OG Theatre Producer
Peter Brook (Woodlands 1939-41) contributed a piece to the 1955 Grasshopper entitled ‘Nostalgia’. In it he spoke of confused memories of his time at Gresham’s, a ‘decided nostalgia’ for the beautiful buildings, the enchanted woods and its proximity to the sea. These memories were tinged with feelings of resentment and rebellion, however, but unlike Lord Reith who claimed the best thing he had done at Gresham’s was to run away, Peter concluded that, despite everything, he had made a good decision to stay.
Described as “a late arrival at Gresham’s, a loner, opinionated, sometimes abrasive, critical, brilliant”, Brook writes in his autobiography that the only teacher to enthuse him was play producer Hoult Taylor, “an exciting outsider who could be wickedly indiscreet.”
School in general is remembered for boredom and boxing, never being alone and being bullied. Compensations included books and music, avoiding cold showers, the smell of polished wood in the Chapel, the magic of the darkroom.
Arriving at Gresham’s in September 1939 Peter would have found that air-raid shelters had already been dug for each boarding house. The black out was completed during that term and boys carried gas masks to lessons. East End evacuees and troops were entertained with a play called ‘Tons of Money’ and a Christmas party in Big School. The following summer, when the threat of invasion became real, pupils were sent home while preparations to evacuate the entire School to Cornwall were put in place. For the rest of the War Gresham’s set up camp at Newquay, being housed in the Pentire and Bay Hotels.
Young Brook acted in two productions, Henry V and The Beggar’s Opera, as well as winning five prizes at his last Speech Day, and taking part in many debates. The Gresham magazine records his rather curious contributions to the Debating Society –
December 1939 – during a topical discussion on the place of rules in modern warfare “Brook said he would take great pleasure in bombing or eating all the people who had crossed his path during his school career.”
December 1940 – in a debate on the contribution of women to the World, Brook “regarded the existence of women as an unfortunate accident.”
March 1941 – whilst discussing the view that sport plays too large a part in an Englishman’s life, Brook advocated mixed ballet.
Born in London in 1925, Peter was the second son of Russian migrant scientists. At the age of six he staged a six hour production of Hamlet, playing all the roles himself. On leaving School he studied English at Oxford where he founded the Oxford University Film Society. He made his first film A Sentimental Journey at 19, but his film-making career was cut short by being sent down from Oxford, only being readmitted by signing a document promising to have nothing further to do with the cinema or theatre! That promise was soon broken, though, and Brook was busy making training films for the army, writing scripts for toothpaste adverts, and directing everything from commercial plays and musicals to Shakespeare.
By the age of 21 Peter had directed his first production at Stratford, and at 22 was appointed director of productions at the Royal Opera House. Although film was his first love, he made seven in all, Brook soon became engrossed in the world of theatre and established an international reputation, causing controversy and excitement wherever he went. In the 60’s he began a life of exploration and experiment, consulting a Turkish seer in his search for the fundamental processes of mathematics, geometry, art and silence. He went on to set up the International Centre of Theatre Research in Paris, a multicultural melting pot of innovation and magic. Viewing himself as showman rather than shaman, he once toured a 9 hour production of a Hindu epic across four continents, and took 11 actors and a carpet on a 10,000 mile trek across Africa “improvising wonders before astonished villagers.” Peter Hall described Brook as “the greatest innovator of his generation”. He is a man who has drawn inspiration from everywhere, even, it seems, from his despised boarding School.