Simon Piasecki is professor and head of the department of dance, drama and performance studies at Liverpool Hope University. Having taught film director Shane Meadows while he was at Burton further education college in 1990, Professor Piasecki was asked to feature as himself in the final episode of the latest This Is England mini-series on Channel 4.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Maidstone in Kent, in 1966. My mother’s family was from Birmingham, however, and I grew up in Birmingham. I didn’t stay in Kent very long; I’m a Brummie really.
How has this shaped you?
It shaped me in two ways. I grew up with the melting pot of [Birmingham’s] Bull Ring. On a Saturday morning, there was an arcade called Oasis, and as a teenager you just wanted to be in that place all day, surrounded by punks and music. It was just a brilliant place. But I was also shaped by the Thatcher period – my stepfather was made redundant from the automotive industry three times, so there was a lot of disillusionment in the North Midlands. It was a very similar climate to the one that Shane’s talking about.
You taught Shane Meadows back in the 1990s – what was he like as a student?
When he came to college it was a crucial moment for him – it shifted his future fundamentally. He was really creative but to the extent that without, I suppose, the guidance of college, it could also be inwardly very destructive. I think that’s true of a lot of artists.
How did it feel to act in a fictional role as yourself (based on real experiences)?
What I could remember was how fired up I was about what was going on in the world [in 1990]. And looking at the young people pretending to be in 1990, but not really knowing what that was like, it was quite fun to try to inspire them about it. [Actually], I had an astonishing thing happen today. Bearing in mind that This Is England ’90 [is shot] in Sheffield and we’re in Liverpool...one of [my students] came up...and said: “I thought you looked really familiar.” It turned out that she was one of the fictional students in the scene, as an extra. My fictional student has become my real student. What are the chances?
From your academic point of view, where do the various incarnations of This Is England sit as pieces of drama?
I have to admit, when the film came out I didn’t see it for a while. It was bit too close to home for me. I had my nose broken by a skinhead when I was 14 at the local working men’s club because I’d danced with his girlfriend, and I’d also grown up with my wonderful stepfather who’d been made redundant for the third time. I thought it would be too dark, but it’s not, and the reason for that is because Shane knows how to play darkness and follow it immediately with some absurd humour: he’ll take you right down to the point at which you’re gasping, and then has the skill of [bringing you back up]. There’s such a lack of pretension in his characters. He’s a Mike Leigh of our generation, I think.
What is the significance of further education?
I feel really passionately about it. We don’t talk enough about further education in the public domain; that’s definitely an issue I have with this and past governments. Further education is where futures are literally saved. If people fail school or don’t have much after school, three years of further education can take someone with zero qualifications or who had a difficult schooling...and have them ready for university with vocation.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
A thicker skin is one that I still need to learn. Hang on to my romanticism but learn how to be realistic as well. A healthy dose of both are two very good things.
What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
It’s become more of a private sector – creeping privatisation from every corner. I don’t want to sound glum about it but the effects are far-reaching and I don’t think they’re finished yet. The tuition fees hike has had a huge effect.
What were you like as an undergraduate?
I wore unbelievably daft clothes and had a stupid hairstyle. To be honest, though, tutors could’ve kicked me and I’d have said thank you, because I absolutely loved it. I felt so amazed to have got to the place. Despite the fact that I looked ridiculous, I worked very hard and hung on every word that tutors said to me.
If you were a prospective university student facing £9,000 fees, would you apply or go straight into work?
Sadly, if it was 1990, I probably would’ve thrown my hands up in the air and gone, ‘Oh well, I can’t do it.’ I may think differently today, but only because I recognise that all the students are in the same boat. I don’t like the fees hike and disagree with it intensely.
If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
When I read that question, I started to ask people. I asked our pro vice-chancellor, I asked my dean, lecturers in the team, and we found ourselves in little discussions about it. But by and large, we were all in agreement about fees. The perceived relationship between the teacher and the learner changes an awful lot. On a daily basis we have to remind students that they’re not customers; they’re young scholars. They’re here for something that has far more integrity than the purchasing of a product.
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