Actor and comedian Hugh Dennis is impressed by the students in the West Sussex area finals of the ESU’s Performing Shakespeare competition
The schoolchildren of West Sussex are a lucky bunch. Not only do they have the chance to pit their Juliet and Othello mono- and duologues against those of other schools in the ESU’s Performing Shakespeare competition, those reaching the regional finals get to perform in front of TV royalty Hugh Dennis and Abigail Cruttenden (pictured above), thanks to the sterling efforts of branch chairman Anthony Davies.
A regular fixture on the judging panel, Dennis, star of Mock The Week and BBC One’s hit sitcom Outnumbered, is almost as excited as the students. ‘It’s an immensely rewarding thing to do,’ he says, ‘partly because of the kids’ enthusiasm which is genuinely uplifting, but also because, as a text, Shakespeare can appear so dense and hard to understand, and yet performing it, they all make sense of it. That’s what’s so impressive.’
Though Dennis hasn’t played any Shakespeare himself (apart from a ‘rather unfortunate’ casting as Brutus in a school production of Julius Caesar, aged 12), he knows what a challenge this is. ‘It’s the same for all actors. When you start doing a part you have no idea how to say a line or what it means and somehow you have to work it out. Just standing up in front of people is terrifying.’
This, more than anything else, is what Dennis believes the competition gives the students. ‘I think mainly it helps kids be confident. You manage to do something you never thought you could, and that gives you the confidence to think: “I can probably do other stuff as well”.’
His own realisation that he could handle an audience – and enjoy doing so – came when, as head boy, he was required to give a speech at the end of his A-level year. However, his first ever game of golf the day before the speech had, thanks to a friend’s mis-swing, left him with an enormous, bloody head wound, the stitches for which had meant a sizeable proportion of his hair had had to be shaved off. ‘I realised that the big question the audience was going to be asking was not about how well the school had done or the first fifteen’s triumphs but “why does he look like a before and after picture for the Harley Street Hair Clinic?” So I went a bit off piste and people laughed and I thought, “This is alright”.’
He admits that he hadn’t been as nervous as some people might have been. ‘My dad was a vicar who became a bishop, so it never seemed unusual to me that you would stand up and talk in front of people, and it never seemed unusual you would put on funny clothes.’
The seed may have been planted, but it took a while to germinate. ‘I went to Cambridge thinking I was probably the most stupid person there because I’d hadn’t done very well in my A-levels and I’d got in via the Cambridge exam, and I decided that to keep up, I’d have to work very hard.’ Two years in, it dawned on him that this wasn’t necessarily the most important thing and he joined Footlights. ‘Although I still wasn’t considering comedy as a career, I realised there were people who’d gone to Cambridge specifically for that reason and their degrees were secondary.’ In that category in Dennis’s year were Nick Hancock and Steve Punt, with whom Dennis teamed up as a double act, but their Saturday night gigs were still, in Dennis’s mind at least, a hobby; something he did on the side of his marketing job at Unilever, which he joined after graduating.
And so it might have stayed if comedian Jasper Carrot hadn’t seen them perform at the Comedy Store one night and asked them onto his show. Even then, Dennis stayed at Unilever for six years, before the hit radio programme The Mary Whitehouse Experience, which he’d been recording in his spare time, transferred to TV, and his boss organised for him to take an 18-month sabbatical, ‘which I’m officially still on,’ he laughs.
Bizarre though it may sound, he sees a thread between his marketing work and his stand-up career. ‘A lot of marketing is working out what people want and how you should express things,’ he says. ‘I think it attracts the same kind of people as acting too. I think one of the reasons Unilever gave me a sabbatical is that my department was full of people who to some extent wanted to be doing what I was doing; everyone was a performer manqué in some sense.’
How you express yourself is something that has been on Dennis’s mind a lot, partly because of his judging of the Performing Shakespeare competition, but also because he was recently asked to speak at a leadership conference at his children’s school. He was panicked – ‘I’m in a profession that requires you to have no leadership skills at all. But, having thought about it quite a lot, I realised that you can have as brilliant an idea as you like, or you can be fantastically insightful, but all of that is of absolutely no use to you unless you can get your ideas over to other people.
‘The power of language and of knowing how to express yourself is key to absolutely everything. Somehow you have to be comfortable in your own skin – or indeed in someone else’s – but you have to have the confidence to stand up and to value your own opinion and your right to be there. Learning to speak in public helps you overcome shyness and to value yourself. And of course, the applause is amazing.’
Words of wisdom
Do something you enjoy
It’s ridiculous not to. I’ve always thought I would be as happy being a barrister or any other profession that requires you to stand up and talk, and of course I’d have work all the time.
Break it down
However nervous I am, my mantra is generally to say that ‘This is just an hour of your life. That’s all it is. Within sixty minutes it will all be over, however it has gone.’
Don’t worry about messing up
I remember very early on going to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Romeo & Juliet at the Barbican. Someone forgot their lines and it collapsed into a mess and I thought this is the RSC, the country’s greatest actors, so if I forget a line every now and again, it’s really fine.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Dialogue. Words by Natasha Goodfellow