The Story of Britannia High

Launched over a decade ago Britannia High was a curious colourful amalgam of 80s leg warming perennial Fame and the then film de jour High School Musical. It’s set in a UK performing arts school but check out that American logo. Wedged between that film’s popularity and the later television success of Glee, it has been largely forgotten even though it involved several heavyweight industry people. Cancelled after just nine episodes when it had only just got started, the show never picked up the sort of ratings the broadcaster wanted though an early evening Sunday slot may not have been the best location for it. So what was Britannia High, what was it really like and what went wrong? Why, in short, was it not – as the title song suggests- the Start of Something?

The programme certainly had some top drawer people involved including producer Gareth Phillips, choreographer Arlene Phillips, producer David Ian, music producer Christopher Neill and lead director Brian Grant. The writing team included Jonathan Harvey, Julie Jones, Kirstie Falkous, Damon Rochefort and John Regier. The head songwriter was none other than Gary Barlow. Together with a budget of £2million you’d think that bunch would be able to come up with something good, right? In many ways they did. The songs are tremendous, the direction stunning and often filmic, the performances superb. So why didn’t it gel?

The original idea came from Arlene Phillips (then a harsh Strictly Come Dancing judge) and David Ian who had high aspirations from the start holding a series of gruelling auditions looking for people who were or could pass for sixteen or seventeen, sing like an angel, dance like a whirlwind and act like they were from the RSC. Even the people who came to these auditions were all from stage schools. The trouble with that approach was having potentially great singers failing to make the grade because they couldn’t manage more than a shuffle or brilliant dancers losing out because they didn’t really act. It is generally common with this sort of project to cast to one strength and write accordingly so you have some characters who don’t need to dance or sing but are needed for the dramatic parts. Or who can dance but not sing etc. Maybe this show’s first mistake was in trying to find six main characters possessed of the famed “triple threat”.

The rigorous process- shown in all its gruelling goriness on the dvd- whittled the wannabes down to 40 amongst whom were some familiar faces including Pixie Lott and bizarrely a sixteen year old pre tattooed Ed Sheeran. Watching him trying to dance to upbeat pop music is a revelation and probably something he doesn’t want to be reminded off. Soz Sheerers. Even this regime only netted two of the main six- Georgina Hagan and Matthew James Thomas.

As the songs for the series were going to be recorded prior to filming starting, it was imperative to find the remaining cast members as quickly as possible to the search was widened. The second set of auditions in early 2008 saw an open invitation to try and find talent beyond the limits of stage schools though this brought some even less suitable candidates. Some were rejected simply on looks before they opened their mouth and or did a twirl. Those who survived that cull were subject to a similarly intense workout as the first auditions. On the dvd after one group has left the room, Arlene Phillips calls them the worst dancers she’d ever seen, someone else is called a real “triple threat- can’t dance, can’t act, can’t sing!”. Still these second sessions produced another two main cast members in the form of Sapphire Elia and Rana Ray, Together with Matthew Thomas and Georgina Hagen they were dispatched to Real World studios near Bath to start recording the songs that Gary Barlow and co had been cooking. Showing what a small world the arts are, though none of the group knew who else had been chosen it turned out that Thomas and Elia had been classmates in school years earlier.

An additional member of the cast was Sophie Powles who had been in the final group from the first auditions. Though her singing and dancing were not strong enough for the demands of the series the producers decided to create a role for her anyway, as Ronnie who works in the canteen.  She proved to be a valuable addition providing a more grounded perspective than some of her stage struck colleagues as well as some humour.

In March 2008 a third set of auditions netted Marcquelle Ward with the final cast member- Mitch Hewer- being recommended by agents. He was the only actor who would be known to some of the public having been one of the stars of the iconic first two series of Skins. The duo had to play catch up, recording their songs while rehearsing for the dance routines. The never satisfied Arlene Philips is seen drilling the cast through their paces in the documentary always demanding a little more.

The composition process supervised by Gary Barlow took the form of a sort of writers room and included a number of the UK’s most successful pop songwriters including Guy Chambers, Andy Hill, Elliot Kennedy and Steve Mac as well as younger writers like James Bourne plus Barlow’s Take That bandmate Mark Owen. Their job was to come up with songs that could be used in the series relating to character developments in the plots as well as being pop songs in their own right. In the end Barlow and co produced a portfolio of 30 songs, 17 of which were shot for the series with routines while others were used in the background.

The songs are uniformly good pop with three being outstanding. `The Start of Something` is the best song SClub 7 never made with a catchy chorus that was buzzing round my head for weeks. Its guileless positivity is infectious.  No wonder it ends up as the title song. `Proud` is an exquisite heartrending piano ballad. `The Things That We Don’t Say` glides on a shuffle rhythm as its narrative addresses a deceased family member. Any of these three would be a massive hit if they were re-recorded now.

While the song writing was happening, episodes were still being re-drafted. Producer Gareth Phillips later described the last minute chaos of the process:  “We had set up our production at the Blue Shed in Salford. As our hugely talented heads of department set to work creating Britannia High's distinctive looks, the cast began choreography and drama rehearsals. I have often likened the job of producer to one of those circus plate-spinners. You have to keep all those plates spinning at any cost - and, boy, were we spinning them. Scripts were being rewritten, songs still had to be recorded, there were dance injuries and a last-minute swap of parts for two of our lead actors.”

Whatever the problems, the six month filming for Britannia High began in June 2008 meaning that the show was still filming when transmission began. Though set in London most of the series was filmed in Manchester. The result is a hugely entertaining series that ITV clearly had high hopes for as it inspired their largest marketing investment of 2008 and was promoted with considerable online activity and a dance roadshow. The style of the show is bright, colourful and breezy with jump cuts and short conversations. We do see some of the hard work such a place would involve though the teaching side is kept to a relative minimum. Mark Benton is on hand as the academy’s kindly principal with Adam Garcia as dance coach Stefan.

On the whole it has to be said that the dialogue is workmanlike and veers towards a younger audience while the sets of the school resemble one of those recently built Academies rather than the sort of old building often favoured for this kind of programme. Where the show really soars though is in the musical numbers which are presented like music videos. Sometimes they remain in the locations of the episode, other times in stylised studio set ups but always do a great job in framing the context of the song. As you’d expect after such a rigorous audition process the performances are top notch in both singing and dancing while the especially composed songs certainly reach a high standard.

Where Britannia High is weakest- and which may ultimately have sunk it- is in the narrative and character departments. Had the same rigour been given to these areas as was to the performance and directing side then the series would have been quite something. In a sense there is nothing wrong with what’s on offer if it were purely a children’s show. Yet the series was clearly aimed towards a broader reach so there should have been more. With such talented actors at their disposal there was very little they couldn’t have tackled – the handful of dramatic moments provide ample demonstration of that- but often the dialogue goes for the ordinary while attempts at humour frequently seem forced.  It could have been shaken up a bit- swapping some storylines round for example, adding more depth to the character developments. What is there works to a point but frequently feels like a first draft and clearly did not snare a wider audience.

There is definitely some sense that the writers had an overall plan; the first episode for example includes very small hints of future plots such as when Danny hands someone else a leaflet and asks “what’s this about then?” rather than read it himself or the way Lola looks at Stefan or Jez’s comment about his father . However this sort of thing never seemed to be carried through as if the show was intended to be watched in any order. Significant things that happen to the characters never seem to carry much weight in subsequent episodes- this is especially true of Lauren and Danny’s relationship which was so strong early on and is treated more for gags when they break up. As for BB’s story it burns strongly while in the spotlight of its own episode but outside that he is poorly served.

The series debuted in October 2008 with 3.5 million viewers and when moved to a later timeslot (7pm) this went up for part 2 to 4.2 million yet it would never reach that figure again and by episode 9 the figure was 1.3 million. The early time slot didn’t help of course but some of the content probably meant it was not sophisticated enough to be shown any later. On BBC1 Antiques Roadshow was getting more viewers. The critical reaction was worse with one reviewer summarising “everything about Britannia High was atrocious.” Such reactions should come with the caveat that serious Tv critics rarely enjoy anything that might suggest musicals or musical theatre and to describe all elements of the programmes as “atrocious” suggests the reviewer set out to dislike it before seeing a minute.

Over a decade later it is easy to see though why the critics gunned for the opening episode `Let’s Dance` while at the same time you can appreciate the work that went into it. Certainly the visual side fulfils Arlene Phillips’ intention of a vibrant modern show. It is slick, fresh and appealing opening appropriately with `The Start of Something`, a hit single from another dimension showcasing the talents of the main cast in breathless fashion. It makes sense to circle the episode around Lauren as she is the more grounded character and Georgina Hagen successfully imbues the episode with a lonely girl from home vibe. Right away though there is a jarring sense that the writers are creating tension without backing it up. Claudine instantly takes a dislike to Lauren for no real reason even before she discovers accidentally the other girl never auditioned. This rivalry would have been better built up over several episodes whereas here the duo are already trying to sabotage each other’s work. “That wasn’t me” says Lauren after calling out Claudine publicly but the meat of the episode should have been that it is. This is muddied by a dramatic collapse that serves no particular story purpose other than to add a cliffhanger before an ad break. Even so it’s a lively episode and the musical content is excellent. `Watch This Space` perfectly brings the girls’ rivalry to life with black and white contrast and the closing `Best Of Me` brings everyone together on the rooftop. I do think it should have left people wanting to come back- and indeed the second episodes’ ratings were higher- as it does contain plenty of star quality.

`Behind the Mask` charts Danny’s dyslexic difficulties with the subtlety of a sledgehammer so that by the time of the big reveal everyone watching will realise what is happening as should all the characters. It is hard to believe that his condition went undiagnosed through school and presumes that you can get into Britannia High without any written work at all. What the episode lacks in plot it makes up for in musical moments. These include an exuberant routine set in the canteen, some on stage performances and Mitch Hewer’s powerful performance of `Missing Person`. It’s the actor who makes the slim script work better than it should because he makes you feel sorry for a character who has hitherto seemed arrogant and self obsessed. I’m not sure about Mark Benton’s Principal’s approach – for the second week running he asks someone in difficulty if they are going to quit to make them do the opposite. I don’t think counselling is his forte!

`Who Are You` is better focussing on Jez’s family background and while it follows a similar trajectory to episode 2, it does so in a more satisfying way. Jez’ vagueness about his background makes the others find out something about him leading to the discovery that he’s actually the son of a multi- millionnaire building magnate. Thanks to an assured, steely performance from guest star Danny Webb this works well. Despite his amiability when he discovers his son has not, as he thought, been studying economics he resolves to move him right away. OK it’s only slightly less likely than Danny’s unnoticed dyslexia but it plays into the narrative of the busy parent not realising who his son has become. The episode is aided by a trio of excellent performances from Matthew Thomas whether reflected in shimmering mirrors during `I Am who I Am` or on roller skates for the for the ebullient  `Wake Up`. Yet the artifice is stripped back for `Proud` which is simply him sitting at a piano emoting the lyric in what is probably the series’ finest performance. It’s the only song from the series that has been used again; a version was recorded by Susan Boyle on her debut album. And for the first time the show confounds expectations as viewers clearly expect that performance to sway Tyler Senior into allowing Jez to continue but it doesn’t.

`Fame` sees a chance encounter with pop star Matt Willis (it is 2008) in a club propelling Lola to tabloid fame that draws her away from the rigours of the school towards the bright lights. Yet again principal Nugent seems to be encouraging someone to leave – at this rate he’ll have no students left by the end of term! The targets here are familiar and you can sense the writers might have an axe to grind about the media but it is Rana Ray’s performance that sells it. As the ditzy Lola she is perfect evolving towards the self interested sense of a star yet retaining her character’s spaced out demeanour. The episode boasts appearances from real life stars of the day- in addition to Willis we have two members of Boyzone who witness Lola’s impromptu audition in a crowded bar. The outcome is never in doubt as she leaves, finds herself filming adverts dressed as giant fruit, and begs to come back. Even though Nugent has told her the place is already filled he allows her to do an audition to return. Despite describing what looks to the viewer as a perfect performance as “sloppy” the teachers allow her back. It’s a bitty episode but thanks to Rany Ray and the songs still has a lot to offer

`Go Your Own Way` focuses on BB. On the one hand – and remembering this is over a decade ago- the fact that a black character gets a storyline about guns and gangs is definitely falling into the expected cliché. Yet it does give Marcquelle Ward a showcase that he rises to with aplomb. The showpiece song- `The Things That We Don’t Say` - is given a suitably downbeat presentation as he wanders around the flat where his late brother lived and it’s one of  the series’ most affecting sequences. It makes you realise how much stronger the whole thing could have been had it always reached this level. . The episode also features `Fight Song` performed by both Ward and Thomas while running and some very elastic street dancing plus the obligatory Krumping reference which was a thing back then. One thing though- if BB is from Manchester as he says in the first episode how come his brother and mates all live in London as well?

`Miss Independent` is dominated by a frivolous ghost hunting exercise, yet manages to raise the dramatic bar returning to Claudine’s attempts to sabotage Danny and Lauren’s relationship. Claudine’s behaviour has been largely unexplained to this point and it has been puzzling why the others still hang around with her. Some background is sketched in here but the richer part is when the happy couple pull a trick on her which later rebounds back on them. Sapphire Elia is excellent whether dishing out Claudine’s bitchy put downs (some of which really sting this time) or showing us her more vulnerable side. The fact that by the end you will feel some empathy with her is surprising in itself. There’s also a real traditional musical scenario with the song `Growing Pains` as Danny raids lots of props to try and cheer her up. Claudine’s own musical centrepiece is the forcefully rendered `You’ve Got Nothing On Me`. To balance all this the gang try to solve Lola’s belief she is cursed by the school ghost Edna by conjuring up an appearance from the apparition in the form of Ronnie who finally gets a bit more to do even if its rolling around in white robes on a skateboard! Direction in this episode is excellent with the ghost stuff lit only by torch beams adding to the atmosphere and the amusing `Dance Till you wake the dead” dropping some nods to `Thriller`. One question though- the building looks almost new so how come there’s supposed to be a ghost?

`Don’t Stand So Close to Me` sees another Lola story. She gets a lot of prominence during the season and justifiably so as Rana Rey can be very funny but also when needed very serious. In this take on that familiar teacher / pupil attraction she fantasises in her diary about an affair with dance tutor Stefan but when he starts giving her private classes for an upcoming dance competition the pair grow closer. Its done tastefully and even in context nothing happens before Stefan realises the potential trouble. The others get to mess about stealing her diary and trying (unsuccessfully) to keep its secrets. It seems a frothy enough episode with some inventive routines- including one involving Elizabethan outfits- until the well staged ending. To stop Lola throwing away her future by leaving (“again” as Jez quips) it is Stefan who heads off to the airport. Their goodbye takes the form of a dance routine to them singing `What Good Is Love` watched by other thoughtful passengers all done in monochrome. It’s one of the shows’ stand out moments.

`With A Little Help From My Friends` brings together the various storylines centred around a potentially serious medical diagnosis for Lauren in the midst of preparations for the end of year show. If eight or nine months is supposed to have passed there really should have been more episodes for this one to re-visit. As it is it seems exceptionally quick to have reached the end of the year. The mixture of frivolity and seriousness works well and as the name suggests the episode sees people helping others with varying degrees of success. The highpoint is Claudine’s song `Do It All Again` as she wanders through many of the previous episode’s dance sequences. And the expressions on Jez and BB’s faces when Ronnie attempts to sing is a picture. The episode even ends in a cliffhanger manner with Lauren’s test results and whether Danny will ultimately pick her or Claudine left for next week.

The final episode went out live or partly live but was ignominiously shown 90 minutes earlier than usual at 5.30pm and thus garnered the lowest viewing figures of the series. A shame because it showcases the cast as each performs at the end of term show and was afforded 20 days’ rehearsal in London. I’m not sure the idea quite works as it repeats songs from other episodes only out of the context in which they appeared therefore reducing their impact a bit. Nonetheless it is a great showcase for the main cast and also the main regular dancers. It plays about with ongoing plotlines, amusingly Danny ends up with neither girl while there’s a rapprochement of sorts between Jez and his father. Stefan turns up to offer Lola a new life to which she says Yes though I suspect a second series would have found a way to unravel that and keep them both in the show.

ITV did not keep the cast and crew waiting long announcing early in 2009 that the series would not be renewed citing low ratings. "We thought Britannia High would be an all-singing, all-dancing success - especially having the top names in dance and music on board," a source was quoted as saying, "Sadly, the stories of these youngsters vying for their dreams didn’t seem to capture viewers’ imagination.” Shortly after the cancellation announcement Arlene Phillips was optimistic saying "I think there's life in Britannia High yet. I think we'll wait and see what happens. I don't think it's done and dusted.” Unfortunately it was.

After the cancellation, the ambitions ITV had harboured for the series became clear with the magazine Campaign revealing there had been plans for a tour and a plethora of licenced merchandise including clothing and books. The series was released across two DVDs with generous extras including footage of the fearsome auditions as well as character’s video diaries and dance tutorials. The latter saw cast members demonstrating how you could Krump with the best of them.

All of the main cast remain active in the business to this day. Georgina Hagan’s stage work including runs in We Will Rock You, Starlight Express and Groundhog Day in the West End. Matthew James Thomas has starred in A Picture of Dorian Gray before appearing on Broadway initially as the understudy for Reeve Carney in Spiderman- Turn off the Dark playing the role twice a week. Then he was the lead in Pippin which subsequently went on tour. Mitch Hewer has appeared on stage in Never Forget, Nighlight and Behaving Badly and is currently a regular on Casualty. Sapphire Elia was a regular on Emmerdale for several years and has also done stage productions including several pantomimes. Marcquelle Ward appeared in the revival of Cats in the West End and Rana Roy has appeared in a number of US tv dramas including Queen America, The Night Shift and Switched at Birth.

1 comment:

  1. I thought i was the only person who remembered this programme. I really loved it, but then again I was very young back then. Great post.