Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sir Stephen Tumim, 68, has been a barrister, a judge, and most notably Chief Inspector of Prisons from 1987 until 1995. Principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, for the last two years, he is President of the Royal Literary Fund and is also writing a book about William Blake. He lives with his wife in London. The conductor Wasfi Kani, 42, was born in London of Indian parents. She read music at Oxford, then worked in the City for 10 years. In 1988 she founded Pimlico Opera, a company whose work has included music-theatre in prisons, as well as professional opera at Garsington. This year she launched Grange Park Opera in the dilapidated orangery of Lord Ashburton's Hampshire estate

STEPHEN TUMIM: I first met Wasfi, as I met most of my friends, in Wormwood Scrubs in about 1990. She was conducting the musical Sweeney Todd, with the majority of the cast made up of prisoners doing life sentences. It was extraordinary and it was marvellous. She had professional singers in the main parts, prisoners playing smaller solo parts and the chorus. Most of them had been up to a great deal of violence, and you felt they themselves would have handled a razor pretty well. She was the musical director of this show. I'd heard about her as a conductor of opera before that time, because my wife is a great opera-lover, but I hadn't known about her as a prison person.

When I next saw her, at Wandsworth Prison doing West Side Story a few years later, she was still technically only conducting, but in effect she was organising the whole thing. I walked in to a rehearsal one day, quietly from behind, and found that she was controlling the cast in the most extraordinary way. The prisoners couldn't believe what was happening to them, you could see that. To have this slim, rather slight person, and what's more a young woman, waving a baton and giving out crisp, direct orders which they were jolly well going to obey, was clearly one of the galvanising experiences of their lives. There's no patronage, no condescension in her attitude. There's simply professionalism, and that's the key.

I know there are people within the prison service and among the public who disapprove of this sort of activity in prisons. But it's not a question of feather-bedding the prisoners or of showing them a good time. It's desperately important with young men who commit serious crime that they should learn a bit of self-esteem, that they should learn self-discipline, that they should learn how to relate to other people in an honest and open way, in order to be able to come out and not commit more crime. Arts education - writing, painting and so on - is an extremely good way of doing these things, but there's nothing quite as galvanising as theatre. I don't think Mozart opera would have been much good. But in Sweeney Todd, and even more so in West Side Story, the prisoners found a world they could really relate to.

For me, hearing the song "Officer Krupkey" performed by an inmate at Wandsworth was one of the greatest moments in prison history, as well as music history. It's not just a clever and funny song, the lyrics go into what gives rise to violent behaviour, and to hear them delivered by a man with a history of violence ... well, I've now seen it done several times under Wasfi's direction in various prisons, and it works every time. You come out positively tearful. For the performers, on the other hand, there is enormous satisfaction that they can turn their humble experiences into something creative. These are people who've never felt good in their lives, who've never done anything useful. And it's enormously significant for them to discover that they can do something disciplined and sensible, and enjoy it.

The prison connection for Wasfi is ongoing. She's off to Ireland soon, I believe, to set up some performances in Dublin and Cork prisons. But Grange Park Opera is her latest thing, and it's typical of her energy and vision. In just one year she has established an annual opera season in the most stylish and unusual venue. She negotiated the restoration and use of this falling-down classical house of 1800, and of a series of other buildings where the roofs haven't actually fallen in but look as if they would if they weren't held up by netting. You can't think what else anyone could have done with it all, it's too far gone. But for a summer season of opera, it's perfect. I think if you're somebody like Wasfi you mustn't do the same thing for too long, you've got to extend and move on. And I think she's done it. She's a real achiever.

Most people would have been put off by all the problems of starting up a small opera house with a restaurant attached in what is essentially a ruin. But she finds the money, somehow. She's got great skills. Above the money-raising, above the organising, above the music-making, she's got a real talent for getting people to work for her. And that's what it's all about. Yet she's not bossy, she's not Catherine the Great. She does it all with humour and tact and energy. If she were building a railway line in Siberia, she'd do that awfully well.

WASFI KANI: Stephen came in during the first major collaboration I did with prisoners, which was Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, in Wormwood Scrubs, with lifers. You work with the prisoners for months and months, and of course the tension builds up. On this occasion, all kinds of really grand people were due to turn up to the first night. But the person the prisoners were most excited about coming was Stephen Tumim. During the interval, the audience and cast were allowed to mingle and have a chat, and I remember there were great discussions about whether he was a good thing or not. Some of the prisoners saw him as a member of the establishment who had locked them up, but others saw beyond the bow tie, and saw him as someone who was trying to sweep out the prison service. Even at that time Stephen was talking about ending slopping out. He was a pretty radical figure.

What struck me at that first meeting was how easy he was with the prisoners. He was, he is, this pillar of the establishment, and yet prisoners liked talking to him. He was firm, understanding, but not at all condescending. They didn't feel they were talking to just another prison governor. They felt that somehow their voice would be heard beyond the prison walls if they talked to Stephen Tumim. He was trying to reform the prison service, there's no doubt about it. Michael Howard (the then Home Secretary) didn't like it at all, but Stephen spoke a lot of common sense. And that common sense is what I most admire him for.

When I started working in prisons I didn't know much about prisoners, but my hunch was that you have to do something with these guys. You can't just lock them up and leave them, because for one thing it's very, very expensive. And if you systematically humiliate someone for three years or more you can't expect them to come out and be a useful member of society.

Stephen would come out with a lot of sensible things like that. He'd say look, these are just young men, they are ordinary young men who have done some bad things. What has struck me, seeing Stephen over the seven or eight years since that first time, is the fantastic rapport he has with the young in all sections of society. I saw it again when he was working with Oxford undergraduates at St Edmund Hall. For all his position as an elder statesman, the way he interacts with the young is never patronising, never, "I know better than you". And he's endlessly encouraging of what the young are trying to do. We all want someone who's at the top to hold out their hands and say, "Yes, come on, you can do it".

To some extent, the help he's given me has been very practical. Over the years that the Pimlico Opera has been working in prisons, he has constantly offered advice about which ones we should go to, which ones had a governor who would be receptive. Prisons are desperately short-staffed, and their contribution in projects like ours is not just financial, it's logistical. Just going through the normal routines of locking up and feeding and exercising the prisoners takes all their resources. There's no spare capacity to collect together a group of them, take them to a rehearsal room, lock them up there, supervise the rehearsal and escort them all back again. So I've had to rely on an enormous amount of goodwill. If they'd played it by the book we'd never have done a single project in prison. And it was because of Stephen's encouragement, and his putting us in touch with governors who wanted something radical to happen in their prisons, that the work really flourished.

Stephen's always said he's tone-deaf and I believe him. But Winifred, his wife, always felt that he deprived her of opera, and so Winifred was always very welcoming to me. I went to parties at their house, where they've got many, many beautiful paintings and objects. And it was really through talking about art that we came to be best friends. Lots of people approaching 70 become entrenched in their ways. But this is a man who constantly surrounds himself with daring paintings, young people, new ideas; he isn't frightened of change. In many ways he's a member of the establishment, yet he spends his whole time rattling their gates. And he'll stick his neck out, which I admire. A lot of people in the positions he's been in would have been ducking and diving in order to survive. But surviving isn't Stephen's ultimate aim. It's to make things happen.

! For information about future Grange Park Opera seasons, call 0171 246 7567