The English Teaching Theatre – how it nearly never started…

Ian McShane, Angela Carr and Lizzie Lewendon in the Astronauts sketch, sometime in the 1990s.

This is a re-publishing of an old post that someone has asked to read. For some reason, the original appears in big blue capital letters and I can’t get it to change. 

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.”

Ah…. interesting ….

“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…

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 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? I will tell you next time….

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

2 thoughts on “The English Teaching Theatre – how it nearly never started…

  1. You’ve brought back some great memories! When ‘s the book coming? It would be hilarious, tragic, moving and educational- bit like life itself. Take care!

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