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The Comedy of Errors

Television Workshop: Director Ian Smith Hands Over To Nic Harvey

23 July 15 words: Lucy Manning

"Everyone knows the Workshop won't be the same without Ian and it will be a great loss for us, but I don't want it to be the same"

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Photo: Dom Henry

Training 7 to 21 year olds in the art of screen acting, the BAFTA Award-winning Television Workshop has been providing the British film and television industry with youthful talent since 1983. Children’s TV credits include Tracy Beaker, The Worst Witch and Bernard’s Watch, and actors have bagged primetime slots in shows such as Broadchurch, Safe House and The Village. Some have even branched out into international waters, starring in silver screen hits such as Minority Report, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and London to Brighton.

Prior to becoming the tough-love father figure, Smith taught English and Drama at Frank Wheldon, Fernwood, and Alderman Derbyshire. “The gag I use is, ‘I used to be a teacher, but I’m alright now.’ I don’t think schools are the right place for me.” After being headhunted by Sue Nott, the former Workshop director, to teach an under-eleven group, it wasn’t long before Sue’s producing commitments pushed Ian into the top slot. “She decided for the sake of the group, and herself, that she needed to focus on producing. I was asked to run the workshop. It felt like a very good fit for me.”

So, just five years after it all began, Mr Smith was the man in charge of a group of kids riddled with overactive imaginations. It has been his job to turn this chaos into electric performances. He’s built the reputation of the Workshop with his own fair hands, and has sown the seeds of success for actors such as Toby Kebbell, Samantha Morton and Vicky McClure. I asked Nic how Ian has managed to do that for so many years, “He treats our young actors like professionals,” he says. “That creates professional behaviour and professional standards.”

But it wasn’t all plain sailing for the leader, and the Workshop hit choppy waters when ITV and BBC pulled their funding. “There was a point when I was scouring the local education authority jobs list. I was absolutely convinced I would have to go back into teaching,” says Smith. “I kept having to go to the group and say ‘We’re gonna have to close.’” Sacrifices had to be made in the form of a pay cut for Ian and the closing of the Birmingham group. There was also the added responsibility of the Workshop becoming the agent for the youngsters.

A fee was also introduced – able students now pay a small amount each term for their place. Still, around a quarter of the Workshop’s students rely on bursaries, avoiding paying fees altogether so membership does not become the right of the privileged – something Ian is incredibly passionate about. “Talent comes first, not the ability to pay. It remains a big part of the Workshop that I’d fight for. I wouldn’t die for it, but I’d have a good scrap.”

That isn’t to say that the Workshop is out of the woods, so to speak. “It’s still tight. We’re dependent on the kindness of strangers,” urges Ian. “I think it’s vital that we continue to attract outside funding to enable us to continue to offer bursaries and to go out to schools. We’d like to help the kids out with train fares to auditions as well.”

In an industry inundated with middle-class drama school grads, the grimy city centre group pumps truth and reality into the acting community. Some of the kids at Workshop have been kicked out of schools on multiple occasions but, when it comes to sessions, they’re on their best behaviour, playing the kind of games their school mates might rip ‘em a new one for. But they’re dedicated to the graft because they are treated with respect, and they understand what is expected of them. “Everyone at Workshop knows that we don’t settle for anything less than exceptional,” concludes Nic.

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Photo: Dom Henry

The audition process is rigorous. Over a thousand children audition for the Workshop each year, and only the cream of the crop make the cut. It’s a big commitment which, coupled with school work, can be tough if they’re not completely dedicated. All this considered, I wanted to know if Ian thought he would have made the Workshop cut. “I’d like to think I would have done but I don’t know if I would,” he admits. “I know what a good actor should look like and sound like, and that’s not me.”

I’ve spoken to a couple of Workshop students, and the most striking thing to come out of the interviews was the way they talked about their peers. There was a real sharing of success among them, and a genuine bond between even the most unlikely members. They live with each other, marry each other and have children. It becomes clear that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill youth drama club.

Nic, who completed his Workshop stint while many of the current Workshoppers were in primary school, seems to share this feeling. “The people I worked with throughout my career at Workshop are my best friends. You’ll find that with a lot of Workshoppers – they have less in common with school friends, and so much more in common with the people they see here.”

It’s not something Ian has missed from his directorial seat either. “There’s an incredible sense – it’s almost a cliché to say this – but a sense of family. We had a boy here called Ben Barnsley who was able to stand up in front of a group of 70-odd 16 to 21 year olds and say ‘Look, I was Becky, I’m now Ben. This is what I want to be called and this is who I am.’ Everyone was cool with it. It’s that safety of knowing you can do or be anything and know that you’ll be supported. It’s a hippy thing, but it’s love.”

“It’s also a family that can give tough love as well,” interjects Nic, speaking from experience. And tough love it certainly is, with Ian renowned for his firm hand. “We don’t pull our punches here. I see myself as a soft touch but I know that’s not the case. When I need to raise my voice, I can be quite scary. If something makes me angry – and it’s usually laziness – then I lose it, and they know.”

Will Nic be following in Ian’s footsteps when he takes over as Workshop leader? “This is a profession where you have to have enormous personal discipline or you won’t survive. If I see people losing focus and discipline, then they need a strong word about whether this is what they really want. At the same time, this needs to be somewhere they can release and enjoy themselves.”

For the youngsters in the Workshop, the basement becomes the place that they release some of the steam they are told to bottle up at school. “Workshop was my outlet, it was where my parents had to send me to release whatever it was that was going on in my brain,” explains Nic, recalling his time in the under-eleven group.

Sessions comprise of games and improvisations, enabling students to explore what works for them in a relaxed setting. “It’s a laboratory,” as Ian puts it. “We play down here. They need to play with all the abandon of a junior school playground.” But while sessions can often seem like organised chaos, particularly with the younger groups, Ian is keen to point out it’s not all messing about. “Sessions are a laugh. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we take what we do very seriously.”

In among all that play, students are trained in the art of truthful performance, or “the ability to not act, to not perform,” says Nic. “We’re trying to get children away from any kind of stage school performance – that approach has its place, but it’s not Workshop. Improvisation is what we do – we throw them into a situation and get something real from it.”

Taking over the Workshop at the tender age of 27, Nic will only be six years older than students in their final year. “There will be some who think it’s a job with too much responsibility for someone so young.” So what makes him so ready for the responsibility? “I have ten years of experience. I directed plays that I’d written when I was in the over-sixteen group, then I started a new under-eleven group when I left at 21 – the same way as Ian, really. Then I began to direct and teach the over-sixteen group.”

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Photo: Dom Henry

Not only has Nic got directorial experience in the bag, he’s also a fully-fledged playwright. He is the creator of the musical Mrs Green, which has been performed by his theatre company, Sheep Soup, at both the Playhouse and the Leicester Curve. He’s also got professional acting experience, starring in Peak Practice for three years before he’d even turned ten. “I think it’s useful for me to have seen the industry from every angle, including being on a professional film set, and professional theatre. I understand what adults require of young actors and what attitude the best young actors have.”

Arguably, though, it’s his experience as a Workshopper that best prepares him for the mammoth task ahead. Nic has spent twenty years of his life working as part of and for the group. He knows what’s what. “My workshop experience has been pretty much my entire lifetime. I understand this business and this company – where it’s been, where it is now and where I think it can go.”

He’s not shy about what he plans to do with the group either. “Everyone knows the Workshop won't be the same without Ian and it will be a great loss for us, but I don't want it to be the same. The reputation Ian has built with the group over the last few decades is globally renowned, but there is so much potential we have yet to fully tap into. I’m ready to put my own stamp on it.

“I want the Workshop to be a real creative force in TV programming, filmmaking, and get our live performances out into bigger spaces for bigger audiences. There has always been a massive buzz around this institution and the incredible talent we continue to feed into the industry, but day to day the Workshop has its home in the heart of Nottingham's creative melting pot. I feel it's part of my job to keep our fingers in as many exciting pies as possible. I'd like to see us poking our heads out of the basement more often.”

He’s got some pretty big shoes to fill, granted. But learning from the best gives him a pretty good leg-up. So, what’s the most important lesson Ian has taught him? “Not to settle for a good performance,” he reveals. “Even if it’s exhausting for actor and teacher to strive for outstanding. If you’re aiming high and missing slightly, it’s better than aiming low and hitting it every time.”

Ian has taught Nic since he started the group. “I thought he was a hyperactive, irritating little shit when he was little,” he recalls, affectionately. “I now realise it was all this wonderful creativity bursting out through whatever channel.” And Ian has every faith that Nic is fully equipped to take the Workshop where it needs to go. “The fact that he was a successful television actor and he’s had fourteen flipping years in the Workshop is very unique. You’ve got somebody who – even at bloody 27 – has crammed in so much already. I think this is another golden era – the next chapter, headed by Nic. I have total confidence in him.”

For a man whose career has become a lifestyle, Ian reacted as predicted when I asked him how he planned to spend his retirement, “Let’s not use the R word, Lucy.” While he may be taking a step back, Smith is keen to reassure that he will still be involved in the Workshop, just in a more concentrated form. “I’m taking Workshop on the road, as such. This next stage is an adventure and I want to embrace projects that scare me.” Having done a spot of acting in his past, does this extra time mean we could be seeing Mr Smith ont’ telly again? “The answer is probably not. I’d do it in a twat-about cameo way, but I don’t know that I could put myself through what I’ve encouraged the youngsters in the Workshop to do. It’s an incredibly tough lifestyle.”

It seems as though Ian is still very much willing and able to be involved in the industry, which makes it hard to understand why he has decided to take a step back. “I probably could have done another fifteen years,” he reveals. “But I think our generation has a responsibility to step back. We’re all capable of continuing and taking up the space that young people probably could do with getting. I’m being incredibly generous, that’s what it is.”

Television Workshop website

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