Winston Churchill was one for words. Not for him the reading of autocue, an ad-lib speech, off-the-cuff remarks designed to wound or maybe amuse.
Delivery was to be performed, not recited.
Create a moment of theatre to get an audience in the palm of your hand.
That was the Old Soldier. Fighting with a phrase, deftly steering emotions with stagecraft, illuminating a truth.
When battling for his political life at a party conference in 1955, he paused. His audience, aware he had been gravely ill, became nervous. Was he having a stroke?
He took a step, or perhaps a stagger, from the lectern and slowly poured himself water before he sipped from the glass. His timing, immaculate.
‘I don’t often do that,’ the champagne-swilling, brandy-loving prime-minster told the crowd. Then, as they cracked the paintwork with the noise of their adoring laughter, he turned to poetry and again, he constructed an instant heavy with drama.
Word-perfect, he delivered his final lines:
‘It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.’
His political rival and would-be premier, Anthony Eden, did not join in the adulation that followed. He knew Winston Churchill, not he, had won the right to lead the party in the next election.
The Conservatives had come to bury him, but instead chose to praise him. Tory legions fell into line; Churchill’s battle won with a theatrical dash, a wordsmith’s flourish.
Ten years later, in 1965, he died. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his passing.
It is also the 50th anniversary of the birth of a project borne of England’s centuries old love affair with the stage.
Soon after Winston was buried, the leading lights of Coventry – faced tough decisions.Where to spend in a city still re-building after Second World War? And how to get the money? As they debated, one question above all: what matters most?
Education was their answer…and drama would be a key vehicle in the arming of a new generation. Drama touched the soul.
They are marching behind a drummer who is heading straight for a helmeted soldier armed with a toy tank. The war was still very fresh in the cultural consciousness. What were the children learning? Judging from the obvious laughter, nothing too frightening.
It isn’t clear, but that they are learning something is clear. The drama of the moment is not on a stage, they are on the stage. It is not about another world, it is about their world. The performance is not simply offered by an actor, it is a performance by the children. They are creating the moment of drama.
Words and performance in action. Winston Churchill would have approved. A truth was being illuminated perhaps?
Despite the austerity faced, Coventry’s Councillors took the bold decision to levy an extra half penny rates on every home to continue to invest in the city’s Belgrade Theatre. Not in the portentous way of the Royal Shakespeare Company down the road, nor in the earthy way of the Kitchen-Sink dramas of the West End. Rather, to create “Theatre in Education” – an educational method that would, eventually, be adopted by schools and theatres worldwide.
“T.i.E.” began in 1965 on the recently-sanded slats of a theatre that the people of war-ravaged Belgrade had helped build. It was that city which sent the timbers for the reconstruction of Coventry’s destroyed playhouse
All around, the war still resonated and Coventry was determined to make sure its children would learn in a new way, build a new city, create new relationships based on an understanding of humanity. But to be the Captain of a soul takes some knowledge of soul. That’s where T.i.E would come in.
Understanding would be reached through drama in schools and provided by the people who knew how to act, write and perform – the talent available at The Belgrade.
Teachers and actors would go forth into schools around Coventry and the pupils would return to the Belgrade in their thousands for decades to come.
‘T.i.E’ has developed into a project which offers the young of Coventry – some considered too tough to teach – a platform to realise their potential.
Each year sees another teenage cast put on a show. But in this milestone 50th anniversary year, Arts funders and Schools can scarcely, if at all, afford to give up scarce resources to continue the legacy of 1965.
The latest intake in ‘T.i.E’ could be the last to raise the curtain. The final beneficiaries of a method of teaching which the rest of the world still reveres.
The Belgrade’s pioneering innovation ‘Theatre-in-Education’ is fighting for its life. Its weapons are words, performance and an appeal to the nation’s trust in what those rebuilding after the war believed in.
That drama and the performance of words alongside a deft use of stagecraft, can create an understanding not just of humanity – but of the soul.
Should we be bothered that this 50-year-old initiative may close? Why should the Coventry Belgrade not put on more popular shows, turn a profit and fund the scheme itself?
Isn’t it time the Arts paid its way rather than await the levy of another tax, the hand-out from another Charity?
Were they wrong in 1965? Do our children really need Churchill’s artful techniques?
In ‘On Stage’ for BBC ONE this Autumn, firstlooktv will be giving viewers the chance to reach their own conclusions.
Were you around in 1965 Coventry and did you take part in any of the Theatre in education schemes over the next 50 years? Are you in that picture from the 60s? Let us know through firstname.lastname@example.org