Interview: Ian Smith from Television Workshop

Photos: Dom Henry
Interview: Adrian Bhagat
Sunday 02 October 2005
reading time: min, words

We speak to the man behind Nottingham's version of RADA...


For more than twenty years, a Nottingham drama school has been producing incredibly successful actors and film makers. From Children’s TV, to prime-time British drama to serious Hollywood films, they wouldn’t be quite the same were it not for a small workshop that runs a few nights a week in the underground of the Lace Market.

The ITV Junior Workshop lead Samantha Morton from a tough upbringing in a Nottingham children's home to Hollywood stardom (Minority Report, Enduring Love, Code 46, In America). It has also been responsible for producing dozens of other talented and successful young actors for both stage and screen including Toby Kebbell (Dead Mans Shoes, Alexander), Chris Gascoyne (Peter Barlow in Coronation Street) and Shauna and Andrew Shim. We spoke to the Workshop director, Ian Smith.

How did the workshop get started?
In 1983, Central Studios was created and they wanted to have a children's casting resource. At the time children's programmes used London casting schools – the teeth and tits brigade – and they wanted more realistic kids. I was doing volunteering with the Lace Market Theatre group and they brought me in to run the under-11's group.

Did you know at the time that it was going to be so successful?
No, although that pioneer group of 1983 have gone on to be really successful. People like Julian Kemp, (An Emmy and BAFTA Award winning director), Pui Fan Lee (Po in the Teletubbies), Chris Gascoyne (Peter Barlow in Coronation Street). Now we have a reputation internationally – Spielberg, Woody Allen, Scott Rudin, they all know about us.

Is the workshop's future secure?
I think so. Last year the studios were being closed down so the raison d'être of the wrokshop had gone. ITV reduced our funding by 50% but we hired a consultant who said we were fantastic and should be expanding, so we've started satellite groups in Birmingham and Leeds. Now we're looking at getting co-funding from the BBC.

There's seems to be a public service feel to the workshop.
The kids that come to us are not the kind who would go to a theatre group. Television acts as a magnet to get the scallies in, thinking they're going to make it, and we just look for talent. We get a wonderful mix - some go to private schools and some are school refuseniks.

Could you see Samantha Morton's potential when she joined?
At fourteen she said to me 'I want to go to Hollywood' and I told her to bring her sights down but she was quite right and she had the determination to get there. However, she was too much to handle – the workshop wasn't big enough for her and she wasn't a good team player because she was so desperate to act. You'd ask for a volunteer and it would be Sam every bloody time elbowing the other kids out of the way. I had to chuck her out at one point because she was having a bad time in the children's home. I encouraged her to get back on the straight and narrow so she could fulfil her potential. We were casting for 'The Token King' which was filmed in Frank Wheldon school. I said to the director, Ray Kilby, “This girl's either going to be your worst nightmare or the best thing that's ever happened to you.” I told Sam that if she gave this movie 100% then she would be back in the workshop and the rest is history.

You're casting a new film for Shane Meadows.
It's called This Is England', set in the 1980s. Like most of Shane's films it has an element of autobiography in it. When he was young he got involved with a bunch of skinheads; naively, I don't think he realised there was a racist element to it and soon he was being pulled into the politics of the National Front. There's a lot of humour in it, but there's a darker side with some really harrowing scenes of racism. At the centre is a very strong young actor – not one of ours, but we are supplying about 60% of the cast.

What are the names from the workshop to watch?
We have a guy called Jack O'Connell from Derby. He's already achieving more than Sam (Morton) did at her age. If I can dissuade him from joining the army, he's going to be phenomenal. He's got a lovely family, he's hardworking but a real bad-lad. When most kids who come to do drama, bless them, are nice, white and middle-class, everyone looks for that charisma and I often find it in kids that I would hate to teach at school - but get them interested in a piece of drama and something happens. Jack had a screen test for a new movie with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench about an affair between a teacher and a pupil. If he'd got the part, his career would have been stratospheric, but he's a year too young.

Your advice for young people who want to get into acting?
Pushy parents get them into drama school too young and they're indoctrinated by well-meaning old dears. It takes us a long time to unteach them those things. If you can find a good youth theatre group, that's a lot better than the outfits that are trying to make money out of you.

And for adults wanting to act?
Don't sign up as an extra – that's soul-destroying. Amateur theatre, like the Lace Market and Nottingham Arts, is a good place to start. It's good if you can start a pub theatre company and learn all aspects of putting on a show. There are other routes – such as the small film producers like those in Intermedia at the Broadway Cinema - who tend to sidestep traditional casting agencies.

What do you think of reality TV?
TV today seems to be driven by looking at a target group and creating a programme for them – makeover TV, reality TV - it's lazy and cheap. If writers and directors can't compete with that, we have to look at hybrids that mix reality with performance. We're all interested in seeing how real people react, but Big Brother today is more of a freak show.

Anything else you want to tell our readers?
There's a refreshing anti-bullshit quality to people in Nottingham. I can see the potential for an explosion of the arts here, so it's up to you guys to go out and support it.


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