Passed/Failed

An Education in the Life of film director Mike Newell, whose work includes `Four Weddings And A Funeral', `Dance With A Stranger' and the new release `Pushing Tin'
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The Independent Online
Mike Newell took Hollywood by storm in 1994 with `Four Weddings And A Funeral'. It became the biggest British box-office success of all time taking pounds 130m worldwide. It also won the Oscar for best picture. `Pushing Tin', Newell's latest film, came out a fortnight ago.

Primary school: Being taught to write, at Lyndale, a private school in St Albans, was purgatory. I was left-handed and the nib of the steel dip-pen would dig in and scatter ink everywhere. I was in a school play, The Broken Statue. I took the part of the statue. It was a speaking part and I had a little bow and arrow, like Eros in Piccadilly Circus.

My parents were tremendously enthusiastic amateur actors, producers, writers and set painters; I was in their plays if ever they needed a five- year-old.

Secondary school: I was there until age 10, then went to St Albans School on a direct grant in the same year as Stephen Hawking. With the exception of one supervisor at Cambridge, I feel I was better taught - more engaged - here than at university. The first A-level term felt like riding a motorbike: you were freer than before and - I think I was probably in love - I felt very alive.

The first time I got hold of an adult's number, as it were, was when we were taught by PR "Happy" Heather, the English master with a big toothbrush moustache. He was said to be remote but I remember him revealing something of himself while reading Keats's Eve of St Agnes. He must have thought: "I must open myself up if I am to get them to open up".

Examinations: I only have one A-level. I was studying English, history and French. As a trial run I took the Cambridge scholarship exam in English and history two terms before the A-level exam.

To everyone's amazement I got an exhibition in English and history. During the next two terms I stayed on, doing the French A-level. And the school play, of course.

Extra curricular: The only time I have been suddenly aware of having a talent was at the age of 15 in the school corps. They gave me a rifle and said: "Point it there and see what happens." At my first attempt I qualified as First Class, and that was only a single point off the Marksman or Sniper grade.

University: I was used to being the bee's knees. I walked in thinking I was really clever - but I found everyone else was cleverer. I had an exhibition; everyone else seemed to have a scholarship. The massiveness of the English tripos: you covered English literature from soup to nuts! The first two years was a massive job of digestion; it gave you constipation.

My (moral) tutor was a descendant of Charles Babbage, the English mathematician who devised a precursor to the computer in the 19th century. He once asked: "Apart from work, what do you want to do with yourself?" I said: "I want to play around in the theatre." He said: "Oh God, you'll get a 2.2." I got a 2.2.

Drama society: In my first year I was auditioning for Trevor Nunn, a grand man in his third year. I did a piece from Hamlet and a little bit in Pinter. He had his head in his hands. I knew I would never be an actor. I wasn't proud: I played a variety of nondescript parts, I was a stage hand and a very, very unsafe electrician. I directed a very bad production of Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm, because I was allowed to cast it and the college hall looked good as a Norwegian parsonage in winter. In my last term I did Hay Fever, with a lot of very good actors such as Mike Pennington and Miriam Margolyes, who was as crazy then as she is now.

After my third year I was doing a summer job as a progress chaser in a telephone manufacturing company; it drove me mad. Then Granada telephoned and said: "Be in Manchester tomorrow for an interview. Here's a plane ticket." I joined as a graduate production trainee. There were six places and around 800 applicants; there would be more today. We had it easy.

Interview by

Jonathan Sale

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