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‘I don’t want any stage school brats!’: Sylvia Young on nurturing Billie Piper, Daniel Kaluuya and a host of stars

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-04-11

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Sylvia Young rescues me from the noise and chaos of what seems like 100 schoolchildren singing and dancing and jumping around the entrance to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, but is probably only around 20 – these are theatre-school pupils, with the noise, confidence and presence of a group several times their size. She takes me through the school to an upper floor and we peek into classrooms where drama lessons take place before eventually finding an empty room. The whole place – it’s a converted church in London – seems to fizz with noise and activity. The children are all a bit overexcited, Young explains – they’re holding a day of fundraising for Ukraine, and it’s the end of term.

Young describes herself as the “caretaker” – she lives in the caretaker’s flat above the school with her husband, Norman – though she’s actually the founder and principal of her school. At 82, small and twinkly, she no longer teaches but she’s always around. When we walk through the school together, pupils smile and say hello to her with an easy confidence I never had as a child (and she’s always Sylvia to them, she says, never Mrs Young – though to be more accurate, she’s Mrs Ruffell because Young is, aptly enough, a bit of a stage name).

Just don’t call it a stage school. Every year Young takes an assembly – the school has 220 full-time students, between the ages of 10 and 16, and 900 Saturday school attenders – and asks the children “what mustn’t we be?” she says, “and they all shout out ‘stage school brats!’”

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Talent … a young Nicholas Hoult. Photograph: KMazur/WireImage

In recognition of her 50 years teaching drama, shaping the careers of numerous performers, Young is one of five recipients of a Special Recognition Olivier award this year. She is delighted but says: “It’s quite strange. You don’t really know that anyone else has made any note of what you’re doing.” But many of her pupils, either full-time or Saturday school attenders, have gone on to have very notable careers – they include the actors Keeley Hawes, Billie Piper, Nicholas Hoult and Daniel Kaluuya, singers Dua Lipa and Rita Ora, and a large number of pop groups. The school has kept EastEnders well-supplied, too. “A lot of [the students] do very well,” agrees Young.

A Spice Girls song thumps in the background, which must be inspiring to the students – Emma Bunton came here – although many of the current crop are already working successfully, in West End shows such as Matilda and Hollywood films (Woody Norman, 13, was recently nominated for a Bafta for his role in the Joaquin Phoenix film C’mon C’mon ). Amy Winehouse was one of Young’s pupils in the 90s, so talented that she was given a part-scholarship. She was, says Young with a smile, “very naughty. I liked her tremendously.” She was also “very clever”, but it meant she often became bored with her academic work which she found too easy, even though the school moved her up a year.

“She would upset the academic teachers, except the English teacher who thought she’d be a novelist. She seemed to be just loved. But she was naughty,” says Young. Nothing terrible, she says – things such as wearing extra earrings, which Winehouse would agree to take out, then they’d be back in again an hour later. The story goes that she was expelled from the school, but Young says that isn’t the case. Is it true she expelled her own daughter, Frances? “Yes, that is true,” she says, with a smile. Frances Ruffelle would go on to be a musical theatre star (and her daughter is the pop star Eliza Doolittle, now known as Eliza), but when she was at the school in the late 70s, Young says she realised “it wasn’t going to work”, being her teacher.

Young was born in Hackney in 1939, just as the second world war broke out. She was too young to remember much of it, though she does remember screaming for her grandad to come down into the cellar when the air raid sirens went off, but was evacuated and lived with “a really lovely down-to-earth mining family” in a village near Barnsley. “It was a great experience for me. They wanted to adopt me but my dad didn’t think it was a good idea.”

Back in London, and one of nine children, Young sought refuge from her busy house at the local library, where she would go every day to read. “I read through a tremendous amount of plays,” she says. She joined a group of other children “and we’d do play readings, and little performances”. Did she want to be a performer? “I did, but I used to get stage fright.” She joined Mountview, a theatre company, then in north London. “I used to lose my voice before every production. When I think about it, they were sort of panic attacks.”

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Another alumnus … Billie Piper. Photograph: Mike Prior/Redferns

Young left school at 16, “primarily because I wanted to be able to buy stockings”, she says with a laugh. In her early 20s, she got married – Norman worked as a telephone engineer – and became a stay-at-home mother. She did one last performance for Mountview just before her first daughter was born, playing a barmaid (they built the bar up high around her to hide her pregnancy), Norman taking her, heavily pregnant, to the station on the back of his bike.

Young never intended to start a school, but it gradually grew out of drama classes she would hold for children at her two daughters’ primary school. She would charge 10p a lesson, for which you’d also get a cup of orange squash and a biscuit. “It all just grew,” she says.

It is talent that leads to success, but it’s also the right job at the right time. Pure luck

The children wanted to do drama training full-time and when they asked her where they could go, she didn’t know. Her Saturday school was at a boys’ sports club on Drury Lane and when it became available during the week a headteacher friend suggested they start a school. Initially, they had fewer than 30 full-time students. “It was madness. I did good vocational training and there were opportunities, but it took me a long time to get the education straight.”

It grew steadily, not least thanks to Young’s determination. “I did take chances,” she says. “I think I was so bold in those days, I was very feisty. I’ve mellowed.” There seems to be a whole generation of London drama school matriarchs – Anna Scher , Barbara Speake , Maggie Bury Walker . Did she feel a rivalry with them? “No, I didn’t because I’ve always said there’s talent everywhere and we should respect [everyone],” says Young. “Whether or not they feel differently about me, I don’t know.” She laughs.

The group moved to a disused school in Marylebone, which they later bought and where they would stay for 30 years. Once league tables started in the 90s, Young had to focus on academic achievement. “In the earlier days, we’d do school shows which were brilliant, far ahead of their time. We’d stop school for three or four weeks, and rehearse.” Now, she says, academic work is “at the forefront” (from Monday to Wednesday, the children study; on Thursday and Friday, they take performing arts training). “I don’t want anyone to be disadvantaged by coming to a school like mine,” she says.

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Get in … Daniel Kaluuya. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

It has not been a good time for specialist drama schools – several, including Italia Conti’s junior school, the Barbara Speake Stage School and Redroofs in Reading, have closed in the last two years . “I can understand that,” says Young. “[The pandemic] knocked our finances for six, but we’re still here. It was only because we’d been doing well and had something to fall back on, but we no longer have anything to fall back on.” Is there still a place for a vocational school like hers? Unsurprisingly, she believes there is. “I think the children that leave here are so well-equipped for the world. Not just for the profession, [but] communication skills, understanding discipline, being able to speak to adults.”

The fees are nearly £5,000 a term, though she says a good proportion of pupils have been on scholarships and bursaries. “I’ve never wanted it to be purely for children of the wealthy.” There are certainly children from affluent families but others, she says, whose parents take second jobs or whose fees are paid by relatives clubbing together. Has she seen the business change? Is it harder for children from low-income backgrounds to make it? “I think the talent will out,” she says, slightly opaquely.

Young says she usually can’t tell who will go on to be hugely successful. “You see the ones that should, but it doesn’t always work. It is talent, but it’s also the right job at the right time. Pure luck.”

Beyond the few former students who have become household names, many others work in the profession in some capacity, such as casting agents, camera operators and writers. Others have opened their own dance or drama schools.

Theatre is a notoriously difficult and competitive business, and no less so for children who go for auditions – sometimes up against each other – and don’t get the roles. How does she teach them to handle rejection? “We instil in them that it’s not them that’s being rejected, or their talent, it’s just that they weren’t the vision that that particular director had for that particular part.”

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Still going strong … the school moved to Marble Arch in 2010. Photograph: Shutterstock

Can Young define star quality?“No,” she says. “I do remember a young student who hadn’t danced before and he just put something together to music. He just instinctively …” She smiles. “The actual little geniuses, they’ve inherited something, but they’re rare.”

We walk back through the canteen, where a rock band is rehearsing loudly – one of the boys playing is Billy Barratt, who recently won an International Emmy for his lead role in the BBC film Responsible Child – and stop to watch. Young may have been doing this for decades, but she still looks absolutely delighted.

Former pupils on Sylvia Young

Dean Gaffney, actor, was at the full-time school in the early 1990s

I was offered a half-scholarship. On the Monday to Wednesday, you do normal academic subjects, and then on a Thursday and Friday, it turned into a complete Fame school, with people singing down the hallways, and tracksuits instead of school uniform.

In my year, I had John Pickard, Daniella Westbrook, Emma Bunton. I remember one guy did an advert and was paid something like £20,000 for one day’s work and we were like, “Wow”. You were gutted that you hadn’t got one of those, but people would always be plucked out of class to do something, whether it was dance in the Royal Variety Show or act in a film.

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Fame … Dean Gaffney (right) with Paul Nicholls in 1997. Photograph: TV Times/Future Publishing/Getty Images

I learned about the business in such a small space of time. There was a teacher, Mr Beaumont, and he taught us the fundamental rules of being in the profession, certainly with TV acting: where to stand, where to look, how to make the camera find you. It was so important to my experience of TV when I got a job on EastEnders.

If I hadn’t gone to that school, who knows where I’d be. There wasn’t much that I focused on at that time – I just wanted to be an actor. That’s all thanks to being in the right place at the right time. Maybe if I’d been with another drama school, EastEnders wouldn’t have picked up the phone to see who they’d got on their books.

Neil McPherson, artistic director of the Finborough theatre, was at the part-time school in the early 1980s

I was there at the beginning when they were still at Drury Lane. It was wonderful. The part-time school isn’t second best to full-time, so Sylvia was still really interested in everything.

She doesn’t take any shit. She pushes you always to be as good as you possibly can be, and to have “taste”. The only times I saw her get annoyed was when somebody was doing something tasteless and crass. Though she treated you like a mother, she also treated everyone like adults. I remember having long, deep discussions with her, which at the age of 14 or 15 made me feel like a grownup and feel empowered. She was incredibly generous. I was doing a play that I mounted off my own bat when I was 15, and she gave us the biggest rehearsal room in the school for free, all summer.

Although she’s probably best known for people going into EastEnders or becoming pop stars, she also likes everything else. I was doing Noël Coward songs or something a bit odd and different. She comes to the Finborough to see the latest modern drama.

When it comes to casting child actors for the Finborough, I always go to Sylvia. A lot of directors are like, ‘Oh no, I don’t want stage school kids.’ I say ‘stage school kids will be audible, will turn up on time, and they will know how to behave in the dressing room’. The perception of the show-off nightmare stage school child Sylvia doesn’t have anything to do with, and she’ll slap it out of you pretty quickly if you tried.

Dominique Moore, actor and founder of DMA London , which coaches and mentors young actors

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Dominique Moore in Horrible Histories in 2009. Photograph: BBC

I started at the school part-time when I was eight, on a Saturday. When I found out there was a full-time school, I begged my mum to let me audition, but there was no way we could ever afford for me to go. We found out the Stage newspaper offered a full scholarship, which I managed to get. I got full-time professional training, and I wouldn’t have had access to that without it. I had started filming Paddington Green, which was the first fly-on-the-wall documentary for the BBC, so my whole audition and first month at the school was filmed.

It was a dream come true. When I attended, it was in a different building, almost like a giant house, and it had a homely feel. Amy Winehouse, a few years above, was like a big sister to me. The first time I met her, we were in the girls’ toilet and she went, ‘If anyone says anything to you that you don’t like, come and tell me.’

When you join the school full-time, you also join their agency. At the time, it was run by Jackie Patten. She empowered me to believe that there was a place for me in the industry, even though I didn’t see people who looked like me on screen or on stage as much. Throughout school, I was working as an actor. It was normal for kids to be away working, and then come back to school.

I run DMA London, which offers training for actors. It’s really important to me that I’m contributing to creating an industry that reflects the world we live in. Being given the opportunity to attend the school made me understand the importance of bridging the gap between a talented young actor from a background similar to mine and the entertainment industry.

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