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Home > News and views > The Public Speaking Competition at 60

The Public Speaking Competition at 60

As the ESU’s Public Speaking Competition celebrates its 60th anniversary (read more in Dialogue, out on 4 May) we catch up with Michael Heppner, pictured, who was instrumental in setting up the London branch of the contest

‘It’s very important that Michael Anstey and John Williams of the Brighton & Hove branch are seen as the heroes in this operation,’ says London branch member Michael Heppner. ‘They started it all off in 1960 and whatever they did, we simply copied or developed,’ he says. ‘It’s just that, London being so much larger, the competition could grow more quickly here.’

Michael (who professes himself ‘utterly amazed’ to be 82) is speaking of the time in 1964, when, as a new recruit to the ESU’s Young Members committee, he was asked to follow Brighton’s example and set up a public speaking competition for schools in London. ‘Someone else had been involved but turned out not to have done very much. But Christopher Chalker, the chair of the committee, believed that if Brighton could do it, so could we, and so the project was dropped in my lap in a state of emergency.’

With time pressing, Michael, working together with fellow committee member Mary Gutsell and Mary Rosen, the committee’s secretary, approached schools with ESU connections to see if they would take part. They also approached venues and judges, securing the likes of the Rt Hon The Lord Mancroft and Professor Jack Morpurgo and Lady Alexander, wife of Field Marshal Lord Alexander, who Michael believes presented the trophy at one of the finals.

‘Mary Gutsell played a crucial part,’ says Michael. ‘She worked for a firm of city solicitors and one of the partners there was an active member of the livery companies. When he heard about her project, he offered to arrange for us to hold the final in the Livery Hall of the Guildhall.’

Michael insists his input was purely logistical (‘I’m the sort of person who attracts projects,’ he laughs. ‘While I was working I was asked to organise an international golf tournament – I’ve never played a game in my life!’ ) though he is delighted to hear that one of his ideas – that the speaker from one school should be paired with the chair and questioner of another – was later taken up. ‘School is such a conforming environment, so focused on information and on getting things right,’ he says. ‘But being able to speak spontaneously indicates how much you do know – what your thought processes are. It’s an important part of education.’

Happily schools all over London could also see the benefit and the competition grew rapidly, from 16 in its first year to 32 in its second, and 57 in 1966. Other ESU branches took up the baton too, with the East Region, Canterbury and the North West, where Dennis Rattle, father of renowned conductor Simon, was very involved, all launching their own competitions before the first national contest in 1968.

Michael moved to Nottingham for work just prior to this so was no longer able to continue his involvement (though he later acted as a judge), but he credits the competition for having given him lifelong friends, and for a particular, much-cherished memory.

‘I was an extremely inconspicuous child,’ he says. ‘As far as I was concerned, headmasters were best avoided; people you really didn’t want to have much to do with. I was certainly in awe of mine at Haberdashers’, Dr Tom Taylor.

‘Haberdashers’ Boys School, Elstree entered the competition in its first year, and I believe Dr Taylor got the girls’ school involved too. I remember at one final in the Guildhall, walking along a corridor, and hearing someone running behind me, calling – and it was my old headmaster who wanted to have a quiet word with me! Never in my wildest dreams did I think that there would be a situation in which Dr Taylor would be panting after me to ask me a question! That really made my day.’

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