Passed/Failed: 'I got a first in having a good time'

An education in the life of the broadcaster and writer Nigel Rees

Nigel Rees is the quiz master of Radio 4's
Quote ... Unquote, which has just finished its 34th series. He has worked for Granada and ITN and presented the
Today programme.
Oops, Pardon, Mrs Arden! was his 60th book and his latest,
A Word in Your Shell-Like, is out in the autumn.

Nigel Rees is the quiz master of Radio 4's Quote ... Unquote, which has just finished its 34th series. He has worked for Granada and ITN and presented the Today programme. Oops, Pardon, Mrs Arden! was his 60th book and his latest, A Word in Your Shell-Like, is out in the autumn.

My first stage appearance was at the mixed kindergarten attached to Streatham House Girls School in Crosby, Liverpool. We had to go on stage to admire the baby Jesus - just as two of the girls playing angels were having a fight. A teacher, Miss Burkhill, introduced me to news and current affairs by telling us that George VI had died and sending us home for the day.

After going to the preparatory department of Merchant Taylors', I went up to "big school" in 1955. (There are two Merchant Taylors' schools; the other is in north London.) In my day it had pretensions to being a public school but was really a solid Northern grammar school.

I was absolutely a non-starter at games. My report for rugby said: "Nigel's chief contribution is his presence on the field." I used to pray for rain and sometimes it did rain - and we played anyway.

I was terribly shy and never said anything in class. Then I started getting into school plays. When you've got words to say, you've got a sort of armour. I was in She Stoops to Conquer, playing the part of the hero, who has a stammer when in the presence of upper-class women. My mother came to see it and heard two old biddies saying, "Oh poor boy - they shouldn't let him on the stage."

In the sixth form, I was descended on by three masters who had decided I was going to Oxford; one of them, R C Shepard, was the senior English master and said that I should take an open scholarship in English. What I actually entered for, and got, was a Trevelyan Scholarship, the creation of Kurt Hahn of Gordonstoun; it was based on personal rather than academic qualities and you had to do a project and write it up.

I was broadcast-struck from an early age; I had saved up for a tape recorder and started making programmes. For the scholarship, I did a sound portrait of 12 hours in the life of the school and I wrote it up as a programme.

I got into New College, Oxford. The ethos was that you could work - or not. The presiding spirit of New College was Professor Lord David Cecil whose theme was "wisdom through delight". He wasn't my tutor but, having seen him on The Brains Trust, I used do a brilliant impersonation. John Bayley, husband of Iris Murdoch, was a marvellous teacher; Christopher Tolkien - son of J R R - taught me Anglo-Saxon. I had these fantastic tutors, but I had other interests.

I performed in eight or nine revues, a wonderful preparation for broadcasting. I also ran the Oxford University Broadcasting Society. One couldn't do broadcasting in the Sixties, so instead I invited big noises like David Attenborough down from London with a view to getting a job. No one had televisions in their rooms, so we had to squeeze into the common room to watch the set there. I introduced TV criticism into the magazine Isis and TV previews into the newspaper Cherwell.

Inevitably, I got a third. Sometimes I wish it had been a fourth (which you could still get in those days), as that would have shown I really wasn't trying. I had concluded that Eng Lit was not something you should study for a degree but it suited me to stick with it. I always like to think I got a first in having a good time.

I applied for BBC and ITN traineeships, neither of which I got. Then Granada advertised its traineeships; 1,000 people applied and nine were chosen, including me - and John Birt, who was at St Catherine's. As part of our training at Granada, Birt wrote a script about UDI in Rhodesia and I fronted the programme. Although I had never dared to say it myself, people started telling me: "You ought to appear on screen." So in a sense I have to thank Birt for that, though little else.

jontysale@aol.com

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home