Circumstances have got me thinking again about the years I spent teaching in Stevenage – four years in the English Department at Stevenage Girls’ School, 1971 – 75; the same four years that I was studying, part time, for a BA in English at Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire. A course of study made easier by the generosity of Hertfordshire County Council, who allowed me one afternoon off a week, with pay, to attend lectures, together with four weeks – four whole weeks – off to revise for my finals. Outstanding.
Stevenage was the first of the New Towns to arrive in the wake of the Second World War, a brutalist cousin of two nearby towns that were products of the earlier Garden City movement – Welwyn to the south and Letchworth to the north. Up until 1969, there were two grammar schools, the long-established Alleyne’s School for boys in Stevenage Old Town, and the rather peripatetic Stevenage Girls’ Grammar School, which dropped the word ‘grammar’ from its title when it arrived at new buildings on Valley Way in 1968, in readiness for joining the comprehensive revolution.
It was my experience teaching young people in secondary modern schools – those who, in pre-comprehensive days, would have taken and failed their 11 Plus – that made me an attractive proposition for the head teacher, Miss Osborne – though to what extent Mrs Crewe, the Head of English, agreed, I was never certain. And it wasn’t just English I was teaching; I was also teaching drama. Lots of small group improvisation, probably rather too much wafting around to the likes of Britten’s Sea Interludes – and, on a couple of occasions, a full-scale production. The school play.
In my earlier post at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover I’d warmed up with an abridged version of Shaw’s St. Joan [called, of course, St. Jo – what else?] followed by the (almost) all-dancing, all singing At Last, The Vincent Van Gogh Show! – the highpoint of which was the actor playing Van Gogh coming out wearing a huge polystyrene ear and proceeding, slowly, and squeakily, to saw it off with a fretsaw. Well, it was the 60s! And something I might well return to in more detail in a later blog – but for now, back to Stevenage.
At the Girls’ School, the first production was Alice, based, of course, on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and very much under the influence of the Jefferson Airplane song, White Rabbit.
One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all, go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.
You can imagine the scene: Alice, red hair, blue dress, and the first of several white pills and, pretty soon, the first sighting of the white rabbit itself.
Half-buried amongst a pile of miscellaneous papers, I found a copy of the programme …
It’s noticeable how strictly I was sticking to the protocols laid down by the Drama Department at Goldsmiths, where I’d done my teacher training, and followed through by my great friend and mentor, Tom Wild, whose productions of Brecht and Shakespeare with ‘secondary modern kids’ in Yorkshire were an inspiration. So, rule one, involve as many of the school as you can, and two, list them all equally and alphabetically . Everyone counts.
Having suggested ideas of madness in Alice – see the Cheshire Cat’s riposte to Alice above – the following year’s production, Split, was based on a case-study of a girl suffering from schizophrenia that was written about in R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self. [The 60s continued to loom large.]
The majority of the scenes were built up through improvisation during many rehearsals, improvisation that continued in performance, save for opening and closing lines, which acted as cues for the people doing music and lighting.
It was a recent exchange of emails with Moya Cove, one of the musicians listed above, that got me harking back to Stevenage days – and plays – and I was very interested to read Moya’s thoughts about growing up and going to school in Stevenage – thoughts she is happy for me to share …
The more I look back and think about it the more I realise what a unique ‘brave new world’ social and economic project we were all involved in. Personally, I feel we had the very best of Stevenage new town in those forward looking post-war days before the shine wore off. And it was successful – for an all too brief moment in time – in facilitating real social mobility, along with optimism, hope and a feeling for social justice. As a group of girls I would say we all came out of Stevenage -in those days of rising feminism – and were utterly determined to have careers and be economically independent. Our generation were incredibly fortunate to experience Stevenage at that time.
For proof of what Moya says about social mobility, a feeling for social justice, and the rise of feminism amongst Stevenage’s young women, I would point to the life of Sherma Batson (whose name appears in the Alice programme).
A community activist with a wide variety of interests, Sherma was one of the founders of the Stevenage World Forum for Ethnic Communities, and largely responsible for setting up Celebrate!!!, a multi-cultural showcase held annually at the Gordon Craig Theatre during Black History Month. A stalwart member of the Labour Party, Sherma was elected to Hertfordshire County Council in 2001 and in 2008 she was made an MBE for services to the county. In 2014/15, she was elected by the Stevenage Borough Council to be Mayor of Stevenage, the first black woman to hold that role. All too sadly, with so much more work to do, so much more life to live, Sherma died suddenly in January 2017, following a subarachnoid haemorrhage, at the age of only 59. In February of that year, Stevenage Borough Council posthumously conferred on Sherma the title of Honorary Freeman.