Terrence Rattigan and the New Statesman

The magazine features in a revival of While the Sun Shines.

Terrence Rattigan had a close association with the New Statesman, most strongly just after the Second World War when his friend T C Worsley, who often spent winter breaks at Rattigan’s house in Bermuda, became the magazine’s literary editor and drama critic. In 1950 the playwright provoked the contemporary equivalent of a Twitter storm in the letters pages of the NS when, following a bad reception for his play Adventure Story about  Alexander the Great,  he published his article “Concerning the Play of Ideas” which took a swipe at the idea that drama had to address topical controversies, singling out Ibsen and Shaw for particular criticism. Shaw waded into the controversy closely followed by Sean O’Casey, James Bridie (playwright and translator of Ibsen), Benn Levy (playwright and Labour MP for Eton and Slough 1945-50), Peter Ustinov and Ted Willis.

Rattigan had success in the 1950s with The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables (which also features a copy of the New Statesman read by the Major disgraced by the disclosure of his conviction for a minor sexual offence), but his spell at the heart of the Zeitgeist was over, aggravated by his self regarding remarks after the first night of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

The hundreth anniversary of his birth last year has produced a spate of Rattigan revivals and his reputation has been restored almost to the heights it reached in the 1930s and 1940s. The hugely successful recent production of his 1944 play Flare Path has now been followed by a revival of the play that immediately preceeded it, While The Sun Shines, at the Lion and the Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town. Set in the London of 1943 when many couples were getting hitched only to be parted by the war, sometimes forever, this is not one of the playwright's social commentaries but a very funny comedy featuring the young Earl of Harpenden’s faltering progress towards the altar with Lady Elizabeth Randall. Matters are complicated by the earl’s entanglement with the comely Mabel Crum and Lady Elizabeth’s unwitting bewitching of both a Free French officer Lieutenant Colbert and the Earl’s new found American friend Lieutant Mulvaney. The Duke of Ayr and Stirling, Lady Elizabeth’s permanently impecunious father is desperate for the match to succeed so he can obtain a share of the Harpenden money to fritter away in the bookies – at one point he plays dice to decide which of the suitors will actually make it to the altar. A copy of the New Statesman is brandished at several points in the action, twice as Mabel Crum is dispatched to hide in the kitchen with the NS to keep her company and most memorably when Harpenden clashes with Colbert who proudly admits to being a socialist, convinced that the British aristocracy will soon be extinct. “Well I read the New Statesman, you know” retorts the distressed Earl.  The combination of misunderstandings, bed sharing, military uniforms and a splendid butler called Horton might make you think you’ve seen it before, but never better written than this and probably not better acted either. If you’re in need of cheering up you should go and fall in love with the cast, especially Greer Dale-Foulkes as Lady Elisabeth and Patrick Rogers as her aristo father – when you first see him, he seems a bit too young for the part but his comic ability soon erases those doubts. Rattigan would be delighted, and you will be too.

"While the Sun Shines" runs at the Lion and the Unicorn pub theatre in Gaisford Street, London NW5 until 17 June. Tickets from www.giantolive.com/tickets.html

Sophia Sibthorpe, Iestyn Arwel and Freddie Hutchins in When the Sun Shines
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times