TECHNIQUE / Businesslike show business: Learning to be a star at the Brit School involves more management skills than sequins. Sabine Durrant reports

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The Independent Culture
Tourist coaches are not a common sight in Croydon. But last week, a bus of German sightseers swung off the main road in the outlying district of Selhurst, nosed down a residential sidestreet and juddered to a halt. The guide stood up and pointed. 'To my left,' he may have said, 'is the world's first school to link the performing arts with media, business and associated technology. The design had to be flexible during both occupation and fast-track construction. The structure before you houses acoustically sensitive areas in a concrete central core while integrating the remainder of the accommodation in surrounding lightweight pods.' He might have said that, or perhaps he gyrated one shoulder, thrust his hips forward and sang - 'I'm gonna live for ever. I'm gonna learn how to fly. FAME]'

The Brit School in south London, tagged the 'Fame' academy (after Alan Parker's film) when it threw open its steel-framed glass doors two years ago, has been attracting sight- seers for some months now - ever since the council drew attention to its existence with little blue signs on neighbouring arterial routes. Its appeal is partly architectural - the concrete central core and the lightweight pods are supplemented by a row of stunted funnels on the roof and crab- like claws sticking out from the sides, so that it looks like one of those toys that's both a robot and a spaceship. But there's a voyeuristic attraction too. This is where kids, between 14 and 18, practise at being grown-ups, where they learn to be stars.

Selhurst is the home of the only state-run secondary school in the world that not only provides specialist performance and technical tuition (in the fields of dance, music, theatre and media) but also siphons the national curriculum through the arts. 'There's no reason, in a history study course, why you can't look at the history of theatre,' explains Torsten Friedag, the joint vice principal. 'Ditto with science - there are obvious performance links to be made with lighting and sound. In maths, a group of students might normally go out and measure a football pitch; we'll measure the proportions of the theatre space.'

The German tourists wouldn't have seen much of this. Just a boy in a padded bomber jacket on his way to the station, pausing to light a cigarette before hitching his Superwoofer over his shoulder; a group of 14-year- olds waving arms and photographing each other in the car-park; two plain- clothes security men leaning nonchalantly by the main doors.

Security's a big problem at the Brit School. It receives sufficiently generous hand-outs from the British Recording Industry Trust and donations from other parts of the media industry to pack the classrooms (or rather the editing suites, the TV, radio and recording studios, the studios) with enough sophisticated equipment to kit out a wing of Paisley Park. A card-wipe entry system does its best to keep browsers out. 'But we get a lot of loiterers,' said one of the guards, 'boys, you know. . .'

No loitering takes place inside. Anne Rumney, the principal, is proud of the school's 'down-to-earth nature'. The emphasis on technical skills as well as performing talent creates, she says, 'a very realistic view of the world outside; a sense of hard work; a strong team ethos'. And the atmosphere is not so much all-singing, all-dancing as all-businesslike. There's a 'School Computer Network' (last week showing a Network SouthEast-style apology for technical breakdown: 'Usual service will be resumed as soon as possible'). Some of the teachers carry portable phones - Torsten Friedag dials base every time he changes location.

Students meanwhile trot between classes with the single-minded concentration usually reserved for doing something they shouldn't. In the green room, a professional make-up artist was slapping stage paint on a volunteer while a group of 14-year- olds wrote notes ('Don't rub, dab'). In a recording studio, a 16-year-old sang the blues, while a gang, unmoved, clustered round the 24-track system, fading her in and out ('Easy on the reverb'). In the library, a 17- year-old, brow furrowed, was composing a string quartet in 3/4 time in pencil, while next door a group was learning about the dynamic microphone.

In the canteen, traditional home of Fame-style spontaneous jumping on the counters and lunch-box percussion jamming sessions, the only banging on the tables was of the 'so-time- to-get-back-to-work' variety. Though one student said to another: 'We did once sing in the canteen for Ian's birthday, didn't we? Whatsisname brought in a guitar. You remember.'

It's exam time at the moment, the first exams to be taken in the school's history. 'It's a big time for us,' said Regena Hill, the other vice principal, 'the whole world and his dog is looking to see how we do.' The staff are - understandably - optimistic on the subject of results, though they're keen to alert inquirers to the high proportion of dyslexic students in the school ('Dyslexia and arts sensibility do seem to go together'). 'And you have to look at the added-on value of the whole experience here,' continued Hill. 'In terms of oral communication, our kids are clearly way above average. They're a very demanding group. They arrive with a level of expertise and know exactly what they want . . . And when you see a 15-year- old student stand up and address a whole assembly of teachers and parents, how do you measure that experience?'

One way is to ask the students. Some of the more dedicated among them wish they'd gone to more specialist schools. Andrew Ufondu, who, Rumney says, is 'a brilliant actor, a sort of Sidney Poitier type', is off to Rada now and found the breadth of the school limiting: 'One of the main downers was being in a class that you took really seriously with other people who were just dabbling. It's hard to concentrate with screaming kids running around.'

Other students complain about egos. 'There's one bloke in Year 11 who's got a record contract with Sony,' revealed an anonymous 16- year-old. 'We were running the retail outlet one day and he asked if he could have a poster of Michael Jackson. He wanted it free because he was 'on the same label'. I mean, honestly.'

But these complaints don't stop them trying to arrive earlier and earlier in the morning (at first the school was open 24 hours, but Rumney decided to close the gates between 9pm and 7.30am - the only school in the world to institute rules to keep kids away). And a group of Year 11s (first- year sixth form) on their way out of their voice class, trills with excitement for the future. 'I'm just going to go for it,' said one. 'If you're 100 per cent for it, you've got a chance.' 'You have to go out there and give it a really good go,' said another, 'you have to believe in yourself.'

And what of those who are leaving this term, are they going for it? Do they believe in themselves? Many, for one thing, are glad to have made links with the industry. Some have received placements with local radio stations. Others have appeared on television (one on Hanger 17) or caught the ear of record companies. Ramon Lazelle, described by the head as 'a brilliant saxophonist in a brilliant rock band called Sexual Suicide' ('It's a jazz funk band actually,' says Lazelle), has had meetings with Polydor. A handful are off on summer courses - at Berklee Music College in Boston, say, or at the National Youth Theatre - and are angling for sponsorship. One girl talked excitedly of a summer placement at the Royal Festival Hall box-office.

But not all are fired with an ambition for stardom. 'One chap is going to join the police force,' said Friedag. He grins, before adding, 'Personally, I feel very good about a policeman with an arts training.'

The Brit School, 60 The Crescent, Croydon (081-665 5242)

(Photograph omitted)

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