Passed/Failed: 'I got a first in having a good time'
An education in the life of the broadcaster and writer Nigel Rees
Thursday 01 July 2004
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
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.
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