Harold Pinter, Stephen Fry, Ruth Wilson and... Nick Clegg — they all came through the National Student Drama Festival
It’s 1958 and the correspondent for the Bristol Evening World has been press ganged into writing about the talent at the National Student Drama Festival. He ends his round up with some odd prose but some proper foresight: “Harold Pinter, who as a writer, should go on writing.” Luckily Harold did.
Now Pinter’s not the only person to break through by coming to NSDF. In fact he’s not even the only person to break through that day: on another stage Dennis Potter is acting in a new translation of a then barely known Ionesco. There’ve been many similar days in the sixty subsequent years of the Festival. NSDF is one of the greatest incubators of talent in the British arts.
It was set up in 1956, so by the time Pinter and Potter are there the Festival is already into its toddling years. It was largely the brainchild of Harold Hobson, the great Sunday Times Drama Critic: and the Festival owes more to this newspaper than anyone else. The Sunday Times sponsorship of the NSDF is the longest running arts sponsorship in the UK.
In essence the idea of NSDF has always been simple. For one week, in one chosen city the best student drama of the year is presented to an audience of students, professionals and punters and alongside this the festival runs around 100 workshops lead by some of the most talented professionals in the British Theatre. There are discussions, debates and masterclasses. Talent is spotted and coached and lives get changed. You get to be part of something.
Hobson- one of the great critics of the twentieth century- was the sole judge of proceedings in the early years of NSDF. He became Festival famous for his last day “whowonit?” speeches, where he’d meander through the week’s work laying false trails before announcing finally and with élan the actual winners of the Festival Awards. That first year Regent Street Polytechnic won. Their show had been directed by a young Timothy West. The audience, on hearing this decision, reflected on it briefly and then booed Hobson. This didn’t seem to put him off: he returned to judge for another fourteen years.
NSDF is a magnificently British institution: piratical yet traditional, contentious, brilliant, quarrelsome, surviving against the odds, constantly evolving but with practises and customs that are both profoundly useful but whose origins are lost somewhere in the mists of time. Hobson getting booed was just the first of dozens of annual controversies, excitements and general kickings off.
In 1970 Laurence Olivier turned up to watch a classical Spanish drama. His seat got pinched at the interval by a student who either didn’t recognise the master or (more likely) stole it because he did. Olivier stayed long enough to watch the second half of the show from the aisle and then to see Michael Elliot (Manchester Royal Exchange Director and father to Marianne Elliot, the director of War Horse and Company, next in the directing dynasty) prevent a fist fight between two students who obviously found Lope de Vega a very serious subject indeed.
Revolution was very much in the air in the early 70’s, when NSDF entered its period of civil war. Jack Straw (yes that one, long before his invading sandy places phase) was NUS President. Back then he was a student militant and apparently fancied himself a potential Robespierre of student drama. Straw chaired an Emergency General Meeting for NUS members, attempting to seize control of the Selection Process and the Festival itself. A revolutionary Working Party took over and dictated the terms on which the Festival would now operate. Clive Wolfe- who ran the Festival for decades- was unimpressed and felt he saw the standard of the work plummet. Clive stuck to his guns- and in his post- and by 1973 the Working Party was abolished. That same year a young Tina Brown, then at Oxford, won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award. Her work caught the eye of the great Sunday Times Editor Harold Evans. One of the great Fleet Street love stories started. They were married in 1981.
I suspect what really happened in these Civil War years is what always seems to happen at NSDF: the evidence of creative talent trumped any potential political postures. Whilst it’s full of wild and wonderful experiments, new thinking and new ideas the living fact of the work is in front of you. It’s not theoretical. The students are mingling and learning not from academics but professional theatre makers. NSDF is ferociously practical, like the industry, and the greatest part of its power comes from this.
And I’ve just taken this extraordinary organisation over.
I’m meant to be writing my new play, so accepting the Directorship of a big Festival four months before it opens was an unusual choice. I think I’ve worked out why I did it, and why I think the Festival matters.
It’s because NSDF is necessary. And now more than ever it is necessary.
It is necessary that there is a place where young people can come together to imagine and to think and to argue and to make things. It is necessary that we do not forget that art makes our world comprehensible and bearable and that it improves everything it touches. It is necessary that more experienced generations come together to pass on their knowledge, the things they have learnt at the coal face, to those who will come after. It was always necessary. But it’s doubly necessary now: when cuts to the arts and to arts education have limited possibilities for so many, when every institution we thought we could rely on seems somehow to have failed but we must still continue not just to endure but to hope. When we need and we must find new ways to talk to each other, to survive both alongside and through one another.
NSDF is one of the longest running festivals in Britain, but it works because it is perpetually young. This Peter Pan-ness happens for a simple reason: because it is a space where people come together to try and make what should happen, actually happen. With all the passionate disagreements that this will always entail. And it turns out the active pursuit of idealism keeps you young. It’s moisturiser for the soul.
One thing will remain true. If you come to NSDF, as an audience member or a participant you’ll be seeing the next generations talent first. It’s the most useful bridge between education and the industry anyone has ever come up with.
Here’s just a few other artists whose work was seen at NSDF: Michael Attenborough, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Billington , Caryl Churchill, Carrie Cracknell, Howard Davies, Ben Elton, Marianne Elliott, Sir Richard Eyre, David Farr, Vicky Featherstone, Stephen Fry, Mark Gatiss, John Godber, Ella Hickson, Charlotte Keatley, Alan Lane, Margot Leicester, Jamie Lloyd, Rik Mayall , Phelim McDermott, Roger Michell, Ben Miller, Hattie Morahan,John Nettles, Cyril Nri, Tim Pigott-Smith, Pete Postlethwaite, Dennis Potter, Lucy Prebble, Mark Ravenhill, Wole Soyinka, Tim Supple, Meera Syal, Nima Taleghani, John Tiffany, Olivia Vinall and Ruth Wilson.
There’s a thousand more, and a thousand more than that who have taken what they gained from NSDF and used it in other walks of life. This morning someone showed me a picture of a faintly earnest looking Alan Yentob, on stage in 1967. Harold Hobson did for his future as an actor- a scathing review of his performance dented his self esteem “momentarily”. But Yentob himself said NSDF opened up the world for him.
So if you can, come and join us this year, and be part of something. It’s going to be bold and brave and brilliant. Because it always is. And it’ll open up worlds for another generation.
Article originally published in The Sunday Times, 20th January 2019: Access the article here.