Judi Spiers meets Westcountryman Jeremy James Taylor

Devon Life's Judi Spiers talks to Westcountryman Jeremy James Taylor, founder of the National Youth Music Theatre

Judi talks to Jeremy James Taylor, founder of the National Youth Music Theatre

The National Youth Music Theatre was hailed by Andrew Lloyd Webber as the finest in the world. It was founded by Westountryman Jeremy James Taylor, responsible for launching the careers of many young performers, including Jude Law, Matt Lucas, Mika, Sheriden Smith, Jaimie Bell and Tom Chambers. Jeremy now works extensively in schools as a visiting director, and is frequently consulted as a casting director for films. In January he was awarded an OBE for services to musical theatre and young people, which came as a big surprise to him.“It was extraordinary actually because I’d had a rather bad day. I’d had a ghastly rehearsal for all sorts of reasons. I’d got back very late at night and there sitting on the doormat was a pile of envelopes, including this one, which first of all I thought was either a parking ticket or, when I read it, I thought someone was offering me a DVD! Then suddenly the mist cleared and I couldn’t believe it. It cheered me up and I thought perhaps I am doing the right thing after all.”Brought up in Seaton and Topsham, Jeremy actually started his career during a gap year at the Northcott Theatre during the reign of Tony Church.“I remember being paid �2 a week to do just everything. I spent two weeks in the carpentry shop, two weeks in the press department, and two weeks in the box office. It was terrific fun, wonderful training, some great, great people there, too.”He didn’t pursue an acting career, but described it as “something that I had to do really,” starting out as an Acting ASM at the National Theatre at Young Vic in London, which meant that yet again he “did absolutely everything – made the tea, found the props and did a bit of acting as well”.Within a month he was touring Canada before taking The Comedy of Errors up to the Edinburgh Festival. Frank Dunlop, founder of the Young Vic, wanted to take another play, a new version of The Wakefield Mystery Cycle.“He said, ‘What we’re going to do is the first five stories, which is up to Abraham and Isaac, with the wonderful medieval songs and stuff, then we’ll have an interval, then all the same actors will come back and we’ll do the final story, which is the Joseph story with this little musical I’ve just heard, written by these two boys who wrote Jesus Christ, Superstar’.”

Brought up in Seaton and Topsham, Jeremy actually started his career during a gap year at the Northcott Theatre

The ‘two boys‘, of course, were Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and the ‘Joseph story’ Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, which was a smash hit in Edinburgh later televised by Granada Television with Jeremy playing Benjamin. But an actor’s life wasn’t what Jeremy wanted; he was desperately waiting for a directing break. It came when an old university friend, by then Head of Music at a school in Berkshire, asked him if he could rescue a production at a school whose director had been taken ill. “So I went down, and it was the first time I’d ever worked with these wonderful people, and we had just a fantastic time.” Eventually, after exhausting everything that was worth doing in musical theatre, Jeremy wrote a piece about Elizabethan child actors and suggested to the headmaster that they take it to the Edinburgh festival. “He said, ‘Are you are stark staring bonkers?"Taking 25 ten- and eleven-year-olds to Edinburgh in a tent? Can I come?’ And we went. It was a massive success, we won awards and came to London as part of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations the next year, and that was sort of it really.” Hence the birth of the National Music Youth Theatre, which, as Jeremy said, “wasn’t a plan, it just happened”. He is rightfully very proud of the talent he’s spotted and helped to nurture. “There is undoubtedly a ‘Readybrek glow’ that some of these people have,” he told me. “You look back at the moment they walk through the door and you remember something special coming in with them.“I remember a wonderful story about the first time we met Jude (Law). We were running a weekend residential workshop and they all arrived about five o’clock in the evening. These people had never met each other before. They did a couple hours of fun and games just to break the ice, and we sent them off and they went up to their dorms. “The next morning we came down to breakfast and then got down to work. I’d already spotted one of them there with a bit of charisma, and the next morning at breakfast, the administrator lady came into the breakfast room with a furrowed brow and a clipboard in her hand. She looked around and said, ‘Is there anyone in this room called Jude?’ This boy rather coyly put his hand up. She looked at him and said, ‘Oh, you’re a boy!’ Jude had spent the first night of his theatrical career in the girls’ dormitory, under the wrong name!”

Little Britain’s Matt Lucas was another youngster who attended the theatre. “Matt was about 12 or 13 when he first joined us. He was extremely funny. He came to the Edinburgh Festival with us and played in a big musical comedy called Roman Invasion of Ramsbottom. He played the pub comic and was already hilariously funny and outrageous. You just watched that career – you didn’t quite know where it was going.”Pop star Mika was another. “We first came across him in a church opera. As a little boy he had one of the most beautiful treble voices you’ve ever heard. I’ve got a recording of it to prove it. Off he went. I wouldn’t have predicted that career. He was a classical singer of course, of great, great quality.”It’s quite an amazing story really when you consider that despite the efforts of his old music teacher in Topsham, Jeremy is not a trained musician.I asked him when he was due to receive his OBE and he shrugged the question off, laughing, “I don’t know. That’s another letter to come, which I’ll probably think is another parking ticket!”

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