So Nicky Morgan is directing an extra £3.5 million spend on building character and grit in today’s schoolchildren. Including bringing in rugby coaches and other sports leaders to inculcate team spirit, and teaching pupils to ‘play the game’. Assuming the school hasn’t already sold off the playing fields, of course. But it all sounds so wonderfully old school, and made me think back to the role that sport and PE played in building my own character and developing grit.
I hail from a time long, long ago. So long, in fact, that ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ was gritty, northern, working class reading from the kitchen sink school of contemporary literature, rather than a set text designed to confirm that ‘It’s grim up north’ to generations of schoolchildren. In those days we had to make our own grit by hand, and character was developed via the school of hard knocks, and through the example of our teachers and peers, rather than through any formal curriculum. PE was where men supposedly learned to be men, and games loomed large in the scheme of things.
It is hard to convey in these less innocent days the impact reading the original novel had on kids like me back then. Kitchen sink was a relatively new genre. But a sentimental bit of me hopes that there are still northern schoolchildren who are moved as powerfully as I was on reading it for the first time; before the exam focused repeated analyses, careful note-taking and thematic explorations suck all the blood out of it. Maybe even the odd southern schoolchild could be moved too, though by definition it would probably mean that they were indeed odd? They’ll probably have to settle for ‘Lord of the Flies’ and its posh choir instead?
When they made a film of ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, rechristened ‘Kes’ to give it more impact with a cinema audience who probably weren’t sure what a knave was, and had possibly never seen a kestrel, I was one of the first in the cinema queue. In a pre-Simon Cowell and X Factor era, the papers had been full of how they had scoured the schools of west Yorkshire to find the pupil cast. How do you solve a problem like Billy Casper, indeed? By finding the wonderful David Bradley, switched in at the last moment, was the answer.
Suitable adults were tricky to find too. Theatres in those days were full of received pronunciation, and men trying to sound more like Noel Coward than Arthur Scargill. There’s fun to be had listening to the accents in some of the ‘northern’ films of the time. But in a stroke of true genius, they cast an ex-teacher, part-time wrestler, part-time comic actor called Brian Glover in the iconic role of the PE teacher.
Now in those days wrestling was peak-time family entertainment, occupying a niche somewhere approximating today’s ‘Strictly’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. It was one of ITV’s runaway successes, and rare was the household that didn’t tune in to hear Kent Walton’s midatlantic twang offering coverage of battles between Mick McManus and Giant Haystacks. At least, we did up north, and given that many of the bouts were beamed from halls down south, I can only assume it was a countrywide phenomenon. So we all knew Brian Glover or rather, ‘Leon Arras, the man from Paris’ from his antics in the ring, and he was indeed well loved. But nothing had prepared us for the impact of his role as the PE teacher in ‘Kes’.
Now, I think it incumbent upon me to mention at this point that I was a walking disaster when it came to PE, or more accurately, a stumbling disaster. A weedy child, with appalling hand-eye co-ordination and an inability to run, kick or hit anything in a remotely sporting way. One of the reasons the film ‘Kes’ had such resonance was that I bore more than a passing resemblance to David Bradley in physique and sporting ability. One of the most remarkable and wonderful things about my father, a natural and gifted sportsman who had played soccer and cricket for local teams in his youth, and was still winning trophies for darts and bowls in his middle years, was that he never showed what a massive disappointment his only son must have been on the games front. So it is safe to assume that I was never going to be a PE teacher’s pet, and sure enough, I wasn’t.
When Brian Glover strode onto the screen, though, it was as if he had been directly coached by the bane of my own school life, PE teacher ‘Pop’ Ferry. Not perfect, given it was a red rather than a beige tracksuit. But that oversight was forgiveable, and essential for the Manchester United references in the film. In those days I don’t think I knew Loughborough was a place, let alone that it had a college that turned out the alleged cream of the PE teaching crop. But these paragons were instantly recognisable by their beige tracksuits emblazoned with the greek discus thrower, and they clearly struck fear into weeds like me the length and breadth of the country. Brian Glover had been a teacher before turning to wrestling and acting, and had clearly observed one of these tyrants. The discus player badge shone like a beacon.
I will not eulogise about ‘Kes’ and the PE teacher sequences at length, since no prose can do justice to the perfect Glover performance. In fact, if you haven’t already, or even if you have, just savour the delight, courtesy of YouTube.
Those critics who suggested it was overdrawn had clearly never had a PE teacher like Pop Ferry. If anything, Brian Glover underplayed the role, and it remains one of my favourite cinema characterisations, and the school scenes amongst the most authentic representations of the teaching profession in the 60s.
In those days, the team was the thing in secondary school sport. Mainly the football team, even though the posh new head at my aspirational school was desperately trying to take us upmarket by introducing rugby union. (In a rugby league-playing town that was never going to work, now was it?) The successful PE teacher gathered around himself a coterie of the naturally gifted, with whom there was laughter and banter and praise. Each PE lesson was orchestrated to celebrate their Olympian successes, generally reinforced by exposing their less gifted contemporaries to ridicule and humiliation.
So, if the chosen topic of the day was vaulting, my PE teacher, after a perfect demonstration of his own, ensured that it was the clumsiest and fattest child that was first sent down the run to ‘demonstrate’. There followed usually a thud and a clatter, as the box or horse went one way whilst the pupil fell another. A brief silence, then the teacher led the laughter before sending one of his chosen Olympians from the team down to complete the humiliation. Of course, when strength was the requirement, the larger pupil was ignored, and weedy specimens like myself were selected to ensure another spectacular failure. Which is how I came to antagonise Pop Ferry, and make an enemy for the rest of my school career.
As mentioned earlier, I had the upper-body build of a pigeon, though with matchstick arms instead of wings. So when rope-climbing was to be demonstrated in the gym, I must have looked the natural choice for a humiliating demonstration. But what Pop Ferry did not know was that since early childhood I had spent my days climbing trees in Rowntree’s Park.
Though weedy of arm, I was also light of build, and when told to attempt the gym rope, rather than the expected humiliating failure as I jumped and slid back, I was up it like a rat up a drainpipe. This totally spoiled his setpiece joke, he glared at me, and from then on there was only enmity. Dressing room scenes similar to those in Kes aplenty. And a fair few administrations of his infamous ‘plank’, as he was second only to deputy Jimmy Jewel when it came to notoriety for physical punishment.
A few years later, at the School Sports Day, along with many other weeds I was on the grassy bank to cheer on the more athletic as they demonstrated their prowess. There was a considerable amount of coercion involved in assembling the house athletics teams, but I was universally ruled out as hopeless, particularly since climbing ropes didn’t feature in Sports Day events. Anyway, I had been put in Lancaster house, which to a true son of York was like being put in Slytherin instead of Gryffindor, so house points held little attraction. My new chum, Ginger, freshly down from Scotland and also put in Lancaster, was not so fortunate. Despite his protestations he was put down for the 400 yards, despite never having managed to run more than about 100 of them before stopping for a rest.
At the dulyappointed hour the gun cracked, and the 400 yard runners shot off, along with Ginger in their midst. Well, for about 100 yards, after which he stopped, took a few deep breaths, then set off trudging towards the distant finishing line. We weeds were impressed at this approach, and started whooping and hollering. But trudging 300 yards took him a long time, and as more joined in the noise, the whoops turned to laughs, and jeers and general hilarity, especially when he ran the last 5 yards and raised his arms in mock triumph. All our jeers were made in friendship, of course, because those on the bank suddenly had a new role model, Ginger, the ambulatory 400 yarder.
Pop Ferry grabbed a loudhailer, and demanded that ‘those boys involved in barracking during the 400 yards’ should stand up immediately. Now in fact, some 300 boys or so had been engaged in the jeers, as was apparent to all. But only about 12 of us, Ginger’s nearest and dearest, actually rose. We knew we had been the ones to start the ball rolling. Sent off to wait at the gym, we were duly planked, quite severely on this occasion, because of ‘unsportsmanlike behaviour’.
So thanks to Pop Ferry and his PE sessions I learned two important character building lessons that have stayed with me through life. Bullying is OK, as long as it is led by a teacher, and you should never own up to anything, as those that don’t go unpunished. Oh, yes, PE is such an important a way of inculcating character and grit in the young!
I must add an important postscript to this tale. A second beige tracksuited teacher subsequently joined the school from Loughborough, and marked the end of an era. Unlike Pop Ferry, or Brian Glover’s PE teacher, this wonderful man focused on sport for all, not just the few. Encouragement, and a chance to show off what you could do, rather than couldn’t do, became the order of the day. PE and Games became a delight and a pleasure for everyone, not just the first team. Even I learned to enjoy some sport. And I learned another lifelong lesson about what developing true character and grit was really about, and how a teacher could help achieve it by using supportive techniques, even when working with the most unpromising material. Tom Bardy went on to become not only a superb teacher but an excellent school leader, and I am always grateful that I learned such important lessons from his approach.
But in an odd way, I am also hugely grateful to Pop Ferry, because without him I would never have been able to appreciate the contrast, and grasped just how effective Tom Bardy’s alternative was. Nor would I have been in a position to take such exquisite delight in Brian Glover’s perfect performance in Kes. I’m off to watch it again.