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Extraordinary times at Cambridge


Great Expectations kept me out of the washing up
Peter Hall Theatre director
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At sort of 14, 15 I decided that's what I wanted to be and I made a plan. I knew enough about what went on in Cambridge dramatics, university dramatics, to think that that was the thing to do. And I thought if I can get to Cambridge and… and do some Shakespeare, and understand more about Shakespeare that is a passage into the profession. There were many people. There was Leo Genn, there was James Mason, there was Michael Redgrave, there was a whole slew of people from the past who'd come through Cambridge into the profession and it… it seemed like a… a good thing to do. I don't think I told anybody about this except I had one school master who had been an actor. He had actually been an actor, he had worn make-up, he had been in rep and he obviously wasn't a very successful actor because he was now with his first-class degree, teaching us history at the Perse School, which was a lovely grammar school, in Cambridge. I won a scholarship there from the elementary school when I was nine, 10, and I went there, stayed there and was coached there for a university scholarship, which, thank God, I got. I'm the Richard Hoggart generation. Richard Hoggart wrote that wonderful book, The Uses of Literacy, which tried to analyse the mobility… the social mobility of his time and of his own life, and I subscribed to that and many people of my generation, I mean, my great friend and colleague, Harold Pinter, won a scholarship to Hackney Grammar School. I won a scholarship to the Perse School. There were four of us who were scholarship boys and we were called – and it still makes me boil to think of it – ‘minor scholars’. Whereas all the other boys, their fathers paid for them and they were just called scholars, we were minor scholars because we'd managed to get a scholarship. We also were given books. The other boys had new books provided by their parents. We had rotten books, which had been handed on from generation to generation, and I remember the stamp inside. It said: ‘Perse School, Cambridge, minor scholar's book, to be returned on demand’. And inside there was every kind of abusive remark, sketch, awful calligraphies all over the page, and I… I remember my resentment, which, I suppose, has carried me through to this day to some extent. We were outsiders, but we all got inside, that generation, those of us who moved and I… I don't think it would be possible now for a me-figure… I mean, obviously, stations no longer have station masters, so, I mean, the whole world has changed in that respect, but I doubt one could actually have moved with the fluidity that I was able to do. It was scary because every examination was, you know, die or live. I mean, if… if I'd failed on any of them, that would have been it, and I remember being, therefore very nervous and very anxious and very hard working, and that I do owe to my parents because if I was reading Beano or Mickey Mouse Weekly, then my mother would make me help with the washing up, but if I was reading Great Expectations, I was excused, so I always had a supply of very earnest books in order to keep me out of harm's way. But, they brought me up to think that education was the escape, and for my generation it was… it was, no, no question. We were very poor though and the thought, once I got to Cambridge, when I announced quietly to them that I was going to go into the theatre, was absolutely devastating because they saw me as someone who was… should be a teacher with a pension and settled life. No one in our family had ever been to university and, you know, I… I'd made it and now I was going to chuck it all away, and there was that risk, of course. But I was blessed with enormous luck, I have to say, enormous luck. I became a director two weeks after I left university, and I've never been anything else. And I've also let it be whispered in a… in a profession which is very insecure, I have never been out of work in 53 years and I think I'm very, very, very lucky as a consequence.

British-born theatre director, Sir Peter Hall (1930-2017), ran the Arts Theatre where, in 1955, he directed the English-language premiere of 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett. He also founded the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was only 29, and directed the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988. He was at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon for two season from 1957-1959. He also directed 'Akenfield' for London Weekend Television and ran the Peter Hall Company, which has 40 productions worldwide to its name. In 1963, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and in 1977 was knighted for his contribution to the theatre. In 1999, he was also honoured with a Laurence Olivier Award.

Listeners: John Goodwin

Head of Press at the National Theatre (1974-1988), and earlier at the RSC (1960-1974), John Goodwin is the author of a best-selling paperback, A short Guide to Shakespeare's Plays, and co-author of Trader Faulkner's one-man show, Losing My Marbles. He is also editor of the play, Sappho, based on Alphonse Daudet's novel, and editor of a number of successful books, among them, Peter Hall's Diaries, and, British Theatre Design - the modern age.

Tags: Cambridge University, The Perse School, The Uses of Literacy, Hackney Grammar School, Beano, Mickey Mouse Weekly, Great Expectations, William Shakespeare, Leo Genn, James Mason, Michael Redgrave, Richard Hoggart, Harold Pinter

Duration: 5 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: February 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008