Saturday, 24 December 2016
Chapter 11 Theatre
The summer of 1998 saw a significant change of influence and direction for me. Although I had been to the theatre and enjoyed various events, it had never grabbed my attention and appealed to me as much as the cinema, which remained my principal interest and hobby. However, in the summer of 1998 my wife and I thought we should get out more (our children were still very young) and broaden our fields of interest, and when a national tour of “Les Misérables” was announced, it seemed the perfect birthday treat for my wife who has always loved musicals and who was very keen to see Les Mis, though I was rather indifferent.
Before that, however, we were looking for a way to celebrate our wedding anniversary in July and, on looking up what was on at Eden Court (theatre in Inverness) two days before our anniversary, we saw that Michael Barrymore (of TV comedy and gameshow fame) was in concert on our anniversary. To our astonishment, Alison managed to procure us tickets – in the front row. I have to say this perturbed me a little due to what I’d heard about his shows and audience participation, but Alison pointed out there would be nearly 1000 members of the audience to pick on, so we had nothing to worry about.
We took our seats at the end of the front row and the first half went well (a Scottish singer who had risen to prominence through a TV talent show). Michael Barrymore opened the second half and was amusing and entertaining us in his usual fashion when he launched into some audience participation, picking out various members of the audience and engaging in brief conversation and repartee. He then made his way across the stage until he was standing directly in front of me, lowered his gaze to the front row and stared me straight in the eyes.
“What’s your name, Sir?” he asked politely and innocently.
I actually had to think. I was so taken aback that my own name did not spring immediately to mind.
“Stuart”, I said correctly, after a moment’s hesitation and not without some trepidation.
“Stuart, Stuart”, repeated Mr Barrymore in a fake Scottish accent. “I think we’ve got something for you ….”, and he marched across the stage away from me very purposefully.
I turned to Alison who was clearly highly amused at the fact I had been chosen for whatever fiendish plan Mr Barrymore had up his sleeve. Remembering it was our anniversary, I quickly put two and two together and accused Alison of setting this up – whatever “this” was. It crossed my mind he might produce an anniversary card or something similar, but whatever was going to happen, I told myself to roll with it and not offer any challenge as I would certainly come off worst! It would soon be over and at least Alison was enjoying it – tears of laughter were already rolling down her cheeks as she witnessed my predicament and my reaction to it.
Mr Barrymore came back on stage carrying a big red book with gold embossed letters on it, and announced “Stuart, this is your life” to howls of laughter from the audience.
He descended into the audience and proceeded to make his way along the length of the front row, displacing each and every audience member in the row, kicking belongings out of place and generally causing havoc which was much appreciated by every spectator. Except me.
I was terrified at the thought of what was coming, a condition aggravated by Mr Barrymore’s riotous and relentless approach and my dear wife’s fits of laughter and attempts to catch her breath as she anticipated my impending fate.
Finally, he reached me – the wait was ended and I told myself it would all be over in a few seconds.
“Tell you what”, said Mr Barrymore into the mic, “Why don’t you come up on stage with me?” to roars of approval and encouragement from the audience. I stood and turned, bewildered, to Alison who was now a giggling heap almost on the floor and offered me no moral support whatsoever.
Mr Barrymore climbed the short set of steps onto the stage ahead of me and as I followed I was blinded by the stage lights beyond which I could see nothing. Then, all of a sudden I felt a force hit me full on, knocking my head back and seemingly enveloping my whole body, and I was shrouded in darkness.
Mr Barrymore had turned on me as I approached from behind, embraced me and apparently wrapped his right leg around my lower body, all to ecstatic applause and hoots of approval.
I’m not complaining as such – I just hadn’t the faintest idea of what was going on!
He then directed me to a chair that had been set up centre stage and he launched into a “This is your life” routine during which he whispered instructions and kindly wiped away the tears that started to roll down my cheeks.
Upon completion of the routine I returned, bemused but happy, to my seat and found Alison with her make-up run halfway down her face and in some pain due to laughter.
At the end of the show, Mr Barrymore leaned over to the front row and gave me a hearty handshake. He provided a most entertaining and amusing evening, as well as a highly memorable one for me, and also provided a highly successful re-introduction to going out for a couple of tired and weary parents, and a reminder of how effective and enjoyable a trip to the theatre can be.
Alison’s birthday present that year was tickets to see “Les Misérables” at the Playhouse in Edinburgh in September. She has always enjoyed musicals (while I generally disliked them, finding most of them bloated, self-indulgent and of little interest) and eagerly bought the videotape of the 10th anniversary concert which she played regularly at home. While I found a few of the tunes quite catchy, I spent little time actually following the storyline, preferring to find something else to do while the tape was played.
When the national tour was announced, Alison bought tickets a good six months before the show was due to arrive in Edinburgh and her excitement was built to virtually fever-pitch by the time the date came around. Her expectations were so high I was afraid they couldn’t be met and she was going to be terribly disappointed, so I pointed out that she couldn’t, in all fairness, expect the same quality of production and performance as in the 10th anniversary concert, but her enthusiasm continued unabated.
It was a very warm evening and the theatre was packed. The buzz of excitement was virtually palpable as the three thousand-strong audience chatted animatedly while waiting for the performance to begin. Alison was in good company and it seemed that I alone harboured any doubts about what we were about to see. I remember checking my watch and thinking, “Never mind, it’ll all be over in three hours and at least Alison will have enjoyed it.” I have to admit I did enjoy observing the excitement and enthusiasm of the audience – there was even a cheer and applause as the lights went down, but I could not share their unconditional zeal.
Then the music started and the curtain went up, and the impact on me was immediate. I was hooked. The combination of music, movement, drama and emotion hit me like a train. The excerpts I had seen of the concert focused on static performances at microphones but here, on stage, the constant toing and froing of the characters, the telling of a compelling and rich story and the music that engulfed the huge theatre just swamped me.
At the end of Act one Alison turned to me, glowing with admiration and appreciation of what we’d seen, and asked “Well?” I could only nod and say it was fantastic, but in my heart I knew that was totally inadequate to express what I felt.
The second Act was, if anything, even stronger and had an even greater impact on me. I have always loved film music (music that helps reveal character and tell a story), but this superb musical which told a tale with themes that were close to my heart through a tragically heroic principal character affected me more than any film had managed to do.
When we arrived at the theatre Alison was the enthusiast, but when we left, I was the devoted fan.
It took me several days to “recover” as I thought constantly about the music, the performances and the production, but also (and more importantly) the themes, characters and spirit of the show.
Like most people who are smitten with something, I wanted to share the experience so I proposed a school trip to Edinburgh to see the show, I wondered if there would be enough interest to make the trip viable, but some forty pupils, especially senior students including all those doing Higher French, plus four staff set off for Edinburgh for the mid-week matinee performance in the third week of November.
On the way south I was asked numerous questions about the show and I’m afraid my excessive enthusiasm shone through, and I’m sure I bored my captive audience to the point of discouragement. I was asked if I had cried (they had done some research into the show) and I had to confess I came mighty close at some points, which of course caused some mockery and derision. I was also asked by a couple of young ladies if I had a favourite part, and I replied I particularly remembered the very beginning as the orchestra struck up and the convicts came on stage. I certainly didn’t do a good job of conveying the drama as their heads nodded with little conviction and their expressions indicated they were doubting their own judgement in joining the trip if that was what I considered a “good bit” ….
Many other schools had organised similar trips and the theatre was once again packed to the gunnels and the atmosphere was awash with expectation and excitement. We were in the first two rows and our pupils were eagerly taking in the occasion, turning around and impressed by the sheer size of the auditorium and the hubbub generated by the largely school-age audience.
The lights went down and a cheer went up. The orchestra struck up the opening bars and the convicts entered as the curtain went up (made all the more visceral due to our proximity to the stage), and within 30 seconds I felt a tap on my arm from a pupil inviting me to look along the row. The two girls who had been quite unimpressed by my choice and description of a “good bit” had obviously had second thoughts. They were in tears – already.
I was a little anxious when organising the trip as I was aware that my own reaction and enjoyment were no guarantee that others would share my response. Everyone appeared to enjoy it, but at the interval I made sure I did the rounds to gauge their reaction and of course it was unanimously positive, some using words like “amazing” and “fantastic”, while others seemed a bit lost for words, rather like I had been.
I was most relieved and felt a sense of satisfaction at the chorus of approval, and I was able to settle back and enjoy the second Act.
I’m giving nothing away (the show has sold over 65 million tickets worldwide as I write) when I say that one of the characters, Gavroche (a boy revolutionary), is shot and killed at the barricades by government soldiers. This character is presented as a loveable little rogue and invariably appeals to the audience, and he appeared to bring out the maternal instincts of some of our girls who whispered “Aawwww” and “He’s cute” whenever Gavroche appeared.
In a tense scene at the barricades, the government forces gain the upper hand and the revolutionary students are running short of ammunition so Gavroche volunteers (despite vehement opposition from his student friends) to cross the barricade and collect ammunition from the bodies of the fallen in “no man’s land” between the two opposing groups.
As the audience focuses on a solitary Gavroche and he picks up bullets from the corpses littering the stage, singing a defiant little ditty as he goes, a single shot rings out from the back of the theatre, narrowly missing him.
Seconds later, another shot, and this time he is wounded, but continues his song though he is clearly in pain, drawing gasps of sympathy from the audience, and then …. BOOM …. another shot, much louder and more powerful than the others, and Gavroche is fatally wounded.
Due to the carefully crafted build-up of tension and atmosphere culminating in the ringing out of the fatal shot, two of our girls (in the second row, and directly in front of the young and cute Gavroche) got such a fright when they heard the BOOM that they actually screamed, breaking the tension and at the same time amusing the young actor playing Gavroche to such an extent that as he keeled over and “died”, he wore a rather large grin on his face!
The closing scenes are very emotionally charged and I was interested to see how the pupils would respond to them. In a way, this was the “litmus test” for the success of our trip, at least in my eyes, as an emotional response to these scenes suggests engagement with the storyline and its themes.
As the aged and dying Valjean sat immediately before us and prepared to say his goodbyes to his beloved Cosette, I again felt a slight nudge and my attention was brought to Josina, a senior pupil seated right in front of me. She had obviously been warned to take a packet of tissues with her and she was certainly making good use of them as tears ran freely down her cheeks, punctuated by frequent and involuntary sniffs as she tried to keep control. She held a tissue to her face, dabbing it regularly, and I noticed a sizeable pile of used tissues on her lap.
Is it awful to confess this touched me greatly, but also gave me huge satisfaction?
The cast received a well-deserved standing ovation and huge cheers of approval and appreciation from the entire audience, though our group was particularly vocal and also visible as we were immediately in front of the stage.
I didn’t need to ask – our pupils had clearly thoroughly enjoyed the performance and they were animatedly discussing what they had seen with one another. At this point a lively young lady named Tracy, who was in my Higher class, came bounding up to share her thoughts and her excitement.
“That was just fantastic, and …. the old guy …. he could be gentle sometimes and powerful at others …. he was great”, she said breathlessly, referring to Phil Cavill who played Valjean.
I wanted to continue our conversation, but I had to escort our group out of the auditorium. Because we were by the stage, we were among the last to leave and I went ahead to see where to go exactly and to count everyone as they passed through the exit. I had a quick word with a pupil and I somewhat inattentively approached the main door, and as I made to open the door I walked into a sturdy chap who had just come in and stood before me.
I looked up and as I was spluttering an apology I realised that the shaven-headed lightly bearded man in front of me was none other than Phil Cavill, Valjean himself! It was raining heavily outside and he had come in to buy a “Les Misérables” baseball cap. I expressed surprise he had to pay for such things, told him how much I had enjoyed the show and asked him to convey my congratulations to the rest of the cast, which he said he was happy to do, and then I remembered the forty pupils behind me. I raised my hand and said “Wait here!”
The pupils were delighted to meet him and the poor man was besieged with requests for his autograph which he gave very kindly and with great patience.
In the meantime, I went toward the rear of our group and found Tracy. I asked her if she recognised the chap speaking to her fellow pupils. She looked over, asked “The bald guy?” and shook her head, wondering why I was wasting her time. I suggested she imagine him in a grey wig and an open-necked white shirt (which Valjean wore in the finale), and the result was instant and dramatic.
“Oh, my God! It’s him …. the old guy …. Oh, my God! I can’t breathe!”, after which she went over and joined the queue to get his autograph.
Once on the coach I was moved almost to tears when a senior pupil who joined our group at the last minute sat next to me and proceeded to thank me profusely for bringing him as this had been one of the best experiences he’d ever had, and I couldn’t help but feel he had summed up what teaching was all about (for me).
The trip was a huge success (and would led to several others, of which more later), but on our return, there was another unexpected consequence. As part of the Higher course, pupils were now expected to write about a French book or film and my Higher class asked me if they could use “Les Misérables” as the basis for the written element of their course work. I was, of course, delighted but I pointed out the original text was huge (some 1400 pages), but they were undaunted and quite determined that this was what they wanted to study.
I quickly realised they would need some help and so I started planning a sort of study guide. Little did I know that this would lead to a passion, even an obsession for the subject, and the founding and development of a website.
After producing a fairly extensive analysis of “Les Misérables”, I created a website and uploaded my thoughts to make them available to students throughout the world. This encouraged me to share my thoughts on many other films, books, educational topics and even one or two other French musicals.
I went on to discuss some of these films (especially French films) and my approach to their analysis at regional and even national modern languages conferences, and I discovered there was something of a niche for my web pages as students all over the world referred to them. I am astonished, delighted and honoured to say these pages have now been viewed over a million times and have been used in the university of Texas, with a masterclass at Cambridge (by none other than a former “Javert”), and have been cited in numerous essays, dissertations and theses. As a result of the internet publication of these pages and an interest in their subjects I have made many contacts and friends throughout the world, from Steve McQueen’s photo-double and stand-in for “The Sand Pebbles” to a fellow teacher in Portland and a student in Islamabad, and my life has been greatly enriched by these interactions.
All this because my Higher class wanted to study “Les Mis” as part of their course, but also because my colleague and friend Arthur pushed me into using a computer, something I had resisted doggedly for years.