Arts: And those who can, write plays

When John Godber wrote 'Teechers', he knew what he was talking about. Daniel Rosenthal asks why so many teachers become playwrights
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The Independent Culture
Minsthorpe High, Abbey Wood and Shorefields comprehensives would probably not feature on even the most detailed map of British theatre and television landmarks. A pity, because in the past 25 years they have all served as a unique kind of drama school. Three men who once sat drinking Nescafe in those schools' staffrooms would leave their jobs to pursue writing careers which have included several dramas set at the chalkface.

Minsthorpe's pupils wrote essays for John Godber, author of Teechers and It Started With a Kiss, a new comedy about trainee teachers which opens this week. Jonathan Harvey has written two school comedies based on his time at Abbey Wood. Long before Blood Brothers and Educating Rita, Willy Russell discovered at Shorefields that he could teach and dream up screenplays at the same time.

Jimmy McGovern, Colin Welland, Andrew Davies and Stephen Fry are other ex-teachers with classroom dramas on their cvs, and there is, of course, nothing surprising in writers putting their professional lives into their work. However, for Harvey, Russell and, in particular, Godber, the relationship between teaching and their work as dramatists goes beyond autobiography.

It Started With a Kiss follows the romantic misadventures of five trainee teachers. It's based on Godber's four years at Bretton Hall College, Wakefield, in the mid-1970s, and is the fifth teachers-and- pupils project for the country's second-most-performed living playwright (Alan Ayckbourn tops the table).

When Godber first took up a drama post in 1978, he fully expected "to be a teacher for life". But, within four years he had won four Edinburgh Fringe Firsts with plays written for his school.

After a chance meeting with Anthony Minghella, then script editor for BBC1's Grange Hill, he also began writing for the legendary school serial. He left teaching in 1984 to become a full-time writer, and artistic director of Hull Truck Theatre. Teechers, the most autobiographical of his school-based dramas ("there's quite a bit of me in Geoff Nixon, the hero") was premiered in 1987.

Like its closest equivalents in Godber's oeuvre, Shakers (co-written by Jane Thornton) and Bouncers, Teechers is short, episodic, fast-moving and unpretentious. It requires a minimal set and few props, and depends for its success on multi-role acting and "loads of imagination from the audience". Is it the kind of play only an ex-drama teacher could write?

"My earliest writing was defined by how little we could afford at Minsthorpe and Teechers is a good example of the kind of thing I would devise," he acknowledges. "All you need are a couple of chairs and desks and some masks. You can do it with three or 23 actors, which is one of the reasons so many schools and amateur companies do it." On average, there is an amateur production of Teechers running somewhere in Britain every week of the year.

He believes this pared-down form of theatre has "purity; you're appealing to a paying audience's imagination as you would use pupils' in a lesson. I think I was a good teacher because I was never too serious. In my plays, I also try to communicate through humour.

"I think I've done as much as anyone to bring in non-theatre-goers, to educate an audience in what theatre can be, rather than let them dismiss it as an exclusively middle-class art form."

Godber's Midas touch, however, deserted him on Chalkface, the 1992 serial set in a Birmingham comprehensive, which he had hoped would become "the education equivalent of The Bill". He still doesn't understand why the BBC cancelled it after 10 episodes, "when it was still bedding down".

Jimmy McGovern had better luck with 1995's Hearts and Minds, which he said was "loosely based" on his three years as an English teacher at John Lennon's old school, Quarry Bank, in Liverpool. But it was a four-parter, and squarely focused on the fortunes of Drew McKenzie (Christopher Eccleston). We are still waiting for a long-running, adult Grange Hill.

Jonathan Harvey's experiences teaching maths and English to special- needs pupils at Abbey Wood, near Thamesmead, south-east London (also the setting for his best-known work, Beautiful Thing), has had less of an influence on his writing. And yet, it provided Harvey with the raw material for 1994's Babies (staged at the Royal Court), a "very autobiographical" work about a gay teacher, and Swan Song (seen recently at the Hampstead Theatre), a comic monologue delivered by Di Titswell, a thirtysomething teacher "amalgamated" from several former colleagues.

In terms of style rather than incident, Harvey believes his "immense fear of an audience getting bored watching my plays" may be linked to his teaching days. "Directors have often asked me: 'Why do you have a gag every third line?', and I think it could hark back to knowing I would lose the pupils' attention if I didn't keep them laughing." Teaching gave him his feel for "how an audience responds".

Harvey's hero, Willy Russell, was already making a name for himself as a writer when he joined the staff at Shorefields, "a very tribal" comprehensive in Toxteth, Liverpool, in 1973. He would later turn his memories of a school trip to Conway Castle into Our Day Out, shown on BBC1 in 1976 - and "the only work I've written directly from my life" - but it was his day-to-day efforts to connect with his pupils, 70 per cent of whom had below-average reading ages, which helped him realise that "if you can engage people they deliver themselves completely into your hands. Class or theatre audience, they let you take them anywhere."

At one point, teaching and writing merged into one. "I'd given up any attempt to teach Class 4WD by conventional means, so I started making up this story off the top of my head," he recalls. "I told it in their idiom and kept them spellbound for six months." Almost a decade later he turned the tale of Billy and Icky, two Scouse truants, into One Summer, a five-hour series for Channel 4. There was just one problem: "The story was more potent in class than it was on television."

! 'It Started With a Kiss': Hull Truck Theatre (01482 323638), Thurs to 10 Jan.

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