The School Doctor: From Prep School to Hollywood?

The School Doctor says that a prep school education is no guarantee of Hollywood success.

The ‘Best Picture’ mix-up at last week’s Oscars was a chaotic culmination of the awards season – a season notable for the success of the BBC’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, with Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman picking up Golden Globes on 8 January. This comes in the wake of the show being named in the Radio Times as the best TV programme of 2016; Laurie’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and the success of the team behind the six-part dramatization at the Emmy Awards.

I managed to catch only the last episode of The Night Manager. It was rather enjoyable, what with Laurie’s pseudo-pantomime villain and Hiddleston’s subtext audition to be the next James Bond (before he went and undermined it with all that Taylor Swift stuff). But my contact with the drama ended up being wider than watching one episode, as the press had a field day with the fact that three of the lead actors in The Night Manager went to the same prep school. Cue the rebirth of the perennial and important debate about the presence of private school alumni in the higher echelons of public life, on the stage, and on the screen. I don’t want to go fully into that debate here, but there was one element of the media coverage that did not totally add up: there was a direct assumption that because these actors went to prep school, they ended up in a multi-million-pound BBC blockbuster. Today: St Custard’s. Tomorrow: Hollywood.

It’s funny how one minute the media ascribe schools’ achievements according to PISA rankings, and the next to three men appearing in a Sunday night drama. But is there really something innate in a prep school drama education that leads to an inexorable rise to the dramatic top? It has been posited that a significant difference is made by having drama on the curriculum in some prep schools, as well as the freedom to learn in those schools without over-worrying about standardized testing. Aside from the false dichotomy between creativity and core grammatical or mathematical skills, I wonder whether the relationship between prep schools and the dramatic arts is more complex than has so far been discussed. Are prep schools just another symptom of the backgrounds of some top actors, rather than a congratulatory cause of their success?

There are indeed some elements of a prep school education that can help with a successful future in the dramatic arts. Prep schools generally have the time, resources and willing staff who will put on ambitious dramatic productions. Prep boarding schools have a resident cast that can easily rehearse late into the evening. Prep day schools invest in after-school activity programmes to offer something beyond the curriculum. If you attend a prep school, you are statistically likely to go on to independent senior schools where the investment in drama is extraordinary and the number of plays in which you can get involved is huge. If you attend a prep school, then a public school, you are statistically likely to go to a top university. Once there, and with access to theatre companies like Footlights, you have resources, opportunities and a pre-existing network that must surely help once you leave university.

Already you will notice that the prep school’s contribution to a career in drama might be important, but it is only one factor in a welter of others. Will some members of prep school casts go on to be the next Tom Hiddleston? Will some attempt to be the next Tom Hiddleston, but end up spending years ‘waiting for the call’? If they do make it big, can it really be claimed that they have done so because they played Falstaff at prep school?

There are too many necessary limitations to prep school drama, and too many other factors at work in actors’ success, to ascribe such a causal link. Curriculum drama in prep schools will always be a small slither of that curriculum. There are just so many other subjects vying for space and time. Extra-curricular drama is a more significant factor, and that relies on the goodwill of teachers, who often stay on without extra pay. Also, many of the actors who excel in drama at school consequently spend a reduced amount of time in that school. How many of them finish their stint in Matilda in Stratford, then return to their schools to star in The Sound of Music? Won’t they have missed most of the rehearsals? Won’t someone who is always there be playing Maria?

More fundamentally, many parents can afford prep school fees because they have a significant amount of family financial security. If that security continues once the one-time prep school child enters their early twenties, then they have a financial cushion on which to fall back if the whole drama thing goes wrong. The longer that financial cushion is there, the more drama school lessons, masterclasses and auditions they can attend, and the higher their chances of getting somewhere. Not worrying about money, or how you can possibly fit in another night shift to get by, will also have an impact on the auditionee’s state of mind and self-confidence, which presumably is also vital for getting a part.

So, yes, prep schools contribute in some ways to successful careers in the dramatic arts. But we need to be quite careful when putting that contribution in a wider and more complex context. Headlines like ‘Top actors become top actors because they go to prep school’ might make their former teachers blush with pride, and they are click-bait for those who rightly look with unease at the connection between independent education and private school alumni dominating major professions. A more subtle, but much less catchy, headline would be: ‘Top actors become top actors due to a welter of factors, one of which is going to a prep school, but that itself is a symptom of socio-economic factors that enable said actors to go to drama-rich senior schools and universities, and/or to drama school, then spend their early twenties auditioning, auditioning and auditioning, instead of working in Wetherspoon’s to pay their rent on a hovel’. And … scene.

The School Doctor is a practising teacher at a UK school, using a pseudonym to allow more freedom in his/her regular columns for Schools Improvement.

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