Like many a new undergraduate in 1972, I found myself faced with the prospect of finishing my degree and having to go out into the big bad world to start some kind of a career. I would finish university with a degree in German, but the one thing of which I was certain was that I didn’t want to become a teacher.
I had done some amateur teaching as a language assistant in Germany during the third year of my course and had enjoyed it immensely. It gave full rein to the show-off within me. Indeed I can still remember the two comments from the senior staff at the school where I was ‘assisting’. One was from my mentor, the Head of the English Department, who wrote in her report on my year’s work ‘Mr Nicholls has outstanding pedagogical ability.’
The other was from one of the senior English teachers, a burnt-out and grumpy older man, who insisted that I taught his class of fourteen-year-olds British History, despite my protestations that History was the one GCE that I had failed, with flying colours! Having no knowledge about British History and finding the idea that I should be teaching it to anyone quite ridiculous, I decided to base my lessons on the silly stories and legends that 900 years of history inevitably contains.
So I did lessons on shivering Romans in sandals and short togas on Hadrian’s Wall, King Alfred burning his cakes, Bodecea and her chariots with knives on the wheels, and, eventually, Wellington thrashing Boneparte at the battle of Waterloo. (My lesson about this latter story particularly upset the English teacher, because it made no mention of the crucial role played by General Bluecher, who, in a feat of engineering genius and outstanding bravery, took his entire army across the Rhine in small boats to come to the aid of Wellington, thereby turning impending defeat into a stunning victory. The reason I hadn’t mentioned Bluecher’s contribution to the victory was because I knew next nothing about the subject in the first place. British school text books don’t mention the contribution of foreigners unless we defeated them. Well, I did warn him!)
That teacher’s unforgettable comment on my year-long contribution to his English class was “If Mr Nicholls could resist the temptation to turn all of his lessons into cabaret performances, he might turn out to be a half decent teacher.”
So on leaving university, I knew I could teach but the prospect of going from school to university and then back into school filled me with horror, so I faced the end of my final year at Manchester University with some trepidation. And then I saw the poster for VSO that said “It’s better to light a candle than complain about the dark,” and I few months later I was landing at Khartoum Airport at the start of my first two-year VSO stint.
I was assigned to work as an English teacher at the Higher Teachers’ Training Institute in Omdurman. I was put in charge of a language laboratory, (remember those?) and given some English Literature classes. Imagine teaching ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ to a group of Sudanese young women who were all studying Home Economics so that they could become the consorts of Sudanese diplomats! The cabaret continued. Great fun ensued.
The problem was that The Sudan was going through a politically turbulent time on its downward progress to the parlous state in which it now finds itself. As a consequence of that, my Institute was on strike more often than it was open.
For a VSO volunteer that sort of thing is a disaster, because you are a long way from home in a strange country and no raison d’etre at all. You also can’t travel because you have to be available just in case the students decide to go back to work. The result: crushing boredom and mounting frustration.
And then I saw another poster, this time for the Khartoum Repertory Company, an amateur group of thespians, based on the unashamedly expatriate Sudan Club.
I joined and took part in several theatrical extravaganzas before the suggestion was made that I should direct a play. My directorial debut was the unforgettable 1973 performance, which is, I am sure, even today, the talk of Khartoum town – Ta-dah…..
OK, I admit, it wasn’t the most professional poster you have ever seen, but hey, this was Khartoum in 1973, so give me a break!
It was clear that I wasn’t the only expatriate who had time on his hands. We had a set builder who transformed the open-air stage into a down-at-heel country house that was itself transformed into an inn or a garden by the removal or addition of a few flats.
Finding actors was also not difficult. I managed to cast the Head of the British Council as the country squire, Mr Hardcastle, and his deputy as the lovelorn, if rather duplicitous gentleman, Mr Marlowe.
Mr Hardcastle berates his daughter, Kate, about her unnecessarily flamboyant dress. “I could never teach the fools of this age that the indigent world could be clothed out of the trimmings of the vain!”
Poor Mr Marlowe is too shy and bashful to speak to ladies of high degree, although he is perfectly able to be free with “ladies of another stamp, you understand me!” He has come to court Mr Hardcastle’s daughter.
Mr Hastings, Mr Marlowe’s partner in courtship, who seeks the hand of Miss Hardcastle’s cousin, Constance, flatters Mrs Hardcastle in the hope of separating her from the jewels which she is holding until her niece, Constance, marries her son by her first husband, Tony Lumpkin, thereby keeping the money in the family. ( I hope you are following this. It gets worse!)
Mrs Hardcastle, believing that she is lost upon the heath and that her husband is a murderous highwayman, pleads for her life and the life of her errant son, Tony, who has caused all the mischief. (Note: This scene is supposed to be in the middle of the night somewhere on the Hardcastles’ country estate, not in the drawing room, but the ‘Lost on the heath’ backdrop didn’t come down, and nor did the lights. So everyone carried on regardless. True pros!)
So why am I telling you all this? Well, it is a shameless, and somewhat wordy advertisement for the forthcoming highlight of Brighton’s summer cultural calendar. Drum roll, please… Ta-dah
The difference this time is that the play is directed by someone who knows what she is doing and that Brighton Little Theatre has someone who can produce a decent poster.
The other difference is that I’m not directing, I’m playing the part of Mr Hardcastle.
Gotta go – lots of lines to learn.