Named Independent School of the Year by the Sunday Times in 2004 and again in 2008, Magdalen College School has been described by the Good Schools Guide as “a comfortable mix of brains, brawn and artistic flair but demanding and challenging too”.

The school has long been strong on theatre and music, and last year it decided to launch further into the local community by staging an arts festival. “It was put on in a very short timescale,” headmaster Dr Tim Hands (shortened at Magdalen to “the Master”) explained. “But people liked it, and said: ‘Let’s do it again.’”

Talking to him in the Master’s study — a room full of comfortable chairs, and very different in atmosphere from my headmaster’s study — it rapidly becomes evident that Tim Hands’s enthusiasm for the arts festival — expressed with frequent explosions of laughter — is every bit as great as it is for the more traditional aspects of running a school.

Tim is also very experienced in arts festival management: while Head of Portsmouth Grammar School, he was instrumental in getting the jauntily titled Portsmouth Festivities off the ground.

“It started in 2000 as a festival of young people, and was intended to grow out of the history and heritage of the city.

“The aim was to make it something that was unique, with involvement from all sections of the community. So yes, I’ve been here before!”

If Portsmouth has history and heritage in abundance, so does Magdalen College School, which was founded — along with Magdalen College Choir — by William Waynflete in 1480.

Among a host of talks, musical events, and plays such as The Wind in the Willows (pictured below), and The Jungle Book (cover picture), at this year’s festival, there’s a production that really taps into the school’s history. It’s The Gentleman Usher, written by George Chapman in 1606, and first performed by boy choristers. Your chorister players were essentially the children from the Chapels Royal and St Paul’s Cathedral,” Tim told me.But there were other people doing it in other places. In particular, there was a whole Magdalen school of drama centred around the Lyly family.

“Shakespeare must have been acquainted with Lyly and his chorister players: certainly, when anyone in Shakespeare’s plays learns Latin, they learn it from Lyly’s Grammar, which is a Magdalen book.

“So we believe that the school is at the heart of a whole tradition of drama and learning that has not been properly explored.”

To direct The Gentleman Usher, MCS has brought in an outside professional, Tom Attenborough.

Tom is Richard Attenborough’s grandson, and son of Michael, artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre.

In the show’s publicity pictures, the young actors are shown wolfing down decidedly 21st-century ice creams. So is this to be an updated version, I asked Tom? “The ice creams are not a sneak preview of the production I'm sorry to say: they simply put the boys in a mindframe that made them patient for a photo shoot! The production itself is being done in its own period. The fact that we have an all-male cast also made a Jacobean setting seem appropriate. Above and beyond that, I’m simply planning to play to the boys’ strengths: the production will be energetic, fast-paced, and I hope will contain a really mature understanding of the language, the verse, and the way Chapman uses it.”

One other event particularly caught my eye: a concert of madrigals, performed on punts. Tim Hands was suitably diplomatic when I suggested that the singers could all end up coming a splashy cropper by falling into the river.

“I can’t remember which one it is, but there’s a Marx Brothers film, in which there’s an orchestra on a great, floating concert bowl. Harpo and Chico go round and cut the mooring ropes. We haven’t quite got the space for that to happen, but it’s a unique event — although one has to acknowledge that the idea comes from Cambridge. It’s very moving, it always ends with John Wilbye’s Draw On, Sweet Night.”

The MCS Arts Festival may only be entering its second year, but it’s already the end of an era. This will be the last year that the school fields an all-male festival line-up, for girls are about to join the sixth form — and, after 500 years, Magdalen Choir.

“It’s a very exciting and historic moment,” Tim said. “It doesn’t mean that the boys’ contribution will be diminishing in any way, but they will now get Saturdays off!”