'Have you been here before?' enquired the greatest record producer of all time, as we stood in a Croydon car park awaiting confirmation of a false fire alarm.
By 'here', the fifth Beatle Sir George Martin was referring to the BRIT School: the south London educational and performing arts centre renowned for having given the world Adele, Leona Lewis, Katie Melua, Jessie J, Kate Nash, Katy B and the late Amy Winehouse - not to mention Imogen Heap, The Feeling, Luke Pritchard of The Kooks and an exhausting list of others, who together have sold a staggering 65 million albums worldwide. Even George, who produced all but one of the Fab Four's original albums and who knows a thing or two about hits - having notched up thirty UK Number Ones, and in whose honour the school's new recording studio is named - could not fail to be dazzled by this.
'Oh yes', I told him, 'I've been here before'.
How 'Fame' it all seemed: kids in sweatshirts and leggings doing routines en route to lessons; bursting into song on the stairs (especially Adele) before crowding into a studio to harmonise round the piano; standing about in costume pretending to be apple trees and waste paper baskets. Lockers slamming, bells ringing, sweaty dancers tossing towels as they preened off to the canteen … where the luvvies would be giving their Bertolt Brecht ...
I had thought that this was all laid on for the parents' Open Day benefit. I soon found out that the BRIT was like that every day.
'I think it's a kid's dream come true', I commented, as the fire engine finally departed.
George's comfy old face lit up.
'Me too', he grinned.
I must be honest. The temptation is to rewrite history in the wake of the school's phenomenal success and on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary celebrations; to bask in reflected glory, to kid myself that I had been thrilled all along about the idea of becoming a BRIT Mum. I hadn't, though. When Mia, my firstborn, announced her intention to apply, I consoled myself with the fact that she'd never get in. With fifteen applicants for every place, and only seventy out of 700 students seeking to study her chosen 'strand' of Theatre receiving offers (Music attracts even more), I was confident that she didn't have a hope. I got that wrong. I remember depositing her on her first day and hanging around behind the car for an hour, just in case. This was in 2003, when Mia was sixteen going on twelve.
Why did I have misgivings? What Mia says now once filled me with dismay.
'I was a white, middle-class, nicely brought-up schoolgirl in a smart uniform who had never faced any struggle', she said.
'My parents had paid for my education, and there was conformity and expectation. I loved my friends and my school, but it was never the place for me. I felt I was different, while most of the others seemed 'the same'. I needed a 'deep end', I needed to be thrown in. I knew that at the BRIT School I would no longer be a bored and unfulfilled child, but that I'd be allowed to be myself. At BRIT, you mix with students from all walks of life. You are not bullied for being poor, rich, white or black. No one would laugh at what you were wearing, everyone was different, all of us were accepted, and everybody was so superbly talented that there was this constant race to be the best. In an environment like that, people soar. They realise their potential at an incredible rate. Some of our friends seem to the outside world to have become huge stars very quickly.
'None of it happened overnight.'
I remember well the rumblings which led to the brainwave that became this fantastic school. It was Kenneth Baker, then Education Secretary in Margaret Thatcher's government, now Lord Baker of Dorking, who put to Richard Branson the notion of setting up a part-State, part-industry-backed school for performing artists, as well as for the many who wanted to work on the technical side and behind the scenes. All aspects of the creative industries, in which Britain leads the world, would be catered to. The initial tranche of funding, £3 million, was derived from the profits of a Knebworth concert in 1990, at which Paul McCartney, Elton John and Pink Floyd played. The music industry lobbed in as much again, and the BRIT – British Record Industry Trust - School was born. The core remit was to create a dedicated academy through which the record business could 'give back'. The BRIT became the first, and remains the only, non-fee-paying performing arts establishment in the UK, to which entry is decided on talent alone. Never before had it been possible to study at such a school unless your parents could fund you into somewhere like Sylvia Young's Theatre School or the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts.
The BRIT opened its doors in 1991: the year of Nirvana and grunge, of pop-country, R.E.M., The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The year we lost Freddie Mercury. The school progressed by trial and error, taking time to find its feet. Today, its track record is unmatched by any school of its kind. Academically it performs in the top 1%. The BRIT is also now branching out in support of other vocational arts academies and courses, notably in Birmingham and Bournemouth. A further BRIT School is planned for Manchester.
Only when its truly remarkable Principal Nick Williams arrived in 2002 was the balance perfected between responsibility to the National Curriculum and creative experiment and development. Never was the BRIT intended as a 'Fame' school. Children would not be 'hothoused', but encouraged. They would receive a balanced education as well as vocational training. Those who let slip, in interviews, that their primary motivation was 'to be a star' were turned away. Just to get in was such an achievement that some would burn out from that alone. For others, reality would not kick in until they graduated, and had to take on the record industry, get an agent, deal with Hollywood, or 'simply' find a place at a university. To go from the 'anything is possible' fantasy realm back into the real world is more than some can handle. Even the successful can find it too much. When songstress Katie Melua collapsed last year after driving herself too hard for too long, few were surprised. Do such schools toughen kids up enough, prepare them for the cut-throat careers they crave? Could this be the one area in which they fail? The music industry, in particular, is a very different world from that which existed when the school was conceived. Where once a hit recording career burned slowly and gained momentum, the tendency now is to catch fire and go up in smoke. I blame Simon Cowell and televised karaoke.
Singer-songwriter Kate Nash we had known since the girls were fourteen. She and Mia had attended Sylvia Young's Saturday school together before moving to the BRIT to study acting. Both were also passionate about music. I would drive them everywhere to gigs: Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Busted. They went on ski trips together. Kate was the relentless letter-writer, Mia the hoarder. The letters and songs are still here.
My home began to double as BRIT School digs, as more and more of Mia's friends pitched up and stayed. Those were all-singing, all-dancing days. My younger children loved it. Countless were the times I'd get upon a Saturday morning, not knowing how many I'd be cooking breakfast for. In the summer months we'd stage gigs in the back garden. Up would go the gazebo and through my French windows the bands streamed. One regular whom I've known since his early teens, guitarist Louis Souyave, is now part of the group Daytona Lights produced by Steve Levine of Boy George and Culture Club fame.
Kids 'from all walks of life'? Certainly. Tormented, troubled, 'misunderstood at home'? Some of them. There emerged a collective personality. Our teenagers gelled into an entity of self-support. The confidence this afforded them was inspirational, and at times made me want to be young again. They didn't need me to mother them - but they'd never say no to a hot bath, home-baked lasagne and a bottle of wine.
Of all former BRIT students, the late Amy Winehouse fascinated me most. Amy was quirky, clever, precocious. An old soul. Constantly searching, usually bored – not uncommon in creatives. For Amy, the BRIT School was never enough. Nothing would have been enough. The constraints of any system or establishment were something to fight against. In the end she quit for Camden, hung out with real musicians, got sucked into the drug scene. Compare Amy to her stage-school god-daughter Dionne Bromfield, now 16 - harder, savvy, more grounded, with an inexhaustible work ethic - and you have the blueprint for what it takes to make it. Should I add, to a point.
My friend Simon Napier-Bell, the industry's most infamous rock and pop manager, who wrote hits for Dusty Springfield and made household names of Marc Bolan, the Yardbirds and George Michael, points out that all stars are insecure and desperate to be noticed. That they are always seeking an audience, because of something lacking in their past.
'The great artists invariably had an abusive childhood – at least in terms of emotional deprivation', he insists.
'Think Elvis, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton. There's a desperation to succeed, to get love and attention. All the others just drop out, eventually.'
The first time Simon met Mia, he warned me to be prepared for the fact that she would never achieve stardom.
'Not that I'm saying she isn't talented', he stressed.
'I can tell just by talking to her that she's an actress. She's beautiful, compelling, plausible. But she'll never succeed. She doesn't need it enough. You have given her too happy and secure an upbringing.'
My one regret is how blinkered and judgemental I was once about the BRIT. I may have preferred my daughter to proceed with A'Levels at her molly-coddling girls' school – but it was not about me. To have denied her the experience would have been unforgivable. Following BRIT, she won a place at Exeter University to read Drama (and achieved a 2:1), left acting behind and went to work in the music industry. A stint at PPL (Phonographic Performance Ltd - the music licensing company which protects rights and collects royalties on artists' behalf) led to her joining Outside Organisation, which represents such artists as Roger Daltrey and David Bowie. She is now developing a career as a club DJ, having this year played festivals and clubs in London and the Home Counties, Croatia and Paris, under the DJ name 'mi&u'. Once a performer, always a performer? What did I expect?