My gap year wasn't a success: I learnt little from preparing the high priests for orgies in the temple

Is there anything that you can't buy a guide to? This week I discovered that there is now a library of guidebooks on the subject of that thing called the gap year. It's become another industry.

As a sad, middle-aged man, I ought to say at this point that in my day we managed without such guides. But I didn't manage. In fact I was in need of far more guides than are even available today or will ever be available.

Last week I was reading one of those post-A-level newspaper articles on how to cope with your first term at university and I made a mental list of the things I didn't know about or how to do when I began university. I won't reproduce it here - suffice to say that I was like the main character in one of those unfunny comic films in which a member of a primitive tribe arrives in New York City and has a succession of "amusing" misunderstandings in which he mistakes a traffic light for an angry deity and shoots muggers with his bow and arrow. Except that in the film the primitive tribesman generally triumphs.

One newspaper article on gap years was illustrated by a photograph of a group of young people trekking across a hitherto unexplored peak in the Himalayas. There are now brochures offering guided tours across deserts, work experience with shamans . . . anything you can think of. As long as you don't actually get murdered, you should arrive for your first year at university with an expanded mind and the material for your first novel or - if you're clever about it - your first few novels.

My own gap year sounded glamorous in prospect. I was passionate about theatre, and a friend of mine called Barney got me a job working with him as a stagehand for the long-running production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Palace Theatre in the West End. Andrew Lloyd-Webber made so much money from it that he bought the theatre. But I was paid £17 a week.

Even in retrospect it sounds as if it ought to have been glamorous. After Mary Magdalene had finished offering to anoint Jesus, I was the one she gave the ointment container to. For the (all-too-tame) orgy in the temple, I was the one who put the incense into the lanterns carried by the high priests. And if you had the misfortune to see Jesus Christ Superstar in 1978, you actually saw me, or at least my silhouette. At the end, my friend and I had to run out on stage to remove a plank, so that Jesus could rise up out of the stage on some sort of pop-art crucifix. This was the only thing we had to do on which the show actually depended, and Barney and I concocted our own version of the chicken race, in which we would see how far away from the stage we could be when our cue came.

Maybe there was some sort of numbed, Warholesque fascination in seeing 150 performances of a show that had already been running for six years. It was certainly numb. I spent my time between cues in a corner, reading plays. I could read one a night, so I suppose I received a theatrical education of a kind. I also had a plan to swap jobs with somebody round the corner who worked as a stagehand at Raymond's Revuebar. I had a theory (false, as I would later discover) that if I found it so difficult to talk to women, perhaps I would find it easier if they had no clothes on. Anyway, nothing came of it, and I never discovered what props I would have to have dealt with - Robert Frost's "road not taken", with a vengeance.

The actors didn't fare any better than I did. Evita opened that year, and virtually the whole cast auditioned for it. The majority who were rejected were even more sour and cynical than before. The production finally closed in the early eighties, and occasionally I see some of the cast on TV. One of them was a regular for a while in a terrible BBC sitcom; another became a presenter of Play School.

I heard that other cast members immediately got involved in a touring production of Superstar. It's probably still going somewhere in some remote part of the world where I ought to have gone for my gap year.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Gordon Brown, the great feminist