Inside Britain's talent factory: 'Shows like The X Factor delude the young'
So says the charismatic principal of the Brit School which, over the past decade, has created countless stars. He gives Ian Burrell a backstage tour.
Teenage pupils are unself-consciously singing in the corridor, using empty Coca-Cola bottles as pretend microphones. They're promising to "build this dream together" as they belt out the feel-good lyrics to "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now", the cheesy Eighties anthem by Starship which is occasionally used as a backing song on The X Factor.
It's like a classic scene from Fame, the Eighties TV show based on an American college for the performing arts to which the Brit School, where I am today, is sometimes derisively compared. Except that it's quickly clear that this hothouse of artistic training on the outskirts of London is anything but the ethereal alternative to a real education that its detractors like to suggest.
The Brit School has become a proven gateway to a working life in the creative industries. Most obviously, it has rejuvenated the British music business, which helps fund the school. Adele, currently the most successful music artist in the world, is its most famous alumna. She has been part of an extraordinary run of Brit School female vocalists that has included Jessie J, Leona Lewis, Kate Nash, Imogen Heap, Katy B and, most famously of all, Amy Winehouse. The school has also spawned numerous successful bands including Noisettes, The Kooks and The Feeling.
But though it's known for its music students – and receives funding from the annual industry schmoozefest, the Brit Awards – the Brit School is also making major contributions to British theatre, film and television. Ex-pupils are currently performing at the National Theatre and the Royal Court in London, and starring in the drama output of BBC1, ITV1 and BBC3. The Brit School had four actors in last year's cinema hit The Inbetweeners Movie, including the gangling Blake Harrison as one of the lead characters.
The palpable 'can do' energy which pervades the school campus is at odds with the stultifying neighbourhood where the school is based. Step off the train at suburban Selhurst, far from the crackle of the capital's artistic quarters of Soho and Shoreditch, and the Brit students stand out like a splash of colour on a grey landscape. They're mostly girls (60 per cent of pupils are female), with hairstyles and outfits that would get noticed at an audition.
But inside the school, the atmosphere is more supportive than competitive. In the Broadcast and Digital Communication unit, a boy is using a projector to show a photographic assignment to his classmates. "Cool", "I like that", come the comments chirped from the darkness as he runs through his arty shots. For children with a creative bent, the Brit School is a refuge from the chiding or bullying they may have experienced earlier in their education. "You may at your old school have been taunted and teased or regarded as a bit strange for being obsessively interested in dance, musical theatre or music," says Nick Williams, the school's principal. "Here you are surrounded by other square pegs in round holes."
Contrary to what many think, Brit School students do not pay fees. Two thirds of them live within five miles of the school gates and 90 per cent are from its catchment area of Greater London. "There's something different to the Brit School you notice as soon as you walk in, which is a freedom and a confidence and independence about the way young people are," says Williams.
He is standing down as principal this year after a decade in the post, a period in which he has transformed the school's reputation. Once seen as little more than a gesture of penance from an industry notorious for its hedonistic excess, this institution is having a global impact on the arts. Such is the demand (roughly five applicants for every place) that the school is expanding to 1,200 students and has opened a primary school which will take 640 local pupils who are expected to benefit from the creative ethos on the site.
Williams, who is a product of Sixties idealism and describes himself as a "progressive socialist", views the privately-run arts schools with a wary eye. "Look at the programmes for most West End shows and a lot of the performers will have been to stage school and had that paid for by willing parents, sometimes since the age of three," he says. "If you are an 'ordinary' state school child looking to do well in the creative industries you need to know what a challenge that will be."
His own challenge when he arrived in 2002 was to help the school reconcile a desire to be taken seriously by the educational establishment with its attempts to create a "freewheeling" environment where creativity would flourish. "The place was in many ways quite chaotic," he says of a school that was set up in 1991. "The exam results were very poor considering the quality of students that came here – even the arts was not as good as it could have been."
The Brit School had enjoyed some minor successes. Boy bands such as Another Level and Damage had chart hits, Imogen Heap emerged to critical acclaim and the soul singer Lynden David Hall was regarded as an outstanding talent before his early death. But much of the potential was unfulfilled. Early in his tenure, Williams was told by the British Phonographic Industry that more was expected. "They said, it's great that you are tackling academic standards but the music doesn't seem to be flowing out of the school."
His response was to introduce a disciplined and vocational approach to the teaching but to encourage students to work across artistic genres, in order to share creative ideas. "What we have seen since is a whole generation of students who have benefited from that approach," he says of this "flowering of the school".
The star pupils have become advocates of their alma mater. Gemma Cairney, the BBC radio presenter, regularly returns to encourage students. Jessie J spoke recently of the special chemistry of the Brit School canteen, where dance, theatre, film and music students interact. On the canteen walls are posters for upcoming Brit School productions – an image of riot police on the streets is promoting Civil Disturbance, the new play from year 13. The piece depicts the rioting in nearby Croydon last summer and is based on testimonies gathered by students from some of those affected by the violence.
In the school workshop, students are slathering grey paint on to hardboard. The technical theatre classes do their own stage construction, set design and lighting for all the school's productions. Other students prepare the budgets and work in the box office for the school's Obie Theatre, which collected £50,000 in takings last year. At the time of my visit, the students were preparing to stage three separate productions (including musicals from Stephen Sondheim and the band Madness) in the same week. "They're 17-year-old students! The creative community can't believe it," says Williams, who still expects his students to get a solid grounding in subjects such as maths and the sciences.
But not far behind all these proud words is a barely-concealed anger that the British educational system is denying more children the opportunity of being taught the skills that match their talents and equip them for the world of work. "We [at the Brit School] are passionate exponents about the importance of vocational education and see that as under attack at a time when vocational education should be spreading not diminishing," he says.
"What are we good at? We are good at creativity – we've always been. Going back to the Sixties, we were producing pop music better than anybody else in the world and we still do that. We produce filmmakers, actors and artists. We lead the world in these areas, and yet how is that represented in our education system? Zilch! There's less music taught now than there was 10 or 20 years ago. Less opportunity for students to be artistic, less drama lessons, less opportunities for young people to understand about entrepreneurship in the business world," Williams says. "The education system has got to realise that there's going to be more work in the internet and in the skills that the creative industries are going to produce than there will be in the kind of traditional industries which are dying on their feet in this country ... I mean, for God's sake! It drives me mad."
He says he's "not a snob" about TV talent shows, but he's clearly not a fan either. "It's a form of soap opera but it isn't a good way to nurture musical talent because it gives the illusion that being a good musician and being successful within the music industry is being famous for 15 minutes," he says. "At worst it deludes young people and at best it's a very inefficient way of finding out where talent exists."
Neither is he impressed with the kind of leather-jacket-wearing music journalists who think that the only credible pop musicians are those that emerge from Northern council estates. "Music in the Sixties came out of a far more privileged background than the Brit School. It came out of art colleges and often out of private schools and privileged households." And there is no such thing as a Brit School sound. "How on earth is Katy B like Jessie J or Adele like Imogen Heap? These singers are fundamentally different to each other."
Where the school's students do have an advantage, Williams admits, is in their work ethic. They are encouraged to discuss their artistic careers – and are left in no doubt as to what they need to do to be successful. Musicians are told to go out and perform gigs and promote themselves. "Any musician needs to know how to make a film, edit it and how to present themselves. And for a female singer, not to learn a bit of dance would be foolish," says Williams.
On stage in the Obie Theatre (named after the late CBS Records chief Maurice Oberstein who, like Beatles manager Sir George Martin, has been a big supporter of the school), a guitar riff breaks the silence. Year 12 is working on a new musical theatre production based on a selection of movie soundtracks, including the Starship song that was being sung into the Coca-Cola bottles.
In another room, a trio of girls is receiving intensive coaching from a teacher. "Come in on 'gas, gas, gas'," she tells them. It could be a reference to War Horse – the Brit School has an ex-pupil, Robert Emms, in the Spielberg feature film and another, John Trindle, in the touring theatre version – but is actually a project on British music featuring "Jumping Jack Flash" by the Stones. Next door, a teenage band breaks into an impromptu rendition of that song, with the expertise of session musicians and without the slightest inhibition. Up in the dance studio, there are boys as well as girls throwing themselves to the floor. "It's inconceivable here that someone would be bullied for being a male dancer, we are just in awe of what they can do," says Williams.
Creating a protective environment means the Brit School, with the risk of its showbiz magnet attracting unwanted outsiders, has high levels of security. Visitors who pass through the reception's metal doors must be photographed and both students and visitors are instructed to wear their identity badges at all times. Similarly, the death of Amy Winehouse last year provided a stark warning of the dangers of a career in entertainment. "We don't say in a simplistic fashion you should know that there are drugs out there," says Williams, "we say live a healthy, sensible life and make sensible choices and be mature as an adult."
As more ex-pupils come to prominence, from the actors Emily Head and Cush Jumbo, to the Harper Collins author Laura Dockrill and the urban music duo Rizzle Kicks, the Brit School is being taken more seriously for the value it can bring to the creative industries. Apple has established an authorised training centre on site so that students can blend new media skills with their performance work, with Bournemouth University using the facility to offer Brit School graduates a two-year foundation degree in digital media practice.
Williams, who hands over to new principal, Stuart Worden in August, wishes more people would recognise that his pupils are being prepared for the real world. "The misunderstanding around the Brit School centres on a parody of the kids from Fame – that we stoke up this glad-hands exuberance," he says. "That's a misrepresentation of what happens to young people when they are allowed to be creatively free."
Famous Five Brit School grads
The late star spent her marginally more innocent days here, where she studied musical theatre in 2001.
She may now have a bevy of Brit awards, but it all started for Adele Adkins at the Brit School of 2006. She has described it as being "a bit like Fame".
Three members of the poppy indie band – Paul Garred, Hugh Harris and Luke Pritchard – met at the school.
Another 2006 graduate, Jessica Cornish penned hits for Alicia Keys and Miley Cyrus before launching her own pop career.
The hip-hop duo leapt into the charts last year, yet Jordan 'Rizzle' Stephens majored in media and Harley 'Sylvester' Alexander-Sule studied theatre.
BY HOLLY WILLIAMS
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