The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain (North East Branch)

Not a lot of people know that, for a short period in the late '60s and early '70s, the National Youth Theatre’s founder and artistic director Michael Croft or his assistant Paul Hill would come up to Sunderland to mount a production with local young people, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain North East Branch.

I became involved through a teaching colleague who “knew somebody” and so was able to arrange for me to take photos of the dress rehearsal of their 1968 production of Julius Caesar. The Empire already had a photographer but he kindly agreed that I could work alongside him. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have got permission.

Sadly, it wasn’t long after this that he became seriously ill and later died, much too young, and I was asked to take over his job. Again, guilt and sadness, but a life-changing moment for me.

That Julius Caesar was Michael Croft’s signature production. He’d first done it when he was teaching, using members of the school’s cadet force and sportsmen and not the would-be actors of the Drama Club. It was in modern dress, with all of Caesar’s supporters dressed in quasi-Nazi uniforms and his palace draped in the kind of vertical banners Hitler’s rallies had made so familiar. Powerful stuff less than 25 years after the war!

Other productions I remember are Henry V, a traditionally costumed production, and Peter Terson’s Zigger Zagger. There were, of course, others but these are the three that really stick in my mind.

Also sticking in my mind are two South Shields lads who went on to read Drama and Theatre Arts at Birmingham University, George Irving and Paul Thain.

George has carved out a great career for himself in television, appearing in two series of Dangerfield and in Holby City while, on stage, playing Agamemnon / Apollo in The Oresteia and as Caesar in Julius Caesar at The Globe. His most recent NE stage role was in Michael Chaplin’s Tyne at Live Theatre in 2013 and subsequently at the Customs House in South Shields. In 2018, he returned to the Customs House to be made an Honorary Fellow of the Customs House Academy.

Paul became a teacher after leaving Birmingham and started writing plays for radio, winning the BBC Giles Cooper Award for Best Radio Play of 1981 for The Biggest Sandcastle in the World. He has written screenplays and plays for stage. He now lives in London and runs, described as being “the world’s largest play database.” His daughter Miranda is Creative Producer of Theatre Hullabaloo in Darlington, the North East’s only venue which specialises in children’s theatre, and runs the Take-Off Festival of theatre for children and young people.

Interestingly, when Michael Croft died in 1986, he was replaced as the NYT’s Director the following year by Ed Wilson, another lad from South Shields. He, of course, was also an alumnus of the NYT, joining in 1965 and, like George and Paul, he went to South Shields’ Boys Grammar School, now Harton Comprehensive.

Those who suggest the North East is a cultural desert haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about!

It was with the NYT at the Empire that my career in the professional theatre began and it is fitting to remember that the other major strand of my career, education, was instrumental in getting me started. But more than 50 years ago! Oh dear!