with organisation and production. Doug was a meticulous organiser and didn’t really need my help, but I would turn up at the office most days, and do whatever writing work I had while I was there. I only went on tour if we really couldn’t find anyone else.

And so it was in April 1989 that, because no one else was available, I went off with the crew in the photo above. They are, from right to left, Tara Dominic, John Elkington, Stuart Nurse and Michelle O’Brien. All twenty-somethings. And I was 41.

This was the tour that I decided I had to call it a day. I mean, 41 years old and playing guitar on stage in front of 700 noisy teenagers, it isn’t right, is it? I know the Rolling Stones are still at it in their seventies, but even so…

So this was going to be my last tour, and I was thinking about what I could do to extend the meagre portfolio of ways in which I earned a living. At the time, when I wasn’t on tour or directing rehearsals, I taught English part-time at a Further Education College, augmented (if that is the right word) by royalties from the mish-mash of ELT stuff I had written, which comprised five albums of language teaching songs – three for Longman (as Pearson ELT was known in those days) and two for Cornelsen in Germany. In addition, I had written readers and books of drama-related and other supplementary activities. I occasionally wrote radio and TV programmes for the BBC, whose English language section was enormous and very productive in those days.

On 15th April 1989, we were in Amsterdam, and news came through of a terrible incident at a football match at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. Nearly a hundred people had been killed and more than 750 injured because too many people had been allowed to enter the stand behind the goal. It was the worst disaster at a sporting event ever in the United Kingdom and led to major changes in the way stadiums were built and organised.

I suppose it’s because of that event that the tour is so vivid in my memory. I can clearly remember being in the blue van on the way back to the UK, thinking about who I should contact for more writing and other work. I remember thinking – from now on, I will be staying at home most of the time. This touring life is over.

Serendipitously, within weeks of getting home, I received two invitations to get involved in ELT book projects. One of them was to join a team to write a course book, the kind of book that students use in class. Course books can sell shedloads of copies, far more than the supplementary stuff I had written so far. I had never until that point been involved in writing a main course book and couldn’t imagine doing it.

But I needed some new revenue streams. So I accepted both the invitations.

And that’s how life changed completely.

I’ll explain how next time …


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