You know those annoying kids who are good at everything? They are athletic, they are musical, they get the lead role in the school play, everyone loves them? Well, I was not one of those kids. I did well academically but possessed no other discernible talents. The highlight of my athletic career may have been when I came third in a sports day egg-and-spoon race. As for music, I was so challenged that I was once asked to lip-sync the recorder during a school concert. The ignominy of this left me with a burning hatred of the recorder – a cursed instrument – that I carry with me to this day.
Despite this lack of stage skills, I did harbour some frustrated thespian ambitions. Luckily for the 10-year-old me, my primary school had a progressive new headteacher, Mr Cooper, who was very enthusiastic about encouraging creativity. I had a little gang of friends who liked to write stories and one day we asked the headteacher if we could put on a play in the school hall during lunchtime. There would be a 10p suggested donation and all the money would go to a charity for sick horses. He was thrilled by our initiative. He didn’t even seem to mind that the play, a tragi-comedy, was called The Murder of Mr Cooper.
The exact plot details of our masterpiece are lost to posterity but, as the title suggests, Mr Cooper got murdered. As I was an executive producer, I got to dispense with auditions and give myself a plum part. I was the murderer and I played the role in a deadpan style that went down very well with the audience of seven- to 10-year-olds. There were roars of laughter as I delivered my lines (the kids were definitely laughing with me not at me) and for a few beautiful minutes I had a taste of what it would be like to be a Hollywood star.
A successful play isn’t just about the writing and acting: marketing is important, too. My friends and I, hoping our play would be extended beyond the single performance, had come up with a brilliant word-of-mouth campaign that would make our production the talk of the town. Every great ad campaign is built on a human insight and ours was this: kids love sweets. We pooled our pocket money to buy bags of sweets and, at the end of our play, we tossed them out into the audience.
I’m not quite sure what we were expecting would happen, but what did happen was a riot. A crowd of well-behaved children suddenly turned into wild animals as they tried to grab the sweets. Hair was pulled. Shins were bruised. A girl called Georgina sustained a particularly nasty bite to the leg. We were summoned to Mr Cooper’s office for a few kind but stern words: he was not so much angry as disappointed. Our play was not extended and the next time I was on stage it was as Villager no 4 in the nativity play.