Passed/Failed: Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff, 46, is a theatre and television playwright. His last work at the National Theatre was Blinded by the Sun, and his recent RSC production, Talk of the City, has been adapted for Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Sunday. Shooting the Past will be repeated on BBC2 later this year. His films include Close My Eyes and Century
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Ending in tears: After nursery school I went to a now-deceased "pre-prep" off the Exhibition Road [London SW7]. I have a haunting memory of the headmaster's wife saying goodbye to us and bursting into tears, which was the first time I had seen that happen to an adult; she died shortly afterwards.

Marlborough country: Between the age of eight and 13 I was appallingly miserable at Marlborough House, a boarding school in Kent with no connection to the famous public school. It was an Evelyn Waugh world: the headmaster had lost a leg on D-Day or Dunkirk and you could hear his wooden leg as he walked around the school. It was quite a harsh, Spartan regime. There was a little bit of malevolent teaching - a slightly Dickensian ridiculing of children in front of the class at an age when they have very little defence against sarcasm. It has given me a rebellious streak and a suspicion of all forms of authority.

Teaching your granny: At the end of the Sixties I was a day boy at Westminster - thank God! It was a very liberal school which encouraged you to have wide interests. In the middle of the metropolis, it bred a sort of raffish arrogance: we had long hair and we knew best. At 14 I was acting - very badly - in The Tempest while doing my O-levels; I took only six or seven and did fine. I had my first play, Granny, done as the school play; a Nigel Planer, later of The Young Ones, was in it. It was accepted by the Hampstead Theatre Club, to be directed by one Richard Eyre, but was cancelled by a new artistic director. Everybody stayed on for A-levels; you had to murder somebody not to go on to the sixth form. I did history, English and economics and got two As and a B. (I am surrounded by scientists and have written about science, but have no scientific abilities at all. My brother is a chemistry professor and my father invented the bleeper or pager for St Thomas' hospital. With my grandfather, he made hearing aids, and Churchill was a customer.)

Cellar's market: I took the entrance exam to Cambridge and after nearly two years off I went to read history at King's. I did a lot of writing. Of my two full-length plays, one was put on at the Royal Court in its "scenery without decor" series, the other on the London Fringe. Three of us founded "Feast", a society for new work in the King's disco cellar where, surrounded by smells of beer, anybody could turn up and read his or her frightful poems or plays. There was a lot of talent swimming about. Sarah Dunant did one of my plays as a rehearsed reading and Griff Rhys Jones did another.

Black Death wish: I found Cambridge a stuffy place and left after two years. I found the history course shockingly bad. In my penultimate term, I announced grandly to my supervisor that I was going to spend the whole term writing about the French Revolution. After I had been reading out my essay for about three hours, he suddenly rushed off and vomited. This was nothing to do with me; he'd over-indulged the night before. He said, "Very good - but now you've got to catch up." In my last term I wrote a very long essay about the rise of Fascism, concentrating on a single town in Germany; this was very interesting but didn't get me far in learning about the Black Death. I didn't take the exams. I couldn't take the exams: I didn't know anything about the Black Death.

Interview by Jonathan Sale