Life of the boy David

2013-09-12 00:00

“I WONDER if Mrs Thatcher will be our first ever woman prime minister?” I spoke out loud, addressing no one in particular, while I dabbed white greasepaint onto the upturned face of the young lad who had been patiently waiting his turn at the end of the queue of excited prep school boys.

“I doubt it, sir. Prime minister is a really big job,” replied “Harold Rabbit”, just nine years old and the youngest member of our cast.

The year was 1975 at Heatherdown Preparatory School in Ascot and we were gathered in the school library, which served as our makeshift green room for costumes and make-up. The television blared on in the background, the strident tones of Margaret Thatcher, newly elected leader of the opposition, setting out her vision for the United Kingdom’s future, as we all trooped downstairs to begin our final performance of Toad of Toad Hall.

That confident reply, spoken with the assurance of youth, came back to me earlier this year as I watched the BBC television broadcast of Thatcher’s funeral. A sombre and dark-suited David Cameron stood before the world audience and delivered the Second Reading from St John, Chapter 14. I felt sure that by now, some 38 years later, he must have learnt with complete certainty that being prime minister is indeed “a really big job”.

I recall there being more than the usual nervous excitement before that evening’s performance of Toad of Toad Hall in 1975, because we were all aware that her majesty, the queen, would be in the front row of the audience. Queen Elizabeth was merely there in the capacity of a supportive parent, enjoying watching her youngest son, Prince Edward, playing the role of Mole.

However, to me, a young schoolmaster, recently arrived from South Africa and thrust into the responsible task of directing the annual school play, it was an unnerving experience. And my stress level was not helped by the fact that I had composed a musical score for the production that required me to sit out front and provide the musical accompaniment, not only for the young actors up on stage, but also for the whole audience to stand after the finale and join together in the traditional singing of the national anthem. Playing God Save the Queen, while the person in question looked on from just a few feet away, was a truly surreal moment.

Although most of that evening passed by in something of a blur, we must have acquitted ourselves reasonably well. Everyone in the audience seemed happy, not least her majesty, who was charming and friendly — not that I can remember one word she said to me, so relieved was I that it was over. Unlike their director, the young actors seemed quite unconcerned by the presence of what to them was just another mum, albeit a royal one. Even young Harold Rabbit spoke his few lines with complete composure and my autographed programme from that production reveals his youthful, but already very confident, signature, David W.D. Cameron. Cameron Minor (as he was known at school to distinguish him from his older brother, Cameron Major) was by far the youngest on stage and although, on that occasion, he was somewhat overshadowed by brother, Alex, who played a lead role as Ratty, the younger Cameron’s determination and ambition were already evident.

So when J.M. Barrie’s biblical play, The Boy David, was chosen as our next production, the young Cameron was first in line to audition for the title role. (The other leading role of King Saul was to be played by Prince Edward, by now in his final term at prep school.) My casting notes from that production reveal that the final selection for the coveted part of David came down to a closely run contest between just two contenders, the much younger Cameron and the somewhat more experienced Simon Andreae, now a multi-award-winning TV producer.

I still recall agonising over my final decision, which eventually went in favour of Andreae. However, knowing how bitterly disappointed Cameron would be and not wanting to dent his confidence and enthusiasm, I decided to create an additional role that was not part of Barrie’s original script. And so Cameron was made the play’s narrator (or “Lector” as a copy of that programme describes him). Dressed in a flowing white shirt and cummerbund, he stepped up to the lectern — which had been discreetly scaled down to match his 10-year-old stature — and with total poise and confidence, introduced each new scene with a passage from the Old Testament. None of those present could have guessed that this was a future prime minister in the making who, in years to come, would stand behind many such podiums on platforms around the world.

In the audience at our final performance of The Boy David was the late queen mother, representing the family on behalf of the queen, who was touring Australia as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations. This was something of a relief to me, as I had taken the liberty of dyeing the blond Prince Edward’s hair black for the production, a colour that I felt was more in keeping with the dark character of King Saul. And, as there was more than one performance, we had used a permanent hair dye that did not wash out. As I hadn’t sought permission from Buckingham Palace to make this modification and not knowing how his mother might react to her son’s changed appearance, it was of some comfort to know that her majesty was far away on foreign shores until after the school term had ended.

In the classroom, Cameron’s early performances were equally impressive. I was his class teacher in 1976 and my mark sheets for that year confirm that he was a competent and confident young pupil. I got to know the Cameron family well during those years and as parents, Mary and the late Ian Cameron, were always extremely helpful and supportive. On one occasion, I had the pleasure of taking their elder son, Alex, on a school trip to Natal with a few of his classmates during the summer holidays. We used Cowan House school in Hilton as our base, from where we explored the Drakensberg and surrounding area, before setting of on “safari” into Zululand — an adventure that to this day they all still recall with excitement.

Those were interesting years with some unforgettable experiences, many of which I still remember as if they happened only yesterday. And I can’t help now but wonder whether the queen, during her weekly private meetings with the current prime minister, has ever recognised him as the young 10-year-old boy who performed in front of her in a school play back in 1975, dressed in white underpants and tights.

• Chris Black is a former headmaster of Cowan House, now living and teaching in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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