At first glance, this looks like a classic high school, maybe a little prettier than the others. Large walls pierced by futuristic portholes and metal superstructures, overlooking a building covered with bay windows. But pushing the door of the Brit School in Croydon, south of London, it is easy to understand that everything here differs from a traditional establishment. The curriculum, the atmosphere, the students. "I have never seen anything like it in the world", said Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, after visiting it.
On the benches of this public school, which teaches the performing arts, sat Adele, Amy Winehouse, Kate Nash or Katie Melua. Like the actors Tom Holland (Spiderman), Rob Emms (War Horse) or Blake Harrison (The Inbetweeners, cult series and film). Groups like Hazelnut or The Kooks would probably have, without it, never existed. In the entrance hall of the establishment, to the left of the reception, photos of former students who have become stars of music, theater or cinema are spread on the wall. A "Hall of fame" which is the pride of the direction and motivation of the 1,400 students, aged 14 to 19 years.
All will not occupy the top of the poster. The school also trains producers, lighting designers, dressers and stage managers. Because the Brit School also wants to be, for the entertainment industry that contributes to British soft power, a reservoir of specialized labor. "More than half of our students are not destined to work on the stage but behind"says the director of the school, former theater director Stuart Worden. "Seven years after graduating, 70% of our students work in the creative industry, and 99% have a job"he can boast. A factual answer to Margaret Thatcher who, at the time of its creation in 1991, did not want any new "School for unemployed artists".
Forget the uniforms; here, diversity is cultivated. Students are invited to be, without restraint, simply themselves. Too bad (or so much better) for totally eccentric outfits and hairstyles radically out of the ordinary. Originality is not only the way to be noticed by a producer, or to differentiate on streaming platforms. It is also celebrated as a sign of freedom and even artistic determination.
Former DJ Richard Russell, who signed Adele's first contract, told how much he was seduced by the young Londoner's personality as much as by his music, when she was only 17 years old. "She had a very precise idea of what she wanted to do. She's incredibly focused on the goal "he once confided. "I think I owe it to the Brit School completely to have made me what I am today", thanked Adele.
Training for Londoners
In the corridors, everything breathes creativity. Two students make an ox on guitar while interviewing the director, which forces us to continue the discussion in a quieter place. Two fifteen-year-old girls give choreographic advice on the dance floor of the studio dedicated to musicals.
A little further, installed behind his mixing console on the balcony of one of the two theaters of the school (one has 325 seats, the other 280), a teenager of fifteen years, headphones screwed on the head, meticulously orchestrates the sound of the show given below by students who, in polar bears, are busy on a stage in the form of pack ice, on the occasion of an open day for children in the neighborhood .
The Brit School is one of only three digital arts and performance schools in England, all of which are free – the other two are in the West Midlands, the region around Birmingham. It is by far the oldest and the one offering the widest range of disciplines. She is very much oriented towards London since her statutes do not allow her to welcome more than 10% of students coming from the rest of the country. Assaulted because it is free of charge, it is accessible only after a draconian entrance examination, where only one out of three candidates is accepted.
Richard Branson and Paul McCartney of the game
At the beginning of this school unlike any other was Mark Featherstone-Wity. Inspired by Alan Parker's film, Fame (1980), he wishes in the following years to create a secondary school on the model of that of the Guardia, in New York. With the help of George Martin, the producer of the Beatles, he convinced the leaders of the British record industry to support the project. Richard Branson, then boss of Virgin Records, agrees to join the adventure provided that the other labels follow. They will follow.
In 1989, they founded the British Record Industry Trust, a fund that will help finance the school. Artists such as Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, as well as bands such as The Pink Floyd, The Who, Tears for Fears, Dire Straits and Genesis agree to participate in a charity concert. What to fund the birth of the school, which opens in September 1991. The state will bring the rest.
At the time, the Conservative government has already identified the sector as one of the main drivers of the economy (the creative industries now account for 101 billion pounds of GDP and grow twice as fast). Margaret Thatcher Minister of Education, Kenneth Baker, has just launched a new program, City Technology Colleges, which offers the school an innovative status, under the direct control of the ministry but with a share of private funding .
Dietitians to specialists in dyslexia
Today, the Brit Trust, fueled by events such as the Brit Awards – the equivalent of the Victoires de la Musique -, finances between 5% and 10% of the annual budget (around £ 500,000 a year), which in 28 years of existence, will have received more than 10 million pounds from the British record industry. The state has, however, significantly reduced its contribution (-20% between 2013 and 2016), and the director must raise one million pounds a year in sponsorship. "I did not become a school principal to raise funds. But I do not have a choice. It has become a real business », recognizes Stuart Worden.
Fortunately for him, the major labels are not the only ones to take a close interest in the school. Apple has offered computers, Youtube has paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for the renovation of the TV production studio, seriously tired and far from current industry standards. 4K cameras, 16-track mixer, green screen for special effects … The space must allow all students of the school to mount musical promotions, live TV shows, soap operas "Or game shows. "They are free to put or not their content on Youtube"says Christina Matteotti, Head of Music Partnerships for EMEA at Google, the parent company of the platform.
Keep your head on your shoulders
In total, 140 people work for the school, including more than 70 teachers. Sculptors, sound designers, special effects specialists, but also more classical teachers, who are responsible for providing traditional academic education. Because it is a question, beyond the artistic, to give these youngsters a sufficient baggage to manage in life, and keep the head on the shoulders. "We also teach them how to take care of them", adds Stuart Worden. The additional education needs mobilize a total of half a dozen full-time equivalents, from dieticians to dyslexia specialists. The Amy Winehouse Foundation regularly warns them about the risks of addiction – the singer died of an ethyl coma at age 27.
Adele has managed her early and global success much better. Here, he has been taught the marketing springs and the art of decrypting a contract, the rules of operation of agents and the trap of copyright. She practiced a show, from staging to budget management. When she graduated in May 2006, she posted on the social network MySpace a demo of four of his songs that brings him, in less than a month, 10,000 Internet users.
This is how Nick Hugget, a talent scout at XL Recordings, labels with whom she will negotiate her very first contract. Ditto for Katie Melua. "She was still in school when she worked on her first record", recalls Stuart Worden.
The environment is obviously conducive to meetings. The many contacts that the majors maintain make it possible to bring in big names like Nile Rodgers (Get lucky), or George Ezra (Paradise). Or to attract producers. Katie Melua is about to return home after school one evening when she is caught by the pass to audition before the successful author and producer Mike Batt, who will then launch his career. The competition ? "It's part of the system, but students do not have to be insensitive or ruthless"said the director.
As for celebrity, it is supposed to be a "by-product" of what the school aims for, more than a goal in itself. "We demystified celebrity a lotsays Stuart Worden. Most of our students are there first to play, to do their own thing, not to become number one. ". Which marks a real distance from Alan Parker's film from which everything is gone. "I'm gonna make it to heaven"exclaimed Irene Cara, obsessed with glory.
Three alumni in the firmament
Adele, megastar world
Of all the alumni of the school, she has achieved the greatest success. His first album, 19won two Grammy Awards in 2009, four fewer than the next, 21, the most sold in the world in 2011 and 2012. The third album, 25, released in 2015, will do a little less well but the singer has meanwhile won an Oscar for Sky Fall.
Amy Winehouse, tortured genius
His first album, Frank, is well received in 2003 but it is Back to black, in 2006, which made her a global star, praised for her voice, depth, and style recognizable by her eyeliner and hairstyle. Weary, she quickly becomes a prisoner of drugs and alcohol. She died in 2011 of an ethyl coma, at 27, like Joplin, Cobain, Hendrix, Jones …
Tom Holland, the land of superheroes
He starts in 2008 in the musical Billy Elliott and goes into the movies in 2012 in The Impossible alongside Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts – not bad as debut. In 2016, he takes the character of Spiderman in the Marvel universe. This does not prevent him from entering the world of James Gray playing the son of explorer Percy Fawcett in The lost city of Z in 2017.