Leicester Poly, Rights of Passage and Eviction – Chapter Six of The Bernician Chronicles

Leicester Poly

Scraptoft Campus, Leicester Polytechnic in winter 1988.

Leicester Poly, Rights of Passage and Eviction

On the morning of my last A level exam, I had absolutely no idea that within a year I would be heading to the midlands, where I would spend the better part of the next three years  on a performing arts degree at Leicester Polytechnic.

In fact, I was wondering whether I was even going to turn up to sit my final paper but not out of any last minute attempt to blow my academic career to smithereens.

My First Eviction

The majority of that day was spent overseeing my family’s eviction from Hepscott Hall, after the official receiver’s office successfully applied to the high court to evict us, on the ground that my Dad’s former company still had outstanding debts.

This was done in spite of the house being legally owned by my Granddad and the mortgage never having gone into default. This was demonstrably the case, since it had been paid by the Department of Social Security from pretty much the date we moved in.

I’d known this would be my ordeal for a few weeks because my Dad came up to my bedroom and told me before my mother and sister knew anything about it.

My Mam was already teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown over her fear of losing our home. Under enormous pressure himself, my Dad reluctantly asked me if I was willing to oversee the eviction on my own.

Dad was taking Mam and my sister on a cheap package holiday to Spain with my Grandma, who paid for and booked it long before we were notified that the eviction would take place while they were away, on the final day of my exams.

Without hesitation, I told my Dad that I would handle everything. We then arranged with my Granddad that he would assist me in the removal of all our belongings.

I was also to stay with him and my Nana at their house in Shiremoor for a week, before going on a two week piss-up in Llorett de Mar with my mates, knowing that I no longer had a home to go back to.

The Making of An Angry Young Man

When it came down to it, I was every bit as much as I needed to be up to the task. However, until I lived through it, I had absolutely no comprehension of the casual, callous brutality of the officers of the crown, when kicking a family out on to the street and effectively leaving them for dead.

When everything was packed and my Granddad pulled away in the removals truck, I drove the Nissan 120 Y I bought with an endowment from my Grandma, to sit my final exam on European History. I had done precisely no revision for it.

After reading the questions, I knew I could muster a half decent essay on the rise of Lutheranism and that I almost always got top marks in the historical comprehension test.

So I wrote a note to the examiner explaining the morning I’d had and asking that they judge the paper on the merits of those two questions and not the two I’d been unable to complete.

I then drove back to the place where I had spent the most enjoyable of my formative years, to say my own personal farewells.

Hepscott Hall

Boy To Man

Whilst waiting for my Granddad to meet me back at the house at the end of the day to collect what remained inside, I stood on the front lawn, staring up at my bedroom on the third floor, where I started my journey through adolescence into manhood.

A few somber moments later, an E Type Jaguar pulled up in front of the house, just next to where I was standing. An electric window wound down to reveal the official receiver, who had successfully applied to steal our £1 M home, claiming that my Dad still owed around £230,000 to his former company’s creditors and the Crown.

Without any trace of empathy, compassion or decency, the man who placed the house on the market for £70,000 [the same price my Dad bought it for when it was derelict in 1980], said with a smirk on his face:

“If your Dad’s still here, tell him that if he doesn’t get everything out of the house by 7:30 tonight, anything that’s left will be sold or thrown away.”

I stared at him without blinking for a few tense beats, before I delivered my response without flinching.

“You’ve got ten seconds to drive away, otherwise I won’t be responsible for my actions.” 

With that, he fired me one more look of absolute contempt and skidded away up the road. A few minutes later, my Granddad arrived in the van and we filled it with what remained in the house.

In those final moments inside the all but empty Hall, I became incensed with righteous indignation. But as I closed the door on the most enjoyable eight years of my young life, I felt completely desolated.

On The Road To Shiremoor

On the way to the Shiremoor tenement, where he and my Nana raised three children, my Granddad and I discussed Thatcher’s war against the miners and how it destroyed the communities that were once powerful enough to bring the government to its knees in the 1970’s.

Then I told my Granddad about the visit from the official receiver, to which he responded by saying: “Aye son. You did a man’s job today. There’s no doubt about that.”

Coming from a bloke who survived the coal face he toiled at for fifty years burying him alive, there was no greater compliment he could have given me in such circumstances.

In that moment, I knew that the way I looked at the world would be dominated by the events of that day for many years to come.

Something in my heart told me that nobody, no matter what the circumstances, has the right to take somebody’s home from them, regardless of what the law dictates. Nothing will convince me otherwise.

A Year Out

When my parents and sister returned from Spain, we moved into a top floor flat on Marine Avenue in Whitley Bay for nine months, which we rented from a family friend.

Having left KEVI with five O levels and three A levels, with grades which were easily sufficient to obtain twelve offers for various drama and theatre studies degrees, I decided to take a year out to get supremely fit.

Over the course of the next twelve months, I shed the excess weight I’d gained during my teenage years. I did so largely because, from Monday to Friday, I followed a very strict exercise regime.

I ran three miles along the beach every morning, before swimming fifty lengths at the local pool. I then spent at least an hour pumping weights in the gym, sometimes twice a day and doing half an hour of endurance sprint training at the track.

By the time the year out was up, I applied for my place on the performing arts course at Leicester Polytechnic – specializing in Drama – which I obtained after passing the audition and interview stages.

Three months before I left for the midlands, we moved to a house on Kings Avenue in Morpeth, which my parents rented from another family friend. They still live there to this day.

Leicester Poly Here I Come

In the late summer of 1998, I auditioned for the drama course at Leicester Poly, along with about twenty other hopefuls, almost all of whom were performing the predictable array of audition pieces, from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde.

We performed before the new assistant head of drama, Jo Scanlan, who looked at me with the eyes of a deer holding a sawn-off shotgun, when we came face to face at the audition.

Granted, I accept that she might well have assumed that the bleached blonde Wedgey-Wham-Boy haircut, tight T shirt and bleached jeans would not be adorning the body of anybody auditioning for reputedly the most ‘avant-garde’ performing arts course in the country.

Evidently, she was way off the mark with that one.

Disabled by Wilfred Owen

Disabled by Wilfred Owen.

Disabled

Nevertheless, when I performed my piece, a characterization of the heart-breaking war poem, Disabled, by Wilfred Owen, I reduced many in the room to tears, including Ms. Scanlan.

She described the rendition as “extraordinary” and then asked me to perform it again, as if I were telling the story of the poem in a pub. This I did to similarly powerful emotive effect, this time with a Lancashire accent.

That remains the uncontested highlight of my relationship with Jo Scanlan. It certainly wasn’t long before she realized she had given a place, which 1,600 people applied for, to her clear and present arch-nemesis.

Leaving Home

I left home and moved into student halls of residence at the Scraptoft campus of Leicester Polytechnic, on the last Sunday in September 1988.

Leicester Poly was my first choice because it was reputed to be the home of the best performing arts degree in the country. It was also well known to employ an eclectic mix of visiting lecturers from all around the world every year.

On the night before the first day of the first term of the first year of the course, I said a sad farewell to my teary parents in the Scraptoft car park.

I then unpacked my belongings in my room, put some posters on the walls and headed straight for the Student Union bar, where I knew I was destined to find a soul mate.

Partners In Crime

Sure enough, when I entered the bar I immediately noticed one of the lads from the audition, who’d performed an impressive rendition of Agamemnon, from a new play he’d performed in at the Edinburgh Festival that summer.

I immediately approached him and as we shook each other by the hand and smiled like mischievous seven years olds, another unbreakable bond of friendship was formed.

Guy and I spent the next few hours drinking copious pints of pissy lager and playing pool. I happily displayed for all to see how I had misspent part of my youth, on the old pub table my Dad bought me for Christmas, the year before we moved into the Hall.

The rest were spent at the Lord Clyde pub in Choppington, where my friends and I drank and played almost every weekend, from one month before my 14th birthday, until I left school.

As Guy and I played and drank, then drank and played some more, I told him about the pool competitions I held in my bedroom at Hepscott, when I was at KEVI. The most notable was undoubtedly the Waughmeister Doubles competition, in the summer holidays of 1983.

The Waughmeister Doubles

Over the course of four consecutive days, sixty four boys from every year at school, paid £1 each to play in a knockout competition. Myself and one of my best mates, the truly hilarious, Peter Wills, were the 2-1 favourites to win.

The schoolyard bookies took in excess of £200 in bets from well on the way to a hundred pupils, over the course of the last few weeks of the summer term.

For the purposes of fueling the enjoyment of the event and paying for the records and beer I couldn’t yet afford, I sold the participants six week old, home brew lager, at 50 p a pint.

All eighty were long gone by the end of the second day, by which time there were only the quarters, semis and final to play.

Peter and I played some exciting pool and were perhaps unlucky to lose in the semi-final to the eventual winners, after losing two of the best of nine frames by going in off the black, at the end of table-clearing breaks by each of us.

But the event was nonetheless a memorable occasion, which nobody who took part has ever forgotten.

Leeds United 1973-1974

Late to Bed, Late To Rise

After the bar closed, Guy and I returned to my new lodgings. We sat drinking a crate of Carling Black Label and eating tins of tuna and sweetcorn till after six in the morning.

We did this so that we could watch the now infamous Ben Johnson Olympic 100 metres win live around 5:30 am. Until then, we spent almost all our time talking endlessly about girls and football, both of which we had a mutual passion for, in that order.

Guy supported Leeds, despite coming from Darlington, largely because he saw the great Leeds side of the seventies play. I remembered it as a team packed full of skillful players and hard bastards, who could easily break somebody’s leg in a tackle and often did.

But he also vividly remembered how exciting it was to watch Supermac score goals for fun against all of the top sides at the time, many of which I witnessed first hand.

Once we had shared the stories of the girls we had loved thus far and tales of the best players we’d ever seen or heard of, when the big race started it was almost surreal.

We already knew that what preceded it was the bonding of our effortless friendship, which was infinitely more significant than Johnson cheating his way to the Olympic 100 metre gold.

Lasting Impressions

Somewhat inevitably, just four hours later, we rolled in half an hour late for a meeting of the entire performing arts faculty, where the wonderfully chilled administrator, Geoff Bishop, was in the middle of his opening address to all the students across all three years.

“Mr. Porritt and Mr. Waugh, I presume?” He said, with well concealed amusement, as he surveyed the plight of the pair of us, dressed in the jeans, T shirts and leather jackets we were wearing the night before, stinking of lager and cigarettes and carrying nothing on our persons.

“Aye” said we, before the first tentative shrieks of laughter from the less tardy rang around the room.

However, when Guy asked if he could borrow a pen and paper from somebody, closely followed by me doing the same, the whole room erupted into raucous laughter, as Geoff chuckled to himself and declared:

“Well, you couldn’t have made a more noticeable entrance to the faculty of performing arts. I trust everybody will find the rest of your time here just as entertaining.”

In that regard, we certainly didn’t disappoint. Nevertheless, by the end of the first term, it was clear that we were to receive very little, if any, acting lessons, even though the degree was essentially a Bachelor of Arts in Drama.

Instead, over the course of first two years we were largely engaged in meaningless and forgettable performance art, which both Guy and I took an immediate aversion to.

Joanna Scanlan

Jo Scanlan and Me

This meant I was dead-set for an eventual head-on collision with Jo Scanlan, who was responsible for directing us toward culturally Marxist propaganda and the pretentious arts, rather than developing our skills in the dramatic ones.

Inevitably, I told her as much, most candidly, in a tutorial at the beginning of the second year. She obviously didn’t take it well, given that by now she knew she had a whole lot more of the same arse-batter lined up for the next nine months.

It was obvious from that point that this definitely wasn’t going to end well for one of us.

Limited Highlights

There were, however, some notable but limited highlights, during my first two years in Leicester.

The method acting lessons we received from the director of the Moscow Institute of Dramatic Arts, on his first trip outside Russia after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, were extremely memorable and a truly humbling experience.

In addition, the workshops in South Indian dance, comedy and video, by an eclectic mix of capable outside practitioners, were both enjoyable and beneficial.

Nevertheless, for the majority of our time, we were forced to entertain the most pretentious end of the creative spectrum.

The Pretentious Arts

During the middle term of the second year, we spent twelve weeks developing a live art piece. This involved sixteen drama students, dressed identically in dark blue jogging bottoms and T shirts, wearing swimming flippers on our feet, as we waltzed around in partners, on a stage covered in tin foil.

It was bad enough that this was supposed to be the performance highlight of the year and as such we had to perform it in front of three hundred people, including my parents and Grandma, at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester.

However, when Jo informed us that we were booked to perform at the Glasgow Review of Live Art the following term, I attempted to lead a mutiny by asking everybody to refuse to go.

This obviously incensed Jo greatly, even more so when four of us had the guts to tell her to her face that the entire production was a waste of our time and taxpayer’s money.

Nevertheless, she still insisted we took the show to Glasgow that summer, at an event which was so self-consciously avant-garde that there was no room for critical thinking, let alone constructive criticism.

Collision Course

We performed to a packed audience of around a hundred and fifty people at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, almost all of whom were dressed in black polo neck jumpers, black jeans and black leather jackets.

At the end of the woeful debacle, they whooped, cheered and applauded enthusiastically and we were all interviewed for a late night culture show on BBC Scotland.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when it came to my interview, I didn’t hold back when asked to describe my experience of our show:

“It was the biggest piece of embarrassingly pretentious shite that I’ve ever had the misfortune to be involved with.”

Naturally, it goes without saying that my interview was never broadcast but I was now guaranteed another showdown with Jo.

This occurred in a tutorial at the end of the summer term of the second year, when she called me into her office to offer me her ear, like some kind of Cultural Marxist therapist.

As if there was even the remotest chance that she was going to be able to re-program me, so that I could see where I was going wrong on the course, despite already having the grades to easily gain a 2.1 or a 1st for my degree!

Let’s Cut To The Chase

To save time, as soon as she opened with “So Mike, how have you found the course this year?”, I knew that I should cut straight to the chase:

“Listen Jo, let’s face facts. I’m always going to think performance art is pretentious and you are always going to think it’s art.

But I’m not going to sit here like some others and pretend that the show we’ve spent most of the year working on is anything other than analogous to the emperor’s new clothes.”

Jo then started weeping, for one all too apparent reason: we both knew that I posed a serious threat to the credibility of her work, which she was nowhere near ready to deal with responsibly. Instead, she became ever more embittered and vindictive toward me throughout my final year.

However, there was nobody in the entire performing arts faculty who didn’t know my feelings on the subject, which only exacerbated how rankled Jo became and inevitably resulted in me turning up the volume to eleven, in front of a full house at the Phoenix Arts Centre.

Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester

Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester, the venue for M O’B’s first stand-up comedy gig in February 1990.

First Stand-Up Comedy Gig

The undisputed highlight of my first two years in Leicester took place outside of the degree course, after ten students from our year organized a comedy night at the Phoenix, in protest at Thatcher’s new laws which persecuted homosexuals for showing affection in public.

This had already resulted in people being arrested for holding hands and kissing in a public place and there was a growing student campaign to get the notorious ‘Clause 28’ and ‘Section 32’ repealed from the statute books.

Seeing the opportunity to perform stand-up comedy, I immediately volunteered to perform on the bill and set about writing a potentially barn-storming routine.

When I performed it for the first time at the dress rehearsal the night before the show, the director of the cabaret tried to pull my act, on the ground that we would all be lynched if I performed the overtly politically incorrect set, as it was written.

Nevertheless, after I insisted that she didn’t have a clue what she was on about, we agreed that I would perform last on the bill but I would be solely responsible if her prediction came true.

However, as I took the microphone at centre stage and looked into the packed auditorium, I sensed that I was about to come of age as a comic on my debut performance, rather than die on my arse, as predicted.

I am happy to say that more than three hundred self-proclaimed ‘dykes’ and ‘queens’ laughed loudly at every one of my irreverent jokes; and when I walked off after my final gag about Thatcher being born of a jackal with three sixes behind her ear, I received my first standing ovation since ‘Grease’.

An Absolute Stormer

Guy, who had seen the act from the wings, told me in the dressing room, where the rest of the performers listened on the stage speakers, that everybody, even the director, was talking about how my seventeen minute performance towered over everything else on the bill.

In the bar afterwards, I lost count of the number of times audience members told me that they had never seen a better stand-up routine about homosexuality from a heterosexual comic.

Moreover, I was also repeatedly told that the best thing about my act was my refusal to adhere to any form of political correctness, which obviously comprised total vindication of the position I had taken with the director.

Whilst it wasn’t a professional booking because it was a student cabaret, for the rest of my time in Leicester, the video taken of my performance was passed around the entire performing arts faculty.

It was almost unanimously agreed that I was destined to become ‘a comedy legend’, provided the storming gig wasn’t a one-off.

Worthy of Note

It is also worthy of note that three lads in the year above us who saw my performance, accosted me as I was heading for the bar after the show, to let me know their thoughts on my routine.

Justin Chadwick, who went on to become a successful film director, Alex Lowe, who was already working with Kenneth Branagh before he started his degree, and Milton Yeromolu, who went on to play Aria Stark’s sword-fighting teacher in ”Game of Thrones’, agreed that my performance was that of highly skilled professional comedian, not a 2nd year student on a drama course.

Funnily enough, I’m not aware that the director who tried to pull my act from the show went on to do anything noteworthy in any realm of the performing arts; nor did anybody else who supported her position.

By the time we broke up for the summer in July 1990, I had already decided that my main focus for the final year would be developing a one-man stand-up comedy show, which I named ‘Dad Wouldn’t Mend My Tractor’.

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