Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Rory McGrath, comedian
'Geography wasn't my forte'
Thursday 12 February 2009
Rory McGrath, 52, is a performer and writer who has appeared on 'They Think It's All Over', 'QI', 'Rory and Paddy's Great British Adventure' and 'Three Men in a Boat'. His autobiographical 'Bearded Tit: A Love Story with Feathers' came out last year.
Every St Patrick's Day, St John's Primary in Camborne, Cornwall, had a football match: English versus Irish. I played in the Irish team, as I had an Irish surname; Polish and Italian children counted as Irish. The Irish always won – and if they weren't winning, the match was played on until they did.
We did a dramatisation of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy story; I had one line but was too nervous to say it. I was Joseph in the Nativity play once, and another year I was the frankincense king (everyone wanted to be the gold king, because we knew what gold was). It was a very happy school indeed, run by nuns, who were good teachers, actually.
At Redruth Grammar, I tended to like the subjects according to the skill of the teachers. I had very good language teachers but not good science teachers, which was a pity. I got maths, physics and chemistry O-levels, but not with good grades, and I got As in the rest. I did Spanish, French and English A-levels.
I was Bottom in a A Midsummer Night's Dream and Casca in Julius Caesar, which is a good part because once you've stabbed Caesar – you're the first – you can go backstage for the rest of the play to read a book. Each form contributed sketches to the school revue and I wrote some with my friend Bob Pugh, who is now Jazz FM broadcaster Bob Sinfield. He was most instrumental in getting me into comedy, as he introduced me to The Goon Show and Round the Horne. He also introduced me to I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again with Graeme Garden and John Cleese. They were from the Cambridge Footlights. What the hell was that? And I remember not knowing where Cambridge was; to me, everything outside Cornwall was London. Geography wasn't my strong point.
The point of going to Cambridge was to join the Footlights. Due to an administrative error, I was asked up for my interview at Emmanuel College on the geography candidates' day. The modern languages director of studies had to be dragged out of a lecture for me. It lasted about 10 minutes. He asked, "Can you get three As?" I said, "I think I'd struggle to get an A in English." "All right – two As and a B, and an S-level in Spanish as well."
Clive Anderson, who was president of the Footlights, wrote my name down on a piece of paper, which he claims he then threw away. For my first year, I did other things, such as drinking. In my second year, the Footlights were down to their bare bones, seen as very uncool – it was during the time of punk – and consisted mainly of me and [Hat Trick Productions co-founder] Jimmy Mulville.
I met my wife-to-be but didn't realise it. We spent 20 years not seeing each other. The story is exaggerated in Bearded Tit but it is true that I fell in love with a girl who worked in a bookshop and that we were both interested in birds. I never actually put a live pigeon in the fridge used by the Christian Union but I talked about it, as they were always complaining about me stealing their breakfast. "Rex the Chaplain", with the sherry problem, is an exaggeration; he was a nice bloke. There was in fact a "Pond Club" of third-year rugby players who took it upon themselves to throw in "pondees" whom they considered homosexual or too arty or smart-arse or hippie.
I got a 2:2, the most average of degrees. I had come straight from school and was too young and inexperienced to take advantage of the teaching. I was intoxicated by the amount of time and freedom. You were left pretty much to your own devices: the essay's not until next week, so what shall I do today? If I had my time again, I'd get a First – definitely.
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