Who Was Who in Dulwich: Michael Croft, Founder of the National Youth Theatre by David Weston
The first recorded sighting of Michael Croft in Dulwich was in the autumn of 1950 at the bottom of Court Lane, when an Alleyn Old Boy was accosted by a burly figure in a duffel coat who genially inquired: "Where can an old sailor get a drink around here?" Croft was duly led to the first of innumerable visits to the Crown and Greyhound.
Michael was then 29 years old. He was a Shropshire lad, born out of wedlock on the English side of Offa's Dyke in the hamlet of Hengoed near the small town of Gobowen, and brought up by an elderly foster-mother. Throughout his life, in spite of his legions of friends, Michael often seemed lonely as if seeking the family he never had. He eventually moved to Manchester and was educated at Burnage Grammar School. He excelled at cricket and football and took part in theatricals but gained a reputation for being a rebel. He served in the Royal Navy throughout the war and after demobilisation in 1946 went to Keeble College, Oxford by way of a government grant for ex-service men. His fellow undergraduates were perhaps the most talented in the University's history. Because of the war there was a backlog of seven years. In 1946 ninety percent of the freshmen were ex-servicemen. Michael became friends with such diffuse characters as Kenneth Tynan, Christopher Chataway, Ludovic Kennedy, Robin Day, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson. Though he acted in many plays, Michael's main ambition was to become a writer. He had written poetry whilst in the Navy and wrote for Isis and Cherwell. After graduating with a modest Third, Michael spent most of 1950 doing teacher training at a secondary school in North Oxford. It was his experiences there that he used for his best-selling and largely autobiographical novel Spare the Rod.
It was the presence of Edward Upward, (then living in Turney Road) the friend and mentor of Christopher Isherwood, as head of English that attracted Michael to Alleyn's. He entered the school full of idealism, perhaps echoing the thoughts of his hero in Spare the Rod: "Here crusader is your battlefield. Did you dream a dream?
Apart from some notable exceptions, Michael was to have trouble with his fellow teachers. His somewhat Rabelaisian manner and appearance did not always endear him to them. However Michael soon found a kindred spirit in Ken Spring. Ken was an unlikely Art Master, tall, good-looking, his handsome face scarred from his wartime service in the jungles of Malaysia. He was also a leading light in the Cadet Force, in which membership, in those early Cold War days was compulsory. Ken remembered his first meeting with Michael in the Common Room:
"I thought he was a strange person to be joining the staff of Alleyn's. He looked slightly unkempt; he wore his old service duffle coat and was obviously out of the normal pattern of the grammar school master with their ties and suits and sometimes rather dirty macs. I recognized someone, like myself, who was slightly out of keeping with the rest. I thought, 'Let's talk to this bloke', and we finished up that very day in the bar of the Crown and Greyhound.
"Come on lads, have a laugh..."
A pupil remembers Croft in the classroom:
"He was my form master when I first came up from the Lower School. We were expecting somebody rather smart, wearing gowns and things, but Croft's gown was a bit ripped up, a second hand gown. We didn't know what he was doing when he wrote 'Speech Training' on the board, but after a lot of spluttering and coughing he began to read. Once he started he really took us with him but whenever he got to a line like 'pregnant with celestial fire', he would screw up his nose and lip and sort of say: 'Come on lads, have a laugh.' He wasn't really a master but there was something about him that allowed him to control a bunch of very mixed youths. It wasn't discipline in the way some masters enforced a rigid discipline, but somehow he managed to command respect in a very special way."
In the summer of 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, the year when the country was supposed finally to have shrugged off the trials and tribulations of the Second World War, Michael finally began the work that was to transform the lives of so many, including his own, and would eventually launch a movement that would change the attitude to Drama in almost every school in the land. Michael, who had taken part in open-air productions in the college gardens at Oxford, hit upon the idea of an epic modern dress production of Julius Caesar on the school playing fields, using the School's Cadet Force. He also began to reveal his talent for winning over the most unlikely recruits. Eric Randall, the young Guards ex-sergeant who had been attached to the school to help run the C.C.F. was persuaded to oversee the drill and battle scenes.
Eric Randall recalls: "I created a complete battle for him. I had platoons of my Corps lads screaming and charging at each other firing blanks. He wanted the entire school lit up at a certain point; I used pyrotechnics and ignited red flares and smoke bombs. It looked as if the school was silhouetted against an enormous fire."
Michael wanted the crowd which Antony wins over in the Forum to be of Cecil B. De Mille proportions, and set about persuading the least likely but most robust boys to take part. Among his first recruits were his Under Fifteen Soccer team, to whom he promised great quantities of beer as a reward. Excitement spread around the school as more and more boys came forward to. Not just to act or to be in the crowd, but to make props, scenery, assist with the stage management and the selling of tickets.
Julian Glover, perhaps the only Alleyn boy of that era who would have become a professional actor without Croft's influence, was a great Mark Antony, and Julius Caesar became a local legend - people still talk of it in Dulwich to this day. William Russell an old friend from Oxford, soon to be famous on ITV as Sir Lancelot remembers:
"I saw 'Julius Caesar' down on the playing fields. I thought it was pretty remarkable. I remember the sense of excitement overtaking me, which it did in all of Mike's productions. I got a genuine theatrical thrill from being in the audience, a feeling like when your skin gets prickly. I felt that something very unusual and spontaneous and very much alive was happening. I told him this was something he must go on doing."
Other productions followed in quick succession: Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Henry V and Henry IV Part II. Soon London critics such as W.A. Darlington of the Daily Telegraph and his nameless colleague from The Times began to regularly come to Dulwich. Croft built up his own publicity machine among the boys, and playbills were sent out to other schools further and further afield. There was hardly ever an empty seat. After Julius Caesar the other plays were performed in the Great Hall where Ken Spring would build an Elizabethan setting on an open stage. Boys, such as Brian Croft, later to design the lighting for Rolling Stones Tours and the Millennium Concerts at Buckingham Palace, worked on the lighting.
Michael could get the most extraordinary response and performances out of the most unlikely boys
A fellow teacher at Alleyn's recalled: "Michael could get the most extraordinary response and performances out of the most unlikely boys. Nobody had achieved anything like it before. He was quite ruthless in his rehearsal schedule; he would go on until ungodly hours, because he wanted it right. He would do a scene for the fourth or eighth time with as much energy and verve as when he had begun hours before. Some of the boys, having had a full day at school and often a football match before they had begun, were exhausted.
During these hectic years Spare the Rod was published and became an immediate success and, to Michael's delight, a matter of controversy. John Betjeman, reviewing the novel in the Telegraph wrote:
"I have seldom been more alarmed and affected by a new novel than I have by 'Spare the Rod'. This is the first novel which shows a sense of narration and form, and with an absence of over-writing altogether admirable."
That pleased Croft very much - he admired the brevity of Hemmingway. The success of the novel insured that he now had money for the first time in his life. He still intended to become a writer and to the great disappointment of the boys announced that he would leave Alleyn's to fulfil that ambition.
His final production at Alleyn's was Henry IV Part II. His achievement is best summed up by a review in The Times in December 1955:
"It was not the last word in Shakespearian productions, for in these no word is ever final; yet it would be hard to imagine a finer presentation of Shakespeare on a school stage. There is no reason to suppose that Alleyn's has a higher percentage of good actors than any other school of its size - on stage indeed it had its inevitable share of bad ones. But what was so striking about this production was the size of the hard core of polished performers: not two or three, as is usual at schools, but 22 or 23. From Falstaff to Feeble the confident clarity of their speaking was a joy to hear. And the man responsible was Mr Michael Croft. He has succeeded in instilling in the minds of his actors a feeling for the stress and rhythm of Shakespeare's verse that would have done credit to a Stratford performance."
As far as the School was concerned that was the end, but a few months later the inner core of his actors visited him in his bed-sit in Lordship Lane one Sunday morning, and persuaded him to found the Youth Theatre. At least that is what they thought they were doing, but Michael had had the germ of the idea in his head for many years. As he later explained:
"I thought for a long time about it and finally decided to try it out. The idea was, rather vaguely, to bring young actors together in their school holiday to take part in serious productions in the hope of encouraging young people in general to take more interest in the theatre. Even more vaguely, I hoped that the Youth Theatre, as I was already calling it in my mind, would develop a real sense of community by bringing together young people from diverse backgrounds to work in a group where even the humblest mattered. I hoped too that the work would encourage them to look upon the theatre as being as much part of their lives as football or dancing, instead of something reserved for the precious or privileged few."
His aims are even more relevant today. But he was taking a tremendous risk. He had no money but his own, he could lose it all in a week and all of his work at Alleyn's would be negated and swept away. He threw himself into his task with all of his prodigious energy; and for more than a decade, before his first heart attack, he laboured day and night. The work on the productions alone would have been enough for any man, but Michael founded an organization, formed a movement, battled with innumerable authorities, and 'heard the chimes at midnight' every night.
Having been refused funding by the Arts Council and educational bodies, Michael turned to the theatrical profession for practical support:
"On one occasion I dragged Sir Alec Guinness from his bed and, on another, Sir Peter Ustinov from his bath - I persuaded some of our most distinguished actors to give their names in support. Not least of these was Sir Ralph Richardson, who, during the trials and torments of Timon of Athens at the Old Vic, found time to undertake the Presidency of the newly named Youth Theatre."
If ever a national institution was founded in Dulwich it was the National Youth Theatre
Michael decided to revive Henry V with mostly the original cast from Alleyn's, to which he added a handful from Dulwich College. If ever a national institution was founded in Dulwich it was the National Youth Theatre. He arranged costume hire from the Old Vic and booked the unknown venue of Toynbee Hall in the unfashionable East End. There was no fringe theatre in those days; moreover early September was a notoriously bad time for theatre- going in London. There were no TIME OUT listings. Michael only had the keenness of his boys and he set them to work in his flat in Lordship Lane.
Simon Ward remembers it well:
"The tiny room with theatre posters drooping from the walls was in absolute chaos. It was packed with boys rehearsing, reading, typing, making telephone calls, pouring over booking charts, studying ground plans and making costumes. The noise was indescribable and as all this industry over-flowed, through the door and up the stairs, I remember expecting irate neighbours to appear at any moment. I had just been accepted for the part of the French Princess and was then informed that I could begin by putting stamps on 1000 envelopes. I left several hours later with an awful taste in my mouth, the noise several decibels higher than when I had arrived and wondering just what sort of organization I had joined. But 'organization' was the last word to describe the Youth Theatre. Things did get done and materials for the production slowly arrived, but no one seemed to know how or from where. The 'organization' was the most easy going and apparently undisciplined entity that one could envisage, but the self-discipline and keenness of the individual members was its strength, and it didn't take me very long to realize that this was by design. No set of rules could cope with a situation where actors, after finishing rehearsals, could set off with huge packets of pamphlets under their arms, to circularize youth hostels and libraries on the other side of London, and then, like as not, return to lend a hand in building sets or painting banners. It was taken for granted that everyone would work every day at one job or another until they dropped. There was excitement and expectancy that made every day an adventure for me. However small your part and apparently unimportant your job, you felt that the success or failure of the whole project was in your hands."
But despite all their efforts the booking sheets were looking decidedly grim until, two weeks before the play was due to open, the renowned critic W. A. Darlington successfully persuaded his masters at the Daily Telegraph to sponsor the entire production. Michael had money, and even more important, publicity. There were almost daily references in the Telegraph, stirring up interest in what it called: 'One of the most interesting Shakespearean productions since the war.' The booking sheets began to fill - all Michael had to do was deliver.
Henry V opened on September 10th 1956 and was everything that Michael could have wished. A glittering first night with Sir Ralph and his young colleague, Richard Burton, whose Old Vic costume Alleyn Old Boy Richard Hampton was wearing, congratulating the boys from the stage, and a sheaf of the most wonderful notices.
Darlington himself wrote:
"In this production Mr Croft shows publicly what he has so often proved in private, that he has a particular genius for inspiring young people to act. His whole cast works with a pleasure which is infectious, and their standard of speaking - both for precision and for audibility - is most refreshingly high. I hope the theatre will be packed all week; they deserve it."
The houses were indeed packed; by the end of the week they were turning people away. There was a Gala Theatrical matinee attended by Peter Ustinov, Alec Guinness, Flora Robson, Sam Wannamaker, Alan Badel, and a host of Michael's old acquaintances from Oxford. Michael revelled in the East End atmosphere: he made friends with Alfie who ran The Princess Alice, the pub on the corner, and each night would take some of the lads to have steak and chips in Ziggy's café, which, unbeknown to him, was then a favourite haunt of the Krays.
"Two fiery old generals with no known interest in the arts, and could have easily regarded the Youth Theatre as another 'arty' or hare brained venture, came up with a grant of £500 a year. The show was still on the road."
But when the production ended Michael was back to square one:
"I still had no premises, no equipment and no money, save a small production profit and a few donations from people who had even more faith in the venture than I did myself. I now sought support from many sources. For six months I went down on my knees to industrial firms, charity trusts, and cultural and youth welfare bodies - and trod the well-worn but friendless path familiar to many who have endeavoured to raise money for a cultural cause. Then, in 1958, help came from an unexpected quarter. The King George's Jubilee Trust, which was run by two fiery old generals with no known interest in the arts, and could have easily regarded the Youth Theatre as yet another 'arty' or hare-brained venture, came up with a grant of £500 a year. The show was still on the road."
Within a few years, despite further setbacks, he forged the Youth Theatre into a national institution with annual productions on Shaftesbury Avenue, live television performances, and prestigious tours abroad, representing Great Britain at the Theatre De Nations in Paris and the Berlin Festival. He started long before the Renaissance of English Theatre. The Old Vic, its great days long past, was turning out stolid, old-fashioned productions, the National and the RSC did not exist. Teacups and French windows still cluttered the West End. The Royal Court and John Osborne only came into being in 1956 after Michael left Alleyn's. Apart from Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, Michael created the first real ensemble company in England. Today there is hardly a play at the National or Stratford, or a British film or television series that does not contain someone whom he has influenced, directly or indirectly: Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir Ben Kingsley, Dame Helen Mirren, Timothy Spall, Timothy Dalton, Ian McShane, Martin Jarvis, John Shrapnel, Ken Cranham, David Suchet, David Calder, Alex Jennings, Douglas Herd, to Douglas Craig - the latest James Bond ... the list is endless.
Funding would always be the bugbear of Croft's life; indeed the stress of finding and keeping it may have contributed to his early death. He was never a diplomat and became increasingly abrasive with the Arts Council and other authorities in his later years. He was appointed OBE in 1971 and enjoyed an increasingly expansive lifestyle, which he shared generously with his vast circle of friends and acquaintances. He had a great appetite for life, food and drink. He has been described as a Falstaff with a thousand Prince Hals. It is tragic that a man who could inspire such devotion and friendship should die alone on a Saturday night in 1986
This year Croft's achievement celebrates its 50th anniversary. Over the years 120,000 young people have been influenced by his vision. The National Youth Theatre is now housed in a prestigious building in the Holloway Road with a current membership of 2000 young people. It all began on the playing fields of Alleyn's 56 years ago and the Michael Croft Theatre at Alleyn's, which has just received building permission, will be a fitting monument to his memory.