Passed/Failed: An education in the life of broadcaster, film buff, and rector of the Royal College of Art, Christopher Frayling

'I won the award for best bugler'
Click to follow

Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, 62, steps down this month as rector of the Royal College of Art, about which he has written two histories. His other books include Spaghetti Westerns and Mad, Bad And Dangerous? He has been chairman of the Arts Council and the Design Council. On 8 July he opens New Designers 2009 at the Business Design Centre, in Islington, north London.

I really can remember the sense of achievement at The Rowans, a private pre-primary school in Wimbledon, when the class made recorders out of bamboo and played "Frère Jacques" in unison. One of my friends was called Ben. I forgot all about him until a dinner at the Tate when [the late] Ben Pimlott said: "I went to a school called The Rowans." I yelled out, "You're Ben!" "You're Chris!" He was director of Goldsmiths College and I am doing the same job at the RCA. The school's art class must have been doing something right.

Then I went at six, a very young age, to Belmont, a small prep school near Hassocks in Sussex. Some of the teachers were fairly sadistic and Evelyn Waugh's Decline And Fall conjures it up pretty accurately. It was near Ditchling, one of the centres of the Arts and Crafts movement, and on a school walk I remember seeing this elderly lady at a loom: it was Ethel Mairet, who taught Gandhi to weave.

I then went to Repton in Derbyshire, which is everybody's idea of what a public school looks like, as it was used for the 1939 Hollywood movie Goodbye, Mr Chips. Michael Charlesworth had a huge influence on me; he believed the performing of plays and the reading aloud of poems made literature come alive. I directed The School for Scandal with James Fenton, later the Oxford Professor of Poetry, in drag as Lady Sneerwell. I wasn't a play-up-and-play-the-game type but I won the "silver bugle" in the school corps for the best bugler of the year.

I got eight O-levels, with 98 per cent in scripture; I don't know what happened to the other 2 per cent. For A-levels I did history, English and French. When I was interviewed for Cambridge, I said I was interested in post-1485 history. The interviewer said, "Oh, a modernist." I got an exhibition to Churchill, which was very recently built: modern architecture and modern sculpture, and centrally heated with wall-to-wall carpets. The college chaplain was a wonderful man who had been the padre at Changi, the worst prison camp in Burma during the Second World War. When he was coaching us for rowing, he used to yell to us (I was in the third Eight) in pidgin Chinese.

I did law for three days, switched to history and got a first in Prelims. I finished up with a 2:1 – too much writing for Varsity. I was film and theatre editor. I wrote so many reviews that I used a pseudonym. If it was an art film I was "Christopher Frayling" but if it was a downmarket movie I was "Ray Fling". I got firsts on five papers but I completely blew the last exam, staying up all night and frantically revising, and got a third on that. Immediately after the exam I saw A Fistful Of Dollars, which started my enthusiasm for spaghetti westerns and gave me the subject for three books – so far.

I did my PhD on the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and during the 1968 riots I went to Paris to study art and the French Revolution. There is a legend that as I was working in the Sorbonne, I said: "Stop turning cars over – I'm trying to study the French Revolution here!" But it's only a legend.

I told a despairing careers adviser: "I want to work in the arts." He said: "Potato Marketing Board!" I didn't take him up on it.

Comments