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Date: 23/05/08

Give My Regards To Broadsword

I'm at a loss to explain how I got myself mixed up in it, really.

Apart from a recitation in the annual school Eisteddfod in my first year (I won), I'd kept an intentionally low profile at my secondary school. Not that this made any difference, as these attempts at unobtrusiveness totally failed to prevent my being the object of scorn and bullying for the whole time I attended the wretched place.

In any case, the school was hardly renowned for its artistic endeavours at that time. Apart from the school orchestra (which to the best of my knowledge never played publicly, and which was so desperate as to feature - very briefly - yours truly as a trainee third cellist), there was nothing which extended beyond the walls of the place. 'Outreach' was merely a word in the school's dictionary; probably on one of the pages which had been torn out.

So what, when I was within six months of my final escape from that academic Alcatraz, got into me to volunteer to take part in The School Play? Moreover, a play which was going to be performed for the general public?

I can only think that it was a combination of boredom and the attraction of having somewhere to go during the lunch break other than standing out on the Top Yard in the freezing cold. Because it was about December or early January when our English teacher Arthur Shenton first told us that he was intending to stage Robert Bolt's The Thwarting Of Baron Bolligrew, and invited anyone who was interested to come to a read-through in his classroom at lunchtime.

Thinking a little further, I may have been talked into it by one of the other boys in my class, who had signed up for it already. Other people's enthusiasms have always tended to rub me up the wrong way and produce a strong reaction against whatever it is they're enthusiastic about, but possibly the realisation that the alternative was having to continue pratting about playing 'Square' on the yard in the icy drizzle swayed me.

I can't recall at this distance what I first thought of the play when we read it through. I saw some of the funny lines in it, and may have dimly recognised the elements of the morality tale in it, but I doubt if my considerations ran any deeper than that. I wasn't doing Eng. Lit. for O-Level, so hadn't been introduced to any of that terrible analytical and critical guff which has ruined the consumption of artistic endeavours for so many.

I remember being quite disappointed when the parts were divvied up. I think I had my eye on playing The Duke, or possibly Dr. Moloch the wizard, but these roles were handed to two of the teachers who had decided to get involved, and I was reduced to the ranks of Knighthood. Even then, it was a comparatively minor role (although I did appear at the beginning, in the middle and at the end), and was chagrinned to realise that my part was that of an obsequious creep ("Typecasting", said Mr Shenton helpfully).

So, with the production scheduled originally for sometime in March, we set to it. Reading rehearsals took place at lunchtimes, but as time moved on and we reached the point where the action and general logistics needed to be sorted out, we found ourselves working after school and on Saturdays as well. This I found irksome, and had to be dragged from my bed one Saturday morning to attend. After the evening sessions, Mr Shenton would take some of us home in his car, and I well remember his old Renault 6 being unable to cope with the gradient by the Cerney in the Moss with four passengers aboard. That aroma of singed clutch plate is hard to forget.

It became clear after a while that March wasn't going to be a realistic date for the show, and so it was put back a few weeks. This could have been a problem, as some of us were supposed to be revising for our O-Level exams that June, but I welcomed the opportunity to concentrate on something else at that time.

We moved onto the stage in the assembly hall (which doubled as the music room and the Old Gym) and the scenery and costumes started to take shape. The staggering resources of the Art department were brought into play, with the bits of the Castle being painted on to sections of board mounted on small pieces of scaffolding so that the Castle could be 'rebuilt' just by slotting them together. The costumes, too, developed from their original conception, with the Knights clad in cardboard armour skilfully painted in black with gold 'seams' and 'rivets'. Dr Moloch (Emyr Davies, the Chemistry teacher) sported a black robe (his own graduation garment if memory serves) embroidered with stars and crescent moons, and The Duke (played by the Religious Education master Martin Watson) was finely attired in an outfit which seemed to have been left over from a Gilbert & Sullivan piece. I don't know how he came by the tricorn hat, though.

The cardboard armour may have been a bit awkward to move in, but it was the green woollen tights which made me cringe. I mean, it was the look of the thing, m'dears! Not to mention the impossiblity of toilet breaks being taken at any time between Beginners and Fin.

It was great fun, though. Some of the players needed more instruction than others (Martin Watson was particularly helpful in getting me more fully into character), and all sorts of 'business' was added, often to producer Shenton's consternation. Colin Epthorp, playing the title role, had terrible trouble with the phrase "noblesse oblige", and I don't think he ever quite got it right.

There were things to be interested in away from the stage, too, and as my friend Nik Randles was doing a lot of the art work, I spent some time down in the Art Room, where my distracting presence proved too much for Nik's assistant Karen (later to become Mrs Nik Randles!), who scored a direct hit on me - albeit from close range - with a raw egg.

We were about as ready as we were ever going to be, and we held the final dress rehearsal on the Monday afternoon in front of an audience of kids from the nearby junior school. They were, on the whole, bemused and bored by the whole thing, and left before the end (but only because their school day finished before ours - honest!).

Tuesday, and The Big Night had arrived. I remember sitting up in the school library watching the parents and families pulling into the car park before scooting down to the changing rooms behind the Old Gym to pull my tights on and get laced into my cardboard. I don't think I felt any nerves, really; we'd been working on the thing for nearly five months by then, and I think my primary concern was, as NoŽl Coward put it, to remember my lines and not bump into the furniture.

As I recall there were no major hitches (bearing in mind that I only 'saw' the scenes I was actually in), although Colin Epthorp did get a ticking off from the producer for coming out with a (quite mild) oath as a sotto voce ad-lib. I couldn't see the problem, as the term used was quite in keeping with the Baron's character.

I don't remember much about either that performance or the second one on the Wednesday night. We all got it right about 98 per cent of the time, which is probably the best you can ever hope for in a theatrical production. The only fluff I saw was when Emyr Davies was making a speech of thanks after the final show, when he referred to the "lightning engineer".

I had very few enjoyable experiences at that school, and this is the only thing I look back upon with any degree of what could be called 'affection'. A few more details about it can be found here.

As for me personally, apart from a couple of appearances in rag review concerts at my Sixth Form College, I didn't perform in public in any way until I found myself singing (singing, if you please!) in a folk club over fifteen years later. But that, as they say, is another matter.