At the school I went to, which resembled a foreboding Victorian prison, at the age of 14, you had to make the life affecting decision whether to go into 4L (languages and literature), 4S (science) or 4T (technical). For me that was an easy decision to make. I was shit at sciences and I was about as technical as a screwdriver made of jelly – neither were going to happen.
My achievements in chemistry and physics, were just pitiful. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand it, I really just couldn’t be arsed to learn all the acronyms, atomic numbers and numerous formulas and equations. Force = mass x acceleration, okay I get it, but I wasn’t that bothered about it, nor was I interested in the periodic tables which had nothing to do with Edwardian furniture. My physics teacher ‘Dad’ Shuttleworth (no idea why he had the nickname ‘Dad’) seemed to spend his time berating me for not paying attention, not doing my homework or the biggest crime of all, writing in biro. Yeah – you had to write in pen and ink – it really was the olden days, it’s something no kid today would ever understand, and I wasn’t too sure why we were doing it back then either. There was a brief moment in time though, when I realised ‘Dad’ Shuttleworth wasn’t all Newton’s Law and Archimedes Principle. I was taking my physics GCE, which was a two-hour exam, and after about approximately fifteen minutes or maybe at a push seventeen minutes, I’d done all I could do, so I just sat there and waited until the clock ticked and tocked its way round to the designated time for the end of the exam. And there was literally nothing to do for that hour and forty-three minute but observe all my fellow classmates, beavering a way trying to figure out why E=hf. I knew it was something to do with radiation, but that was the extent of my knowledge.
After about half an hour, ‘Dad’ spied me, sitting there twiddling my thumbs. I could see the perplexed frown furrowed into his forehead as he wondered why I was neither tearing my hair out with panic or sitting back with a smug smile on my face, letting ever one know that I was a genius and I’d finished in record time. He was pretty certain it wasn’t the latter, but surely my knowledge had to extend further than half an hour and if it didn’t then why wasn’t I freaking out? What I did realise as I was sitting there watching ‘Dad’ pace up and down the aisles, was that teachers don’t want you to fail. They want you to pass. Simple reason – that’s why they’re there, to help students pass exams. But in my case physics GCE was one of those exams I was most certainly going to fail.
Another five minutes passed, by then ‘Dad’ had come to accept I was sitting there because I’d run out of answers and rather annoyingly, I clearly wasn’t upset by this astronomic failure. He then started slowly up the aisle heading for where I was sat. I knew he was coming for me. He had that look in his eye which I’d seen numerous times in class, that said, ‘I’m going to get you.’ As he approached, it was as if I was watching a slow-motion action sequence in a movie, one of those sequences that erupted into violence, that Tony Scott always shot so brilliantly. He arrived at my desk, stared down my paper lying there with a few paltry scribbles on it, and my fountain pen nestled in the groove at the top of the desk, then he stared at me. I didn’t meet his gaze. He looked back at the paper, picked it up, examined it thoroughly, turned it over, turned it back, looked back at me, and this time I looked directly at him. We held this Mexican stand-off for what seemed like minutes, but it would have actually been just seconds, and it was then I realised he had a sense of humour as he said, “More paper?”
In that moment, all the years of being clipped round the ear, the multiple times I’d had the blackboard duster thrown at me and the fear that had been engendered each time I picked up a biro – disappeared. And I smiled. In that instant I appreciated ‘Dad’ Shuttleworth. He’d lost and he knew it, he’d failed and he accepted it. But of course, I hadn’t won either. I’d failed him, failed myself and missed an opportunity that millions of kids throughout the world would give their right arm for. In that moment I understood how unappreciative we all can be of what we’ve got, given or offered.
My technical skills were even worse than my science skills. In the second year, for a short period of time we were forced to choose between woodwork and metalwork. For some unknown reason I decided on woodwork. I’d already realised we all have a place in life and mine wasn’t anywhere a chisel or a dove-tail-joint. The last project we did was making a clothes horse. According to The History of the Tumble Drier, in the 1940s the sale of tumble driers went ‘stratospheric.’ That certainly wasn’t the case where I lived, I didn’t know one family that had a tumble drier, a few well-off families had twin-tubs, but for most people a structure to hang clothes on to dry, was an essential part of everyday life. Apparently the most expensive part of this piece of craftsmanship were the round rods the clothes hung – these were called dowling. I needed three 24 inch dowling rods for each side of the clothes horse, so six in total. The rods came in 48 inch lengths, so yes, I needed just three rods. For some reason I ordered six. I ended up having to smuggle 144 inches of dowling out of school, so I wouldn’t get into trouble for wilfully over ordering. A crime in my school akin to the Great Train Robbery.
So following a career in a technical field was never on the cards and to this day if I produce a hammer to attack some protruding nail or broken piece of fencing, my kids immediately ring for an ambulance, because the need for paramedic assistance will, no doubt, be necessary.
So at fourteen it was definitely going to be 4L (languages and literature). And it was around this time I decided that I wanted to be an actor, even though most people just considered this to be some sort of long con to get me out of doing any ‘serious’ schoolwork. The truth was there were lessons I actually enjoyed. ‘O’ level English, the equivalent to today’s GCSE, was great. The Shakespeare we studied was Julius Caesar – who wouldn’t love Julius Caesar. A lust for power, betrayal and revenge are its main ingredients, how good is that? And Shakespeare never held back. It was full throttle all the way. It made Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express look like a picnic.
The novel we studied was Kipps by H.G. Wells, a great story of an orphaned working-class guy and how he tries and copes with a large inheritance left to him when his grandfather dies. What I quickly realised was in 1905, the year the book was published, it seemed everyone had it tough, unless you were the landed gentry. And it wasn’t because they indulged in some drug fuelled, hedonistic life-style, it was because just to eat regularly, as well as house and clothe the family, was a daily struggle. And some people didn’t make it. They ended up in the workhouses, where they worked six days a week, men, women and children, from seven in the morning to six at night. The only reason anyone was in a workhouse, was because they were poor. No welfare state, or fantastically wealthy charities – you died on the street, or you died working in the workhouse. Some choice.
The poetry was Wordsworth, something I grew to love and I’ve even named my lead character in my next novel Edge of Civilisation, due out later this year, after that 19th century poet. Of course, enjoying a Shakespearean play doesn’t automatically mean you should be an actor and at that time my experience of treading the boards was limited to small parts in the school plays, the lead roles were always played by boys in the sixth form. In those days, any female roles were played by the younger boys in the school. In my first year I was one of those boys and earned the remark on my annual school report: Makes a very good girl. I’m not sure how that would be received today, unless you were gender fluid, which for some reason does seem incredibly prevalent. Could it be something in the water, or just a cry for attention. In 1964 would I have been gender fluid? I doubt it. From a very young age my body told me what my sexuality was and what my sexual preferences were. And they’ve never changed. But that didn’t stop me ‘acting’ a girl. The dictionary definition of ‘acting’ is – the art or occupation of performing fictional roles in plays, films, or television.
I was performing being a girl. To me that’s what acting was and still is. Playing a girl in a school play was only like any other character I went onto play in my acting career. I assumed a role for the length of the performance, you don’t have to actually be that person, which is something that seems to have become confused in an age which seems desperate to make everyone equal, whilst achieving more division. The idea you need to be gay to play gay, is bizarre. As long as you are able to act being gay convincingly enough for the audience to believe that you’re gay, then job done. Over the years how many gay men have played heterosexuals – should they not be allowed to? If we continue down the path we’re going, then the only time you could do a murder mystery would be if Rosemary West was let out to play Catherine Tramell, the Sharon Stone role, in Basic Instinct. I think that might have spoilt it for a lot of people.
We’ve allowed some political agenda, which in society may be right and just, to somehow get enmeshed in drama. Drama may very well reflect society, comment on it or even offer an alternative, but it shouldn’t become it.
I have to come clean, playing a girl at the tender age of eleven had no detrimental effect on me whatsoever. I didn’t go rushing off to raid my mother’s wardrobe, I didn’t suddenly start having sexual urges for boys, but I did understand how the world of fiction worked. It’s not real – it’s pretend. If for those two hours I could convince an audience I was a girl, I’d done my job.
From those early girly days, I eventually progressed, thanks to a school mate, to the West Riding Youth Theatre. Dave Guest, who now lives out in Cyprus, persuaded me to go along with him to this world where we immersed ourselves, often through improvisation, in other characters and other worlds. I’m fairly certain I’ve never told Dave how instrumental he was in the way my life went, but if he reads this, he should know I would never have been where I am today without his invitation. The Youth Theatre for was vibrant and real. I learnt so much. I’d already started reading any play I could lay my hands on, but it was the involvement with the Youth Theatre that convinced me about what I had to do with my life. I had to become an actor.
Now okay … that’s not what I ended up doing, but it’s how I got started. And the start is everything. Being an actor isn’t like being a writer. You need scripts, you need space, you need other actors, you need a director. As a writer, when I started, you needed pen and paper and a typewriter (for those of a certain age, this was a piece of office equipment, not unlike a computer, but so much more difficult to operate smoothly.) Nowadays a computer is pretty much a necessity, or at least access to one. Writing you can do by yourself … acting not so much.
I started writing whilst I was at school and when I went to drama school, I wrote plays under pseudonyms. The reason being, I wanted people to judge the piece objectively, not knowing it was me that produced it.
For years I wrote long-hand in W.H.Smith’s exercise books and always in black felt pen. I think this was the nearest I became to being O.C.D. I literally have hundreds and hundreds of textbooks that I was at one time going to throw away, but was persuaded by my daughter to keep them. I’m glad she did. They represent so much work. Work on the whole I loved doing, which makes me very fortunate. Most people can’t wait to retire, I’m still looking to produce my Casablanca, or my Godfather … or Blade Runner. That seminal piece I think most writers are in search of.
These thoughts about school and my early career were generated by the recent speculation and trepidation about the current GCSE exams. Here are thousands and thousands of teenagers who have been told that their future depends on the next few months. Failure at this point is tantamount to failure in life. That’s what they’ve been led to believe – wrongly.
Exams are like steppingstones across a river. Some people step on every single one, others skip a few, slip, get a bit wet, but where there are steppingstones, rarely do people drown, and most end up at the other side of the river. Life is about a series of crossroads and sometimes you take the wrong one and sometimes you take the right one. The trick is to try and take the right one more often than the wrong one, but virtually no one takes the right one every time.
Education has always liked to corral and pigeon-hole people. It can be frustrating but it’s understandable. If it wasn’t done in that fashion, then it would mean every pupil would have to have their own individual teacher who concentrated wholly and solely on them. Not going to happen. Not even the wealthy West can afford education on that grand scale. And would you want it? Isn’t going to school about a process of socialising, learning, and understanding the world is place full of potholes.
Equally as important as academic achievement is the ability to be a worthwhile and an appreciative member of society. I know many successful people who weren’t successful at school but they went on to find their way in life.
But remember be careful on the stepping stones and watch out for those crossroads.