New play evokes a period of change

PLAYWRIGHT David Hare became a pupil at Lancing College at a time of great change for the institution - and for Britain generally.

He touches on those changes and that era in his latest play, South Downs, currently running in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre as a commissioned companion piece to Rattigan’s The Browning Version (until October 8).

Both pieces evoke school days; for David’s piece, he draws on his own - though without specifically naming Lancing.

“Mine is set in a school on the South Downs in 1962, but it is the environment and the atmosphere of the school really which is autobiographical. The characters are made up.”

But it is a school - just like Lancing College was when David went there - very much on the cusp, in changing times.

“The public schools had long existed to send out firm-jawed young men into the Empire. Now the Empire had gone.

“I think very much the old values and systems were falling into decay. It’s beyond belief now to think that in the early 60s everybody thought Mr Wilson was going to sweep to power and change the country forever and that the whole class system was going to be eradicated. Everybody thought Mr Wilson was going to revolutionise the country.”

Half a century later, we are still being run by an old Etonian: “And yet there was this great expectation that Wilson was going to change the country radically. But some things did change - culture was changed irrevocably. Teenage culture changed so much, and a little bit of the stuffiness went out of the public schools.”

Wilson didn’t fail entirely. David lauds his ability to keep Britain out of Vietnam: “If we had had him in 2003, things would have been rather different. I think Wilson was quite canny.”

And under Wilson, Roy Jenkins was certainly responsible for a lot of liberal, laudable reform.

“But by the time Wilson’s years were over there wasn’t a lot of idealism left.”

As for Lancing College, David certainly looks back fondly on his time there: “I was a suburban boy from Bexhill. At Lancing there was so much going on. Bexhill was a very boring town.

“I was brought up in a very very dead environment. When I got to Lancing, there was an awful lot happening. It was on the cusp of changing from being a traditional public school to being a liberal public school.”

Afterwards, Cambridge was a disappointment: “At Lancing, the levels of commitment to the students were outstanding. The teachers were working flat out. For me, Cambridge was rather disappointing because we had been so spoilt.”

At Lancing too, David had been spoilt by the wonderful experience of watching the fledgling Chichester Festival Theatre take shape under Laurence Olivier. He well remembers him in Uncle Vanya in the CFT’s very earliest years: “We had coach trips to the opening season. Apart from anything, that thrust stage was so different to anything I had ever seen before. I had never seen a theatre like it, and there we were, watching Laurence Olivier, Fay Compton, Michael Redgrave, just 15 yards away.”