Speake up for drama – Barbara Speake

It has been 60 years since Barbara Speake founded her London theatre school at the tender age of 16. Susan Elkin hears how the centre has turned out a string of stars, most notably a young Phil Collins, despite refusing to select children

Sixty years ago this week, a 16-year-old girl returned from the cinema to her home in war-weary Acton. “Molly Perry’s been here,” said her mother. “She’s started a school in Rhyll. You’d never do anything like that.”

Her daughter bridled and then rose to the challenge by booking the local church hall for February 10, 1945. The rent was half a crown (12 and half pence) and eight children aged 11 and 12 each paid one shilling and sixpence (seven and a half pence) for their first dancing lesson. The enterprise was in profit. That 16-year-old’s name was Barbara Speake.

“I’d left school aged 15 between an air raid and the all clear signal. I was quite useless at everything although I’d learned dancing from infancy,” recalls the indomitable and forthright Speake. She’s now 76 and still striking with her large glasses and long white hair swept tautly back from her face, ballerina-style.

So popular did her embryonic school prove that by the third week she needed a larger room and was soon preparing children for exams based on memories of being entered for them herself. She then qualified as a teacher.

Today the Barbara Speake Theatre School educates up to 140 children aged between three and 16 and employs 22 staff plus a cleaner, having become a full-time school in 1963. It’s still in the same place since Speake bought the freehold of St Dunstan’s Church Hall in 1984 for more than she could afford and despite encountering difficulties with ancient trusts and wills. Since then she has expanded onto local waste ground and recently built eight new classrooms.

The school teaches about four to five hours a week of dance and drama – more for GCSE students who opt for performing arts courses – and incorporates it into the school day alongside the national curriculum. “Ours is a different approach from schools which hive off half the week for specialist or vocational work,” says Speake, although the school runs junior ballet, tap and modern dance classes on the same day because too much time is lost through changing clothes otherwise.

Children are not selected. “I couldn’t do anything at school and I was a reasonable dance technician but never had any talent for performance,” says Speake. “I wanted to give children like me a chance.” So anyone who wants to send their child to Barbara Speake can.

Fees are £1,200 per term for juniors and £1,300 for seniors. Many pupils, as at many stage schools, earn part or all of their fees through professional work. This is the school which produced most of Fagin’s gang for the film Oliver! including Jack Wilde who played the Artful Dodger. It was also the launch pad for Naomi Campbell who was a pupil between the ages of three and 14. Then there was Brian Conley, Michelle Gayle and Keith Chegwin and most notably Phil Collins. To develop talent to this level from a non-selective base is obviously an extraordinary achievement.

So what were the turning points in this remarkable success story? “The arrival of a Mrs Collins and her son Philip was a major one,” recalls Speake. “As a parent she wanted to help and I wasn’t very keen initially.” But when another mother expressed a wish for her daughter to get into musicals, Speake asked June Collins to see what she could do and that was how the agency arm of the school was born. And the career of young Collins, who was soon abbreviating his name to Phil, was heading for the bright lights. “He was an ideal pupil, never in trouble,” says Speake, who regularly stays with him at his Geneva home.

The very successful agency for both children and adults is still run by Carol Collins, June’s daughter, as a closely connected but separate venture from the school. “This is very much a family business,” says Speake, explaining that her nephew David Speake arrived as academic coordinator in 1994. He is now headmaster and has had a big impact on academic standards and results in the last ten years.

So what of the future? “Well there’s no point in change for its own sake and while things are going well we shall continue as we are,” says Speake, who has no intention of retiring. “What do you do if you retire?” she asks rhetorically. She still produces the school’s shows, although she no longer teaches the numbers herself. “I decided I was a bit stuck in a seventies and eighties rut now that break dancing and so on is with us and I do like to move with the times,” she says.

Speake, like Collins who is now in her nineties, still goes into school every day. “I’m supposed to come in late and to have one day off a week but I can’t quite bring myself to,” she laughs.

There can’t be many organisations founded by teenagers which survive to celebrate a diamond anniversary. Clearly Barbara Speake is a force to be reckoned with.

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