Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Simon Fanshawe, writer and broadcaster
'We went on strike against running'
Thursday 11 May 2006
Simon Fanshawe, 49, has won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival, written a study of manners entitled The Done Thing and presented the Radio 4 series Fanshawe gets to the Bottom of ... and The Trouble with Gay Men on BBC3. He is on the council of Sussex University and on the board of the Brighton Festival (
www.brightonfestival.org). He interviews Eric Sykes at the Pavilion Theatre in Brighton tonight.
At Miss Kempsmith's nursery in Stirling I "gave" - as actors say - my Dormouse in the Mad Hatter's Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland; I got stuffed into the pot.
My father was in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and my parents now lived abroad, so I went to a boarding school. Chafyn Grove in Salisbury was a friendly prep school run by terrifyingly outdoor friends of my parents with hearts of gold. During the spring of 1970 there was horrible weather and we had a sit-down strike against cross-country runs. The whole school was in detention and I was beaten - though not terribly hard - by the very nice deputy head. I was due to be head boy the next term. When he asked how I could possibly be head boy after leading the strike, I said, "I think it shows a degree of leadership!" I did become head boy.
They encouraged my theatrical interests. I was a Thunderbolt in a play called The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew and the Red Queen - very characteristic - in Through the Looking-Glass.
I went to Marlborough College and I just thought it was brilliant; I had the best four years and a fabulous education - but then I was never in a class of more than 12. John Dancy, the headmaster for half of my time there was, shock horror, a sort of Labour chap. He banned corporal punishment and stopped fagging.
I was part of a group of people who seemed fearsomely intellectual to me. My housemaster said: "It'll be very quiet when you boys go: less laughter." We had long discussions about whether bisexuality and homosexuality were OK. We decided in the end they were. I had a long affair with someone at Marlborough.
I was in a play a term: The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Black Comedy, Henry IV Part Two. Oliver Ramsbottom, the history teacher, whose wife was glamorous and floaty, taught me how to marshal arguments in an essay. My maths teacher got me interested by showing me the Leonardo drawings of the human figure in the circle. I did history, French and maths A-levels; I think I got three Bs.
I got into Oriel College, Oxford, but on the train back to London I thought, "I don't want to do that." I felt that it would be more of the same and that Sussex University, my second choice, was going to engage me. It was an irrational decision but the right one: I was born to be in Brighton! You study your main degree in the context of other disciplines; I did a law degree in the School of English and American Studies. I was taught by the very, very distinguished Professor Draper, who had been part of the team in the Nuremberg trials. There was another teacher who, as a test case of Scottish law, proposed to his wife-to-be in Scotland and then broke it off. She took him to court and won the case.
I got a 2:2. I was far too much engaged with politics. Like everyone else, I was briefly a Maoist. I was in the CPB(M-L) - the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) because I was in love with the man who ran it and then fairly quickly moved into the "Broad Left".
The thing you get out of Sussex is a sense of engagement and purpose: a feeling that you have a duty to look at the world outside yourself. I'm now on the governing body of the university, the most extreme example of poacher turned gamekeeper. When I went to the vice-chancellor's office after being appointed, I told him that the last time I'd been there was when we'd been occupying university buildings, probably to end global tyranny and injustice.
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