Jazz Shaper: Sylvia Young

Posted on 13 March 2021

Sylvia Young OBE is the Founder and principal of Sylvia Young Theatre School in London.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Good morning, I’m Elliot Moss, welcome to Jazz Shapers. It’s where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today I’m extremely pleased to say, and honoured no less, is Sylvia Young OBE, Founder and Principal of the Sylvia Young Theatre School. Growing up in Hackney, the eldest of nine children and with a love of poetry and drama, Sylvia left school aged 16 for a clerical job and also trained at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in Crouch End. She trained there with its repertoire theatre performing and set building for new productions every few weeks. In 1972, raising funds for her daughter’s primary school, Sylvia produced an old time music hall section with the children as part of the charity show at the Theatre Royal, Stratford. As Sylvia says, “Everyone enjoyed it so much, the children asked me to do it again” and that’s how the first group of primary school pupils was born. An evening drama club, charging 10p a class to cover hall hire grew into a full-time school in 1980 with daytime use of a boys’ sport club in Drury Lane. With alumni including Billy Piper, Amy Winehouse, Keeley Hawes and Karim Zeroual. “I had no intention to start a business or school”, Sylvia says, “I just love getting the best out of the children.”  This is a very special Jazz Shapers edition because not only do I have my brilliant guest today, Sylvia Young OBE, the Founder of Sylvia Young Theatre School, but I also have, Sylvia, and you can see her thanks to the wonders of modern technology, my youngest child, Iris, who is an attendee, a student at the Sylvia Young Theatre School so I thought before we got going properly, because Iris introduced me to you and you are in my life, I thought you should say hello to each other so I’m just going to move the headphones onto Iris and you can have a quick chat.

Iris

Hi Sylvia.

Sylvia Young

Well hello Iris, it’s lovely to see you, I miss seeing you every Saturday morning and your news, you always give me the news of what you’ve been doing every week and I do miss that. So, I expect you’ve been busy anyhow.

Iris

Yeah. Since I haven’t been able to go to Sylvia Young, I’ve been practicing Hermione in the train, the scene when they first meet Ron and Harry, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. “Has anyone seen the toad?  A boy called Neville’s lost one. Oh, are you doing magic?  Let’s see it then.”

Sylvia Young

Fabulous.

Elliot Moss

And you’d better go and finish it. Do you want to say goodbye?

Iris

Yes. Bye Sylvia.

Sylvia Young

Bye darling. Look forward to seeing you soon.

Elliot Moss

And there an unusual beginnings for a Jazz Shapers programme but we are in each other’s… you’re in your school because you live above the school I believe and I’m in my house but here we are together.

Sylvia Young

Yes.

Elliot Moss

We may as well be in the same room. Lovely to see you.

Sylvia Young

It’s great to be here, really.

Elliot Moss

Yeah, it’s good. I’ve managed to prise you out and Iris introduced us and she said, “Daddy, why don’t you interview Sylvia” so here we are interviewing you. You have been in this world, and your name, you know when I was growing and I had friends who were at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, in the days before brands were brands, you had a brand, you created something very special. That’s not what you intended to do though is it, as I understand?

Sylvia Young

No. As I always say, like Topsy, it just grewed and grew. I never really intended, it just happened bit by bit really. From the part-time school, from the original first group, there are at least seven of the original children in that first show in 1972 that are still great friends, they are all part of my extended family and we still see each other when we can of course but we see each other very, very often and we’re always in contact so, they’ve stayed like brothers and sisters that little group from that very first show, it’s amazing.

Elliot Moss

I mean theatre is like family isn’t it, whenever I’ve been involved in the world of am-dram many years ago, there’s the intensity of the experience leads to very, very close relationships. Just tell me a little bit about what drew you to the world of theatre and why even at a young age you wanted to be involved in it.

Sylvia Young

Basically, I had the interest, I mean my first performance was in the local junior library’s little drama class, well drama club, and I think I played Jo in Little Women which was amazing, I loved that and that really set me off and I do remember one story really, not nowadays but we used to have a nurse that used to come round inspecting our hair called Nitty Nora and I found, to my horror, well like many kids in my class, I had nits and I was sent off to the clinic, I was petrified they were going to cut my hair because to play Jo I got chosen for the part of Jo because of my long hair and I really begged the nurses at this clinic, “please don’t cut my hair” and they said, “we have not intention to, don’t worry.”

Elliot Moss

Lucky, they didn’t.

Sylvia Young

And that was my first excursion and I loved it and then gradually it was a matter of going to Mountview which was a part-time at the time but very intensive, very, tremendously high standard productions and I just loved it.

Elliot Moss

Your love of theatre and obviously your own desire to perform and to be involved, quickly became a different thing, it took on a different role as it were and you unintentionally set up this school. How did you move from that desire to perform into a desire to actually help children grow into being great performers?  What was the feeling?  Why did you think that would be a good thing to do?

Sylvia Young

I think, basically, I loved teaching and things didn’t move into that direction until my children were at the primary school and I was asked to do things in the school holidays. They knew I had an interest in drama and had had some training, and they asked would I do holiday classes in drama with the students, the little ones, and I loved it, I absolutely loved it and it sort of evolved gently with a friend of mine, Ronnie, who was brilliant and we eventually did start this evening class. The children wanted to do more. Basically it went from the school show we did a the Theatre Royal in ’72, the children really loved it and we formed a small music hall company actually that entertained old folk, geriatric wards, charity events, whatever, in fact I never said no and I think one year we did about, ooh I don’t know, maybe 40 shows in a year, it was non-stop, the kids loved it and I wanted them to get more than just the little entertaining bits that they did and I asked a number of friends of mine who were in the business if they’d help me do a class and they did and that’s when we started the 10p a time with a drink of squash and a biscuit, and it was great but of course the friends of mine who were in the business, they were fabulous but then they got work and I found eventually that I was left with, I think about 90 local children, and there was nothing in our area at that time. I was left on my own and I thought, okay, I’ve got to now employ people to assist me so I put it up to 50p a class and it actually then opened the floodgates, people thought 10p was okay and we’d get an okay class but imagined that for 50p they’d get amazing classes and it really carried on from there. So, we opened a number of part-time branches and it was never intended as a money making organisation and in fact, I’ve never really done anything specifically to make money, I don’t think I have, I mean I really always wanted to cover costs, make sure that we had everything we needed, that was going right from part-time to eventually the full-time so, unfortunately we have to charge fees, you know I’d love a situation where we have a free school but it won’t happen I don’t think.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me to find out how Sylvia Young has avoided trying to make money and yet produced a whole series of properly famous and brilliant performers over the years, I’m going to come to that and that seemingly contradictory position that Sylvia has taken and yet. So find out much more from my guest, she’ll be coming back in a couple of minutes. Right now though we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions which can be found on all the major podcast platforms. Mishcon de Reya’s Victoria Pigott and Dr Rebecca Newton, Organisational Psychologist and CEO of Coach Advisor, discuss the impact of women in positions of leadership and on Boards.

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and hear this very programme again on the Jazz Shapers podcast or if you’ve got a smart speaker you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find many of our recent shows. But back to today’s guest, it’s Sylvia Young, Founder and Principal of Sylvia Young Theatre School. So, as you were talking there, you were saying you know I never meant to make the money but you’ve got to cover the costs and stuff. How did you take the squash and biscuits and 50p ethos and create such a high level of professionalism and of standards which have really created a generation, and ongoing generations, of really brilliant performers, I mean I mentioned in the introduction Amy Winehouse to name but one?  Extraordinary standards. You’re a gentle person, you’re a teacher, you don’t seem to be the, you know you watch the films where you’ve got teachers cracking the whip. How have you produced this incredible talent?

Sylvia Young

I wish it was an easy answer. I think it’s really to offer them the best that you possibly can and to encourage them and to keep their feet on the ground. You know, I do always tell our students there’s talent everywhere and you have to just keep on training and working at it. I’ve got this policy that I don’t do things just to make money and obviously you do need finance to support but you just have to offer them the best you can.

Elliot Moss

And as you’ve got bigger, Sylvia, and as you said it was a small class and then it was a few more and then it was a few more, as you’ve got bigger how have you managed to retain that sense of family which you loved when you came into the business?

Sylvia Young

I think it has to be a family. Everyone has to be treated correctly and I don’t think I’ve ever had any illusions of grandeur, in fact it surprises me a tremendous amount when people know who I am. I still haven’t got used to that and I think it’s treating everyone the same is very, very important, you know, whoever they are, they’re all part of our company, our organisation, they all should be treated the same. Having said that, I obviously can’t pay them the same but it’s just, I want them to be comfortable with me and I want the children to be comfortable and happy with their teachers and the teachers to be happy with the school, everyone has to be happy really and I can’t say we’ve always achieved that because there’s always going to be people that it may not suit in some way but that’s the aim really.

Elliot Moss

And your own kids obviously, people in the know will know that one of your daughters is Frances Ruffelle, Tony Award winner, and your other daughter, Alison who is a theatrical agent. Having performers in the family and indeed I think Frances’ daughter is, and you’ve got four grandchildren, one of them is someone who some people may have heard of, called Eliza Doolittle, even me at the ripe old age of 50 knows who Eliza is and indeed I had the pleasure of meeting her very briefly a few years ago. What’s it like having such fabulous performers literally in the blood?  What’s that make you feel like?

Sylvia Young

I mean, it’s sort of a relief in a way, in fact this happens with any of the students that are successful, it’s rather a relief that they’ve gone into the business and they’re doing well and Alison did start off acting and she did amazing work at the RSC etcetera. It didn’t work out for her so became an agent and now actually she helps me run the School which is something I didn’t think she’d ever do which is absolutely wonderful for me but Frances I felt was always going to be a performer and she still is, still working.

Elliot Moss

Still working, she’s still working and it’s all still working. Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper.

Sylvia Young

In fact she’s at this very moment, she’s upstairs in a studio with Sadie Frost doing, they have some sort of new style, I don’t know quite what it is but it’s yoga and they’ve got all sorts of things going on upstairs in that studio.

Elliot Moss

There you go. An exclusive, a world exclusive that Sadie Frost and Frances Ruffelle are doing yoga right now. You are in a leadership position Sylvia and you may be the unintentional leader and the unintentional Founder but how do you combine the big administrative role that you have to play overseeing the functioning school with hundreds of students and any one time and millions of moving pieces along with ensuring that the kids are looked after and that they’re also getting the right training, that the quality of what they’re receiving is still cutting edge?

Sylvia Young

I think the important thing is to have good people around you and the majority of my staff have been with me for many, many years, there’s continuity, I know they can give their best to the students, in fact a number of our teachers are actually ex-students which always gives me a thrill but mainly I interfere in everything, that’s the most important thing. I like to know what’s going on, I live to see the post although that’s gradually being taken away with me because the post now is so enormous. I like to know everything that is happening everywhere really. That’s getting a bit more difficult because the bigger you get, the more difficult that is but that is my job, I think it’s quality control and to interfere.

Elliot Moss

It reminds me of when I talked to Sir Martin Sorrell, who’s the Founder of WPP, he said absolutely, if you’re not interfering, you’re not involved and then you obviously aren’t running a business properly, it doesn’t matter how big the business is. But it seems to me, Sylvia, that you have absolutely no ego, I mean you talk about keeping the kids’ feet on the ground but as I look at you, this incredibly successful woman, this woman who has brought through some of the best, most talented individuals over the last sort of thirty years in the British entertainment world, and global, it’s like you’re almost surprised, or you don’t, it’s sort of water off a duck’s back. Is that just because in your head you’re still the young girl where you grew up?  Is that what it is?

Sylvia Young

I have to say that I don’t feel like a young girl at all…

Elliot Moss

You look fabulous.

Sylvia Young

But I think it does still, it’s when some parent comes in or a new, and they seem to be quite nervous of meeting me and I think well, why?  No, I have to say, I can’t really accept that I’m this known, although it does give me a little bit of pleasure I have to say every now and again.

Elliot Moss

Good.

Sylvia Young

Although it still surprises me.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for my final chat today with Sylvia Young. Plus, we’ll be playing a track from James and Troy Andrews and that’s all coming up in just a moment, please don’t go anywhere.

Sylvia Young is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes and we’ve been talking about, I mean, to me the humility of you stands out massively. I used to watch as a kid, This is Your Life, and when I was doing my research, I read that you had been in This is Your Life which for a certain generation of people was staple viewing with your family so, it’s obviously, it was twenty or so years ago. I always wanted to be surprised by the Red Book. Was it as good as it looked?

Sylvia Young

Do I dare tell you a secret?

Elliot Moss

Go on then.

Sylvia Young

Now I… they can’t do anything about it. I knew.

Elliot Moss

No.

Sylvia Young

Yes.

Elliot Moss

How?  Were you meant to know or did you have to… is that actually what happened?

Sylvia Young

My daughter said to me that she’s going to tell me something because she thought that I might say no and that I’d be very, very upset and she did tell me but that was all. I wasn’t involved in who attended, who was invited or anything about it whatsoever. She said “That’s the only thing I’m going to tell you, that it is going to happen” and I’ll be honest, I think I am an actress because I think I looked beautifully surprised, I mean I don’t know if I dare, and of course I haven’t really been able to say that because if they’d have known that I’d known it would have been cancelled and although I was a little bit uncomfy, I did feel it was important for the School, it was such and acknowledgement of the School that it had to go ahead. But it was lovely and they brought my sister from abroad over which was wonderful and they brought a long lost evacuee friend, and this evacuee friend quite funnily I’d gone back to visit my evacuee family virtually every year and every year they said, “Oh Teddy, Sylvia’s visiting, do you want to pop over?”, he never did, never once in all the years and then suddenly he was in my programme, that programme, as my long lost evacuee friend who suddenly wanted to know me.

Elliot Moss

Funny that isn’t it. If you look back over the years Sylvia and you’ve still got lots of years to look forward to, when are you at your happiest?  When are you at that moment when you go, do you know what, Norman, as you speak to your husband over a cup of tea, Norman, I think I’ve done something great here?   Do you ever say that or is that just not a Sylvia Young thing to do?

Sylvia Young

I don’t think it’s a Sylvia Young thing. The only issue sometimes is that it’s lovely, in the early days when we had the school, originally everyone was called stage school, we changed our name to theatre school because we thought we were more acting than most of the stage schools were based on dance and everyone assumed that everyone had ringlets and big smiles and whatever and we weren’t like that at all and in the early days, I know that our earlier students when they left were reluctant to mention that they’d trained at Sylvia Young’s because it was, all these sort of schools were not thought very highly of but now, I must admit it does give me pleasure that I find that all sorts of people say they trained at Sylvia Young’s and I think we’ve at long last become very credible and it’s good to have Sylvia Young on their CV, if it was just Saturdays or full-time and I find there’s a lot of people I’ve never even heard of put that they trained at Sylvia Young’s and I have to say that gives me great pleasure.

Elliot Moss

I bet it does. There’s one last question before I ask you about your song choice which is, obviously the pandemic has hit education super hard, it’s hit the world of entertainment really hard, how have you managed to retain your sanity and your optimism and when do you think it’s all going to come back?

Sylvia Young

I think everyone is having difficulty retaining their sanity and optimism. We can only hope that everything will get better. It has to. We are very fortunate, our online classes are very good, our staff are very, very good but I can’t wait for it all to be over and the students to be back again doing all the things that they should be but we just have to stay optimistic.

Elliot Moss

So, Sylvia, thinking about when things open up again, what are you most looking forward to?  What’s going to put a smile on your face?

Sylvia Young

I’m looking forward to not having to sit in my glass box of an office and talk to the children, oh my goodness, I do miss them tremendously. In fact, you know, with the new ones that started September, I’ve had virtually no words with them at all but I miss the children, I do love to see them and chat to them.

Elliot Moss

It’s been lovely talking to you, Sylvia Young of Sylvia Young Theatre School fame, even though you’re sort of half okay with being famous, you are famous, she’s famous this one I’m talking to, it’s great. Just before I let go and thank you for your time and looking at you, looking cosy there in the School itself, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Sylvia Young

It’s called Measure the Valley, Measure the Hills. It’s from the musical, Raisin that was based on the play, Raisin in the Sun. It’s about a black family in the ‘60s, no ‘50s actually, and this particular song, we use an exert of it in the School show, and I was able to cast all the members of the family except the mother, I couldn’t find anyone who could sing this song at the full-time school, I went to my part-time classes, couldn’t find anyone that was singing, then went into the drama class and asked them all to try and there was this girl, very big, very, very pretty girl, black girl that always seemed to be sitting at the back of the class not involving herself very much but obviously wanting to be there, and she offered to sing and out came this phenomenal voice and the part was cast and she sang it beautifully and I found that after success with this song in our school show, she was no longer hugging the back of the classroom, she was out there, she was confident, whether it was the words in the song or her success, I don’t know but it made a lot of difference to her and she was wonderful.

Elliot Moss

That was Deborah Allen with Measure the Valleys from the musical, Raisin, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Sylvia Young. She talked about it never being about the money. She talked about the fact that she wants to treat everyone the same, that for all those students that have come through, however famous they become, they must keep their feet on the ground and most importantly and above everything else, she wanted to be part of and create a sense of family. Really lovely stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers. Have a lovely, safe weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Sylvia performed in many productions at Mountview before it became a full time training school, she also produced an old time music hall section with children as part of the charity show at the Theatre Royal Stratford. Everyone enjoyed it so much, the children asked her to do more and that’s how the first group of primary school pupils was born: including Matt Ryan, now a theatre director; Clare Burt, a leading musical theatre performer; Paul de Freitas a casting director; Frances Ruffelle (who went on to win a Tony on Broadway, for originating the role of Eponine in Les Miserables) and Alison Ruffelle.

The full time school opened with daytime use of a boys’ sports club in Drury Lane when she then rented premises in Rossmore Road and 30 years later moved to the current building, off Seymour Place in Marylebone.

Sylvia was the subject of This Is Your Life in December 1998, when she was surprised by Michael Aspel and was awarded the O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2005 Queen's Birthday Honours List for her services to the Arts.

Highlights

My first performance was in the local junior library’s little drama class.

I loved teaching.

I always tell our students there’s talent everywhere and you have to just keep on training and working at it. 

I want them to be comfortable with me.

The important thing is to have good people around you.

I like to know what’s going on.

Our earlier students when they left were reluctant to mention that they’d trained at Sylvia Young’s because these sort of schools were not thought very highly of.

We can only hope that everything will get better… It has to.

I’m looking forward to not having to sit in my glass box of an office and talk to the children, I do miss them tremendously.

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