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Bretton Hall – 10 years on

This weekend I went to a reunion marking 10 years since I graduated from Bretton Hall.  It was the second of two reunions organised between friends to catch up and see how life has treated each other since we left drama school all doe eyed and full of aspiration.  Meeting so many old faces and wandering around the now closed campus set in the heart of the beautiful Yorkshire Sculpture Park was wonderful, reviving memories about exploits, conquests, terrible performances we put on, achievements and socialising – all of which helped us grow into the adults that we are today.  I’m not going to go into much detail about the reunions themselves as I want this post to be about my old college, not a couple of fun-filled, alcohol fuelled days in 2012.

I cannot comprehend what life would have been like had I not gone to Bretton.  I realise that’s a stupid statement but it’s completely true.  Bretton had a more profound influence on me than any of my schools when growing up.  Sure, I had individual teachers who left their mark on me in indelible ink from primary school all the way through to A Levels but as an institution Bretton Hall left its logo clearly emblazoned on my forehead.  My only problem with this is that I didn’t even come close to realising it at the time.

Bretton Hall didn’t just give me a degree in Theatre: Acting.  Yes we had modules on Shakespeare, naturalism, post-naturalism, physical theatre, comedy and Artaudian theories etc not to mention skills classes in movement, dance, accents, singing, acrobatics, stage combat and voice.  But Bretton taught me life skills and gave me a very firm grounding.

One of my most stark memories from my training is from about two weeks into my course.  A tutor set us a short task (I can’t remember exactly what it was but that’s not important) that we had to perform to their rest of the group in about 5 minutes time. We rehearsed frantically, performed excitedly and sat patiently waiting for his response. “Well, it’s clear from that there are no natural actors in this room.  You’ve all got your work cut out to graduate from this course” he said.  Dumbstruck.  Whether or not he meant that wholeheartedly or if it was a pre-planned statement he shook me to the core.  “I know I’m better than that, I’ll show you!” screamed my internal monologue.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, it created a mind-set through the whole of my 3 years to push myself harder to achieve more.  It probably still pushes me now.  Although I instantly formed a dislike of that lecturer I’d love to meet him again now, thank him, shake him warmly by the hand and ask if he did indeed plan that or not.  Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

One aspect of the industry that Bretton prepared me for was unemployment.  It seems very defeatist to train actors for three years only to tell them that they probably aren’t going to work that much.  To use a fact I got from Equity (my trade union) a couple of years ago, people who class themselves as actors only work for an average of seven weeks per year as actors.  A horrifying statistic but one that reflects the competition in the industry.  Bretton taught us skills to prepare us for the wider world.  As an example, in the cast of one of my first professional theatre jobs there were two fresh graduates, myself and a girl from Mountview.  Although her course had taught her exceptional levels of singing, dancing and acting, she had no idea how to write a theatre CV.  Not only that, she hadn’t been taught how to approach agents or what to do to become registered self-employed.  Some of my fellow students actually looked down on Bretton at the time due to it not being one of the big drama institutions.  I never did but the more time that passed after leaving the more I appreciated both what it and, indeed, the course had done for me.  I was always surprised at how well regarded the place was, too.  In countless auditions the panel would comment positively on my training.  At first I thought it might just be because they were sick of seeing RADA clones or people from Arts Ed who were just ‘tits and teeth’ but no, it seemed they all respected the place.  Again, it’s only in hindsight that this is becoming clear.

My final bit about Bretton Hall is more of a brag than anything analytical.  It’s set in 334 acres of rolling Yorkshire countryside and dates back to the 14th century.  The village of West Bretton doesn’t have a pub (but does have an idyllic cricket club) and the closest town is about 7 miles away.  It’s stunning.  To be able to walk around the house and gardens of what is essentially a National Trust property in all but affiliation on your lunch break was marvellous.  Whereas most drama schools and universities are set in the middle of a city, Bretton was remote, peaceful and tranquil.  When the course became intense you could head off into the isolation of the Country Park and be hundreds of metres away from another human within 5 minutes.  Being able to escape briefly by yourself and gather your thoughts in silence was fabulous, particularly for an only child like me!  So yes, a thoroughly beautiful place to be.  Brag over (although I hope you’re jealous).

Finally, I’ve had a real topsy-turvy 10 years.  Some people at the reunion had had families, had bought houses, had travelled the world, had moved in a completely different career direction or had pretty much done nothing with their lives, all of which are naturally perfectly valid ways to spend the 10 years.  Out of that list I’ve only bought a house in which I live happily with my partner.  I’ve been lucky enough to have worked all over the UK, the length and breadth Europe and even in Russia.  I’ve played some of the biggest theatres in the country, been in various TV programmes, learnt loads of new performance skills, struggled for a few years with a very serious bout of depression (maybe I’ll do a blog on that sometime) and met some wonderful people.  Throughout all of this I’ve had some great constants, though: my mum and family, my best friends, my agent and the Leicester Tigers.  Always keeping me grounded.

Oh, and a nod of the head to Alex, Ali, Annabelle, Ben, Cath, Gemma, Hayley, Irina (who flew in from Finland!), Jane, Jenny, Kate, Lovely Fran, Lyns, Mary, Nic, Nick, Pink Karen, Rach, Suzanne, Snowy, Welsh Dan, Zara plus everyone else who came along (including the kids!) to the reunions.  Really great to see you all.  I miss my time at Bretton Hall and it’s a pity it closed down in 2007.  I’ll forever cherish the memories & be thankful for the lessons.

 Bretton (2)

The view from the front of the Mansion looking out over the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Bretton Country Park with the lower lake in between.

Bretton (3)

Some of the gang on the steps outside Mansion.  We used to pose here each year before the Summer Ball!


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    • Angie Mendez on Saturday 28 January 2017 at 4:46 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Chris,

    I am Angie, an Interior Architecture student of Leeds Beckett University. I have read your post and it is very interesting and emotive about Bretton Hall. I bet it was amazing studying there, plus the landscape its just stunning!!
    I am in my final year of uni, and actually designing a new scheme for the Gymnasium and Ezra Taylor buildings. Those currently belong to Rushbond as you might know for the proposed Luxury hotel. The reason why I am writing to you, and not to sure whether you will be able to read it.. it’s because I wonder whether you would be able to maybe send me any information or images that I could use on my report?

    I am proposing the design of a Sculpture workshop that will take place on the Gymnasium building, I am proposing to design three pavilions around the pond where artists can sculpt in Metal, Stone and Wood. I think YSP needs a bigger and more specialist facility and also I have noticed that there are not many workshops around in Yorkshire. I think it would be fabulous to study and produce work at the park, I really think it is beautiful. I must say that all of this is just for University purposes and confidential, as well as the project will not be built in reality (sadly), but I am trying my best to collect information and design the spaces accordingly.

    I would like to thank you in advance, and your opinion on my proposal could be also beneficial to my project, or any critic as well to be considered. Thank you for posting this.

    Best regards,

    Angie Mendez

      • MrCC on Thursday 23 February 2017 at 4:02 pm
      • Reply

      Hi Angie,
      Sorry for the delay, I don’t get notifications of Comments! I’ll gladly send you all the images I have (there aren’t many) if you give me your email address. Don’t reply here (I may not see it for months!), send me a direct email using the ‘Contact Chris’ tab floating at the bottom of the page.
      Hopefully it’s not too late!

    • Liz COllins-Powell on Friday 9 February 2018 at 9:46 pm
    • Reply

    Chris; I left Bretton back in 1963; a few years before you! Technically I was a “3 F’s STudent”; Fashion, Fabrics, and Fibres, as some of us called it. In actual fact I was involved in everything from Sewing Costumes for “Audience Participation” when those Drama folk built a Globe Theatre over in Stable Block and hosted a DInner with “Roast Peacock”; actually a Goose with make-believe feathers attached, and all the rest, then performed some Shakespeare. One of the tutors; Jean Francis HIckey, even rode up , side saddle on a horse as Queen Elizabeth 1st; actually her hobby was dressage and SS Riding; so she had no fears about that! Kenneth Barrow; writer of Biographies of Theatre and Film People, Actor, DIrector, and all round fantastic guy, was a mere 6-8″ tall, he wore a Black Suit I made; Oh we had fun, ACtually back then many of us crossed boundaries; I played the Organ in the Chapel and the little one at the bottom of the stairs from the Oval Room down into the basement Chapel; a tiny room, played Violin in the 2nd Orchestra, appeared in a couple of Martial Rose’s edited Wakefield Mystery Plays, Sang in most choirs, and generally had an amazing 3 years there. I have even taken my daughter back to Bretton; luckily while it was still fully functioning; she was so happy to see a place that she knew was so much a part of making me who I am. My last visit was for the “WAKE/Re-union in 1989 ? as they were closing it down; such a sad weekend despite everyone trying so hard to be happy. IT HURT to see the end of such a dream world. I live in Northern Ontario now, taught in England and Wales, came, with my family to Canada; Toronto, and gradually moved north after some major health problems, Now I am “Officially Retired” but am co-parenting my Grand-Daughter; I’m the live-in Nanna-Nanny! I did go back to college; U of Toronto, amazingly I “Failed” their mandatory post entrance Written English Essay Exam. Had to go and meet with a Tutor to go over it. Entered the room and she was reading a copy of Martial Roses Mystery Plays; so I commented on that, we got chatting; she was amazed that I had actually taken part in some of their first performances, and that actually my essay was fine; it was just that the marker had gone by their guidelines; and I had written it in ENGLAND English and not USA English, my allusions were to common knowledge in England but not so common in Canada! so I walked out with a “A + Pass” and not a “Fail”. Bretton was where so many of us found ourselves. One day I hope that my daughter and her daughter will manage toI am so glad I found your page on the web; crazy what one finds when one is just mooching around in hidden corners. SIncerly, M. Liz Collins-Powell; Liz Collins at Bretton!

      • MrCC on Wednesday 14 February 2018 at 9:25 am
      • Reply

      Wow – what a tale! So happy to hear from another Brettoner. If you’re ever back over on this side of the pond then do pay the place a visit, the sculpture park is still stunning.

      • Susan daniels on Wednesday 18 April 2018 at 10:09 am
      • Reply

      Dear liz
      I was a tutor at bretton ( education, English and interarts) 1987-2001
      Now retired I am working to compile a timeline of the history of the college( strangely it doesn’t currently exist) I would love to hear more about the three f degree and life at bretton when you were a student. I was interested in your reference to Frances hickey I name I only recently came across

      My email is below ( I still use my university address)

      Best wishes

    • Fay Matthews on Tuesday 25 September 2018 at 4:16 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Chris, just browsing and in Google the line Bretton came up and so I read your lovely article about my ” Almer mater”! Now a very old Brettonian,you took me back 64 years,so many happy memories!! I remember September 1952, a very naive but excited teenager from a small town near the Staffordshire moors leaving a close family to go out into a strange world not knowing what to expect! We were only a small number girls to the right of the stairs to dormitories called “Old Maids”(former servants quarters!!) and men,mostly mature from the forces and various backgrounds left at the top to rooms around the Bull Ring!
    We were so lucky to all be in the main hall and I have always said they were indeed MY BEST 2 years of my single life,my children keep saying DO IT! We felt we belonged to a magic world especially after the war years! In 1952 we were asked who would like to entertain German students from the College in Aachen,so we were sent to Wakefield station to greet them and choose a friend to stay for 3 weeks knowing nothing about them!! Hello I said to a girl with a lovely smile,I’m Fay, Hello she said” I’m Inge. We are still great friends and over the years visited each other regularly with families sadly this year to attend her husband’s funeral.
    I could tell many more stories but not to bore you,it was known as Cupid’s College then as so many met and married,the local paper wrote an article about us!!.Those 2 years certainly were my guide as to how I looked on the world and anamazing base as to how I approached teaching young children,I adapted Shakespeare plays with my 4th year primary and we enjoyed every minute!! The best WALL(Midsummer Nights dream ) is now my husband’s financial adviser!! I Miss the children very much but the present bureaucracy woul not be for me and I could weep when I hear stories from schools as to what has been taken off the curriculum in the way of the Arts to be replaced by ACADEMIA! Enough!! Regards Fay Matthews,nee: Edwards

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