Please visit Guy Wellman’s tribute at the BEET Language Centre Facebook page.
September 1975, A.C.S.E. – teaching 400 students a song
I’d heard of Alan Tankard long before I met him. I started teaching at Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth and stayed at my mum’s house for a few months. She took two students from Eurocentre as a landlady. A succession of Heidis and Yokos told me that Mr Tankard was the best teacher at Eurocentre, and also the most handsome. I jealously hoped that Anglo students were saying the same about me.
In 1973, Anglo-Continental expanded with new schools, and Guy Wellman persuaded Alan to join him at Academia as Course Supervisor. It was Alan who later coined the phrase “Coarse Book Writers” to describe me and Bernie.
Karen was one of the first teachers at Academia and Anglo-Continental put together a two week training course for the first teachers, an enterprise that eventually became our RSA Cert TEFL team. That’s where I first worked with Alan. Alan was soon followed by both Patrick O’Shea and Bernard Hartley from Eurocentre. Roy Kingsbury, also ex-Eurocentre, was playing piano on our weekly shows. If I may boast, that was the start of Anglo’s “top school” run in the 70s.
At the time we were doing our weekly sketch shows for foreign students, and Guy immediately enlisted Alan to sing. In such a small company you had to take parts and Alan was press-ganged into the acting side, and proved to be a natural. Alan’s comic timing was sublime, and some of the moments I’ve most enjoyed on a stage is when Alan would improvise something new and so funny that we’d all be finding it hard not to laugh. Alan was Count Dracula, Ygor to Guy’s Dr Frankenstein, and most memorably Fritz Beckenbauer in our student sketches, the German student from Argentina carrying the biggest dictionary we could find, and interrupting constantly to say “It stands not in my wordbuch!” As the compere of the shows, I appreciated Alan’s talent to just improvise. Normally I filled the time while people changed etc, but once Alan was there I knew I could say, ‘Alan, go and keep the audience amused for two minutes,’ and he could and would entertain 400 people while we frantically changed wigs and costumes to the sound of roars of laughter and applause from outside.
See: the article on DRAMA EVENINGS which has pictures.
I got to know my co-author Bernard Hartley via Alan. Bernie was Alan’s lodger for Bernie’s first few months at ACSE. Karen and I had found that Alan was an ideal co-writer for our annual pantomimes, and the writing sessions took place at Alan’s house, carefully stepping over the motor bike, taken apart for the winter. Alan added more songs to the pantomimes, and worked out and directed elaborate arrangements for the large chorus of villagers. He spent hours on “Who Will Buy?” and others. We’d always finish listening to some classic rock and roll records after the writing session.
When Anglo started the RSA Cert TEFL the main team of trainers was small, mainly Chris Goodchild, Leo Jones, Alan Tankard, Bernie Hartley, me. Alan took the phonology component, and made it fascinating. Not a simple task!
When the first ELT teacher’s union got under way, Alan was the prime mover in Bournemouth. Karen (then at the ESP-centred Anglo International) and I were on the first committees with him. I recall the morning that Alan had a motorbike crash. Bernie came in saying Alan hadn’t come home that night and we soon got a call from the hospital. Bernie didn’t have a car, and we had a list of things to take in. It feels really weird going into someone’s house when they’re in hospital and finding pyjamas and toothpaste and the right book. On the list were “Forty Embassy American” the favoured brand at the time, and yes, in the late 70s, you did take cigarettes in for people in hospital. Alan being Alan, kept the ward entertained and cheerful.
When Anglo-Continental shed large numbers of teachers in 1980, Alan and Guy Wellman joined Clive Barrow at BEET, then just starting up. I’d missed those last few frantic months of 1980, as Bernie and I had started writing full-time in March, before the drastic “collapse” in the ELT market following the Iranian revolution.
The tradition of drama sketch shows and pantomimes continued at BEET. I did a couple of shows with them as “holiday cover” and then I got roped in for the pantomimes. Everyone on the staff had beards, except Alan, and Alan was the perfect pantomime villain, doing Abanazer, wicked wizards and the Sheriff of Nottingham with aplomb. It turned out they had no one beardless to play the Dame. Though I’d co-written the pantomimes at ACSE, I had never played the Dame, but that’s what I ended up doing at BEET. I found Alan had the organizing role, which he did perfectly. Alan and I shared a producer catchphrase, “Come on! There’s a lot to do tonight, boys.” (Boys was a non-gender marked term in the context, meaning “actors.”)
In 1985, we put on an ELT sketch show for a week at the Regent Centre at Christchurch with people from our old team, now at several schools. It was all rehearsed at BEET Language Centre with Alan and Guy. We have a DVD of that show.
My thoughts on Robert O’Neill are on this blog. Whenever I saw Robert, he unfailingly asked after Alan, who he remembered as one of the best teachers he had worked with. I remember Robert saying that he was delighted that Bernie Hartley had done so well, but if I had asked him in the early 70s who the most likely major ELT author was, he would have said Alan. I’ve written pantomimes with Alan, and I understand exactly what Robert meant: wit, invention, clarity, timing, humour. I’d add that Alan could have been a stellar stand-up comedian. But I’m sure Alan made the right life choice. He loved Italy and Alan and Fiona got married and moved there.
I hadn’t seen Alan for many years, but always treasured the Christmas card with Alan’s own paintings of their house and animals, and the letter describing the year’s events. We’ve kept them.
Anna Philips phoned on Sunday to say Alan had passed away. Karen and I sat quietly, then we went and got the 1985 DVD and found the section where Alan sang Rave On. We watched it through and wept.
This brought tears to my eyes and should obviously come first, but I wanted to give it context:
This feels like a time for poetry.
Maybe I could quote those famous lines, often used at times like this:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there I do not sleep.”
And yet somehow that doesn’t quite do the trick.
This feels like a time for poetry. How about Pablo Neruda:
“Tonight I can write the saddest lines
To think that I do not have him. To feel that I have lost him.
To hear the immense night, still more immense without him.”
But that doesn’t quite do it either.
This feels like a time for poetry.
Maybe your favorite , Dylan Thomas, could help:
“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But you did go gentle and you didn’t rage.
And that’s when I knew I’d lost you.
This feels like a time for poetry. Yet how can I sum up your life in a couplet?
How can I capture your spirit, your soaring intelligence, your wit,
Your infuriating, exasperating wonderful self in only words?
This feels like a time for poetry. But maybe an anecdote would do.
Like you and I in casualty – again.
You lying on a trolley with an oxygen mask on. Me holding your hand.
Taking turns to tell jokes. Laughing and laughing. Laughing at me getting the punchlines wrong as usual. Laughing at you getting them right as always.
And even though your poor body was broken, your spirit never was.
And even when they took your voice away, you still made me laugh.
Like when I told you about the alpacas and you just mouthed ‘fuck the alpacas.’
This feels like a time for poetry. But you know what?
I just can’t find the words.
So I’ll quote from the card I made you in the hospital, which they sellotaped to the table next to your bed.
The one that’s with you now, in there.
It’s a picture I drew of me and the animals. It’s not poetry. It’s not clever. but it is what I really want to say:
We love you Alan.
I’m very happy to add to this page. May it be longer and longer. You can add as comments for convenience, but I’ll clip them in to the main text.