He famously sang Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage Mrs Worthington, but Noel Coward might never have enjoyed being a huge star of stage and screen had he not, in his youth, attended a now world-famous stage school you may be surprised to learn is in our Village.
As Coward said many years later, having made his first professional appearance at the Savoy Theatre when he was just 11, “Success took me to her bosom like a maternal boa constrictor.” All this was due to a legendary actress who founded our local stage school – the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. The academy – now the oldest in the world – opened for business in 1911 and is still going strong, with contemporaries such as Russell Brand, Kelly Brook, Patsy Kensit and Daniel Mays proudly taking their places on the roll of honour.
Italia Emily Stella Conti was born in 1873 and already an established star of the stage when she was approached by theatre producer and the most famous actor of the day, Charles Hawtrey. Hawtrey asked Italia if she might be able to train a group of children to dance, sing and act for the first production of a children’s play called Where The Rainbow Ends. The play – which was to be staged at the Savoy Theatre – included two young boys who were destined to become huge stars of the future, Noel Coward and Jack Hawkins. The audience loved them and the play became a classic. Italia seemed to have a natural gift for managing children and this made her an overnight success. She all but gave up own her career as an actress to devote her time to teaching, initially in a basement studio in Great Portland Street, with her sister Bianca. Then, when Italia was 68, German bombs destroyed the school and all documents and records were lost. Fortunately, the cast and children were away touring in the provinces at the time. It was a devastating blow, but Italia and Bianca rallied forth and moved the school and some of the pupils to their home in Bournemouth. As the war came to an end, the sisters returned to London. But times were hard and, when interviewed in 1930, Italia confessed that her dream was, “For a nice, kind millionaire to come along and back me.” Her ambition was to open a real academy where everything from the three Rs to stagecraft would be taught. Whether the millionaire ever materialised is not recorded, but the school carried on successfully nonetheless. However, the war years and hard work took their toll. Italia became ill, never recovered and died in 1946. Today the academy has a number of associate schools around the country, but its three main centres are based in Clapham, the Barbican and Guildford. The present principal is Anne Sheward, who has been with the school since 1964. Most people assume that Italia Conti simply caters for those who want to sing, act or dance – but it is much more than that.
Clapham is actually the only branch which runs a university-style course for age 18-plus students, where the glittering prize is a BA honours acting degree. Simon Naylor, now 29, took the three-year course and become a fully trained actor in 2002. He is also head of the First Year and Foundation Courses. Simon cut his acting teeth in the West End production of The Shawshank Redemption. “I was the evil prison rapist,” he says with a wry smile. “My last job was on James Cordon’s new film One Chance.
It’s about singer Paul Potts’ life story – I play one of the blokes who bullied him when he was young. “There are approximately 25 students in each year and some pupils come to us from as far afield as Australia because our reputation is so great,” he adds proudly. “We also have a 150-seater theatre in the Clapham school and regularly put on productions (pictured on the previous pages and below) which are recognised as a great showcase for new talent.” The training is physically and emotionally demanding – as is the profession. Only five per cent of actors are in work at any one time and standards are very high.
For every actor offered a job, there are 20 heartbroken wannabees leaving by the side door. “You have to be right at the front of the queue and that’s where we aim to get our actors,” continues Simon. “So we pride ourselves on training actors who really want to be actors, not actors who simply want to be famous. Sure, fame is a lovely by-product of our craft – but it is only a part. Italia Conti trains actors to be the best and not to settle for less.”