A troubled tale of talent, fame and misfortune

February 15, 2002

Liverpool's 'fame' school has often made the headlines for the wrong reasons, but in a new book, founder Mark Featherstone-Witty argues that, controversies aside, he is happy to have created 'something out of nothing'. Harriet Swain reports.

Fame has not always been kind to Mark Featherstone-Witty, founder and chief executive of The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, better known as "Paul McCartney's fame school". Newspapers, including this one, have documented the school's financial and management difficulties over the past five years. Reviews on the Amazon website call Featherstone-Witty's new book, Optimistic, Even Then , "a sad testament to vanity" and "fiction rather than fact", although some of these could be the result of the many bruised egos created by the Lipa story itself.

Why did he stir all this up by writing the book, let alone publishing it at his own expense when it failed to find a publisher? "To give hope and optimism to people who start off with blank sheets of paper," he says.

Whether the book's description of the betrayals, disappointments and financial crises involved in setting up Lipa and a similar school in London, the Brit School, would inspire or deter would-be entrepreneurs is debatable. But there were other reasons. It was also to thank people - especially those who usually miss out on recognition. "The very famous people always get the column inches," he says. "They are incredibly important, but the time they spent is small compared with others."

Fear of mortality also comes into it. Featherstone-Witty decided to write the book after a major car accident. He says he wanted "to let my son know what I did. You don't come up with that many ideas in your life."

His big idea was to set up a school in the United Kingdom devoted to the performing arts but in a way that had not been done before. The school was to teach its students to sing, dance and act, rather than concentrate on just one element, and educate them about the business side of performing and how to develop skills that would make them employable even if their first choice of career fell through. His inspiration? A visit to the New York High School of the Performing Arts, the basis for the film Fame .

In many ways he has achieved his dream. Visit Lipa today and you will find groups of twentysomethings, scripts in hand, practising a musical number in one classroom, while in another a group declaims Shakespeare. A few doors down, rows of attentive students will be listening to a lecture, while music bursts out as a door swings open along the corridor. The Fame theme tune will quickly start buzzing around your brain.

But the story is not over. Much of the book is a catalogue of money-raising schemes: Lipa still struggles constantly for cash. Its teaching costs are way too high, and state-of-the-art equipment comes at a price. An audit report last May by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Liverpool John Moores University, which validates Lipa's higher education courses, made 47 recommendations for improvements to "satisfy the demands of public accountability". A LJMU spokeswoman says these have now been implemented.

Featherstone-Witty loves fundraising "because it is where the dream becomes real. It is where all those pub conversations have to stop. I find it thrilling and frightening."

He also loves it because it means he gets to talk to people at the top of what they do.

The most important such person for Lipa is McCartney. In the book, Featherstone-Witty describes how he struggles not to "smile inanely" as he meets "an icon from my youth" for the first time and later, after McCartney threatens to withdraw support, how he realises he has been naive to expect "heroes to be perfect people".

In fact McCartney, whose main motivation appears to have been to restore his old grammar school, continued to be an invaluable backer, in terms of money and influence. Throughout the book, Featherstone-Witty stresses the importance of having a well-known "project champion" in any major enterprise of this kind. Richard Branson performed a similar role for the Brit School. Lipa now uses McCartney "sparingly", he says, "when we have pulled all the levers we can possibly pull".

But at these times, his influence proves awesome. "When people pick up the telephone and Paul McCartney is at the other end of the line, the call is taken," he says. "In some of those situations we were in, he would say, 'Can I have Tony Blair's number?' and I'd give it to him, he'd ring him and Tony Blair would listen."

I express amazement at the pulling power of fame, but he disputes this.

"Without being sychophantic, people such as The Beatles are complete one-offs," he says. "Paul is the most successful songwriter this country has produced - and the richest."

In addition, musicians provide the soundtrack to people's lives. When he met McCartney for the first time, he says: "It was as if part of me was coming back at me. These are the people you watched or listened to when you were growing up, so when you see them in the flesh it is as if you were meeting yourself - but much younger of course."

According to the book, McCartney shared the reservations of a number of other artists about how far the performing arts could be taught. The Beatles never had training. Indeed, Featherstone-Witty has trouble thinking of any major star who has. He even admits that training may harm talent because most great songs are very simple. But what a school such as Lipa does offer, he says, is the opportunity to make mistakes. It is all very well to point to big stars who have not received training, but what about the potential ones that have fallen by the wayside?

And former Lipa students are already making their mark. One has joined boy band A1, another won a place in the soap Emmerdale after a talent contest-style television series. Other graduates have gone on to perform lead roles in West End musicals, appeared in television shows and won awards for song-writing and drama.

Future plans for Lipa include introducing postgraduate courses and perhaps the government's new foundation degrees. Featherstone-Witty also wants to try franchising Lipa overseas, and possibly working on entrepreneurial ideas with top musicians such as Benny Gallagher. "We could run a guitar masterclass series, tape that, maybe market it." In addition, he is reviewing all existing courses.

Things have settled down, he says, following a high turnover of senior staff - five have left in the past year. He puts this down to the difficulties of changing from a start-up, in which everyone is involved together, into a going concern run by managers. An added problem is the "high emotionalism" of many people in the performing arts. He says he is not very interested in operational issues. "I can do it and I've done it many times and I will do it because I'm so excited about the outcome, but the real outcome I'm interested in is to do something that hasn't been done before." It is "creating something out of nothing" that he finds thrilling.

But he did not start out wanting to be an entrepreneur. He wanted to be an actor. After a degree in general studies at Durham University, and a holiday job au pairing for Laurence Olivier, he went to the United States to study for an MA in psychology. There he appeared in a film called The Meal, in which he played a gay hairdresser, and followed it with a part in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum , in which he played "an old man who couldn't get it up for young girls". By that stage, disillusion had set in. He returned to England and a succession of jobs as a cleaner, supply teacher and publisher, returning to teaching when he felt that an editor's job was too much work for too little glory.

His big break came when he was offered a job as principal of a tutorial college by a neighbour. When he discovered he had a knack for it, he decided to set up a college of his own with a couple of friends and £10,000. Two schools followed - The London School of Publishing and The London School of Insurance, both of which are still going.

"So at a particular point I thought that with enough hard work all sorts of things are possible," he says. "That's kind of when I saw Fame , at that very energetic phase when I was trying to make up for lost time."

But Lipa is about a lot more than fame, he says. A large part of what it teaches is about behind-the-scenes expertise rather than performance. Its emphasis is not on fame but on future employment. There are easier ways to get known than spending three years at college. "If you are a girl, dye your hair and get a breast implant," he says.

When I ask if he wants to be famous, there is a long pause. "Oh gosh, I wish you hadn't asked me that," he says. "I suppose I would like to live up to the people I most admire." Such as? The person he picks out is Michael Young - Lord Young, the social and political progressive thinker responsible for the Open University, Consumers Association and 1945 Labour manifesto, whose obituaries have recently filled the newspapers.

"Such a fertile imagination," he says. "That is a kind of marker. Equally you decide fairly early on if you just want to step in the footsteps of other people or if you want a new step. And if you do make a new step, then you have to publicise it."

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