Two weeks ago I finished playing Captain Phillip in a run of the modern classic play Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Written in Thatcher's Britain it tells the story of the first colony in Australia and shows how a First Fleet of convicts and marines laid the foundation of the country. My character, who became the first Governor General of New South Wales, believed that people could be redeemed, whatever their past sins, and that there were positives in every human being, if we cared to look beneath the rags and filth of mangled lives.
Phillip set in train the first theatrical event in Australia, a performance by convicts of George Farquhar's comedy The Recruiting Officer. Our Country's Good is a brave hymn to a belief in the transformational qualities of theatre, and in its day it challenged the dominant ideology of Thatcher's Britain – the view that the arts should be cut, and the delusion that politicians always know what is best for us. Our Country's Good is on the current A Level syllabus but for how long it will stay there, given Education Secretary's Michael Gove's recent dictates, is anyone's guess.
During rehearsals we were reminded of the relevance of Our Country's Good to today's audiences as the arts are again gripped by cuts and politicians continue to tell us what is best for us. Two weeks away from the first night Justice Minister Christopher Grayling announced that prisoners would no longer be allowed to receive books as gifts. Children are now not allowed to send a relation a homemade birthday card. Prisoners with a particular expertise or interests cannot receive magazines, no matter if their subject is as innocuous as bird-watching or steam trains. Captain Phillip, who had strong views on the civilising importance of knowledge, would be turning in his grave.
From now on, no man, woman or child in prison will be able to receive a book from outside. This is part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation. It is a blanket decision, applying to all prisoners no matter how compliant and well-behaved. Prison libraries are supplied and funded by local authorities and have often been surprisingly good, but so many libraries are now closing and cutting costs that inevitably the first service to feel the pinch is in prison.
It is one thing to make it difficult for prisoners to read. It is another to dictate what and what should not be taught in schools. Grayling's pandering posturing to ideas, that may or may not be dreamt up by an off-message member of UKIP, seems to be catching on among Coalition Ministers. A similar ideological dogma lies behind Education Minister Michael Gove's recent decision to 'Britishize' the school curriculum.
Education ministers have long meddled with the school curriculum, and the effect has been to alienate teachers and bemuse parents and children. Now once again what should be taught in our schools falls victim to the latest fad, or the worst idea imagined by a Minister in their bath.
Gove's message to local authorities that Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, are no longer appropriate for our pupils has been heeded. The new English literature GCSE syllabus to be published by one of the biggest UK exam boards, will leave out the Pulitzer-prizewinning 1960 novel about racism; the novel about society's treatment of disability; and Miller's classic tour of theatrical force – in which the Salem witch-hunts serve as a metaphor for McCarthyite anti-communist zealotry. All will disappear from the syllabus. Another exam board, Edexcel, is expected to follow suit.
These classics have been taught by schools for years with considerable success, but Gove wants our schools to focus on British classics such as Dickens and Shakespeare (though Shakespeare has always been on A level English syllabuses). I do not know what disappointed me most this week – UKIP's triumph in the European elections and their success in the local government elections or Mr Gove's dictate.
During the run of Our Country's Good, I was constantly reminded that the Captain Phillipses of this world are freedom's most important advocates, people who will challenge what passes as conventional wisdom. What I hope is that there will be a sustained protest against removing the American classics, and that what Christopher Bigsby has called 'union jack culture' will not prevail. Bigsby, Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, reminds us that "outside the school gates is a cosmopolitan world, revelling in the different cultures and histories that have become part of the story of these islands". (See The 10 American writers that English children should study for GCSE)
Michael Gove and UKIP, in different ways, have the power to betray this tradition. Let us hope there will always be people like Captain Phillip to speak up in our society to ensure that the worst excesses of blinkered education ministers, and political parties, do not spread further across this still wonderful land.
Our Country's Good
In England, the play is used by the exam board AQA and Edexcel as a set text for Advanced Level Theatre Studies and as a set text to use in comparison essays for GCSE. It has also been used in universities' performing arts and English departments. It has been performed across Europe as part of GCSE candidates' final performances. It is also used at AS level in English Literature studies, as well as a set text in the OIB administered by CIE and is also commonly used in English-speaking English Literature classes for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.
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