For my first week as a new boy at Radley College, back in the summer of 1979, I was followed around by a film crew. This was not supposed to happen.
I’d known in advance that the BBC was making a fly-on-the-wall documentary series about Radley called Public School. The producer, Richard Denton, had visited my parents’ house and explained that I would feature in the opening programme but only peripherally. The spotlight would be on Donald Payne, who was the top scholar in that year’s intake. Payne and I were both going to be “stigs” (new boys) together in the same “social” (house) and the same “shell” (class), so I could expect to be in shot some of the time while the cameras followed his every move.
On the first day of term, however, my mother and I were greeted by a somewhat sheepish-looking Denton. Payne had fallen ill with the flu, he told us. He was still at home. Would it be all right if they filmed me instead?
I was an eager-to-please 13-year-old. It seemed rude to say no, especially as I thought Denton, with his purple corduroy jacket, collar-length hair and tinted spectacles, was pretty cool.
So, by default, I became the focus of the first episode, which aired the following January on BBC2 under the title “The Right Habits for Life”. A further nine half-hour weekly episodes followed, together painting a portrait of life at one of Britain’s second-tier independent schools: the rituals and slang, the day-to-day running, the eccentric masters, the duties of the warden (headmaster).
For the vast majority of the British population, who have no experience of fee-paying boarding education, it was a peek behind the curtain into a strange, even arcane, world. The first episode opens with the warden performing the time-honoured induction ceremony for the new term’s “pups” (house prefects). It takes place in a panelled dining hall hung with gloomy oil portraits. Everyone is wearing black academic gowns. A few carry mortar boards. The warden is speaking in Latin. But for the absence of floating candles and a Sorting Hat, it could be the Great Hall at Hogwarts.
Subsequent episodes focused on some of the school’s more theatrical characters: Mr Goldsmith, a florid-complexioned maths teacher with his own private vocabulary and a temperament linked to the fortunes of his beloved Ipswich Town football club; Hugo, an anguished adolescent who was entirely at odds with the system. The most memorable episode of all depicted the desperate Inbetweeners-style efforts of sixth-formers to score with girls at a school disco.
The process of being filmed was, I found, peculiar but not discomfiting. At 13, you are malleable, adaptable, better able to take the unusual in your stride. Initially, I felt self-conscious about having a five-person crew – cameraman, soundman, production assistant, Denton himself and executive producer Roger Mills – shadowing me as I attended my first meal in the dining hall. Once the novelty wore off, however, the crew’s presence became a fact of life, slightly irksome but something you could overlook or swat away – much like that proverbial fly on the wall.
The voiceover throughout the series, by Denton (himself a product of private education), was the kind of deadpan commentary typical of TV documentaries of the time, laced with insinuating irony and sardonic understatement. What became apparent as the episodes unfurled – and even as a somewhat naive teenager I could see it – was that this charming, intelligent film-maker had an agenda to depict the British boarding school as a deeply conservative institution, entrenched in the past, yet also emblematic of all that was wrong with the just-dawning Thatcher era. His plan backfired, in as much as applications for places at Radley tripled while the show was being broadcast.
The programme attracted a respectable 2m viewers, about 4 per cent of the British public. In The Times, Joan Bakewell wondered why the portrayal of the school wasn’t darker – “I can’t deny the delights of lingering in its alien pastures, but doesn’t such golden sunshine cast any shadows?” – while The Listener’s John Sayer made comparisons with a popular TV series about a fictional educational establishment, saying, “Ask viewers about Grange Hill and they will tell you it is real. Ask about Radley, and they think of it as purest fiction.”
Yet the impact the series made seemed real, reigniting the controversy about independent schools, single-sex boarding and the old boy network. The government of James Callaghan, then in its death throes, had been considering making good on a Labour manifesto promise to revoke the charitable status of public schools in order to raise their costs and thus drive them out of business. The election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979 put paid to that idea, and her first cabinet was heavily weighted in favour of public school alumni; her education secretary, Mark Carlisle, had himself been to Radley. In this heavily politicised atmosphere, a TV debate was aired the night after the last episode of the series was shown. The warden, Dennis Silk, had to defend Radley vigorously against accusations of elitism and irrelevance from Labour’s Neil Kinnock, the then shadow education secretary.
Being at boarding school was like being in a cocoon. You had your own life; world events happened elsewhere
I felt largely sheltered from this fuss. Being at boarding school in the pre-internet era, especially a boarding school tucked away in the Oxfordshire countryside, was like being in a cocoon. You had your own life; world events happened elsewhere.
Observational documentaries were fairly new at the time, and fairly rare. Michael Apted’s Up series of films following 14 British children had started dipping in and out of the lives of its subjects in 1964, creating an anthropological snapshot of the nation. Paul Watson and Franc Roddam’s The Family (1974) emphasised the down-to-earth ordinariness of its participants, the Wilkins family of Reading. All that an appearance on this sort of programme asked of you was that you did your thing, keeping calm and carrying on while the cameras peered inquisitively for the benefit of others. What we now call reality TV – the more prurient and intrusive Big Brother, the artificially structured The Only Way Is Essex – was still a couple of decades in the future. There was certainly no expectation that a slot on primetime telly might earn you a free pass into the gilded world of celebrity.
My appearance on Public School garnered a smattering of fan mail from girls, which was good, and letters from mothers saying I was the sort of boy they’d like their daughters to go out with – which was not quite as good. In no way did I become the centre of media attention, subject to national scrutiny, as might happen today. There was no lasting fame, just a sense of having been involved in an interesting experiment. At the school itself, my main problem was becoming known overnight to all my 600 fellow Radleians. I would cringe as senior boys yelled my name across the clock tower quad and parroted my own blithe, impromptu remarks from the documentary back at me. Had I anticipated that this would happen, I might have made some effort to be wittier and pithier on screen.
Over the next few years, however, I didn’t think much about Public School again. Once the series was over, Radley itself seemed content to move on. The Times Education Supplement may have listed the documentary as a key event in its 1999 timeline, ‘1,000 Years of Education’, but a history of the school published in 1997, called No Ordinary Place, devotes no more than half a page, out of 400, to the documentary – an act of magnificently lofty disdain.
At university I took part in a follow-up programme made by Denton to accompany a daytime repeat of the series, but that was it. Time closed over the memory. I got my degree, had a debut novel published. Life marched on. Then last autumn I received an email out of the blue from Hannah Berryman, a documentarian best known for her contributions to the BBC’s Wonderland strand. Berryman’s forte is assembling groups of people who share a single event or experience in common and examining how their lives have turned out subsequently. Her topics have included beauty pageant queens, women who were photographed in their youth for Country Life’s “girls in pearls” frontispiece page, and the chorus of children who sang on Pink Floyd’s single “Another Brick in the Wall”.
Berryman’s latest wheeze was to trace the lives of some of the boys from Public School. She would explore their backgrounds, their present circumstances, how they had grown up into the men they had become, what effect public school – and Public School – had on them. She and I spoke at length on the phone. We met in person. She sent me discs of her previous work. Her style as a documentarian struck me as impartial and non-judgemental. She allowed her subjects to tell their own stories. There was little in the way of editorial interference, barely any voiceover commentary – a far cry from the Richard Denton approach.
In the age of social media, I knew I could be opening myself up to far more scrutiny than in 1980, some of it likely to be negative. Watching the current Sky series Harrow: A Very British School, I’ve wondered how the boys in that programme are coping with the exposure. It’s a markedly friendlier show than Public School was, right down to the plummy, jovial voiceover by posh comedian Miles Jupp. The young Harrovians may still be treated like animals behind glass but they’re portrayed as cuddlier creatures than we Radleians were – meerkats rather than exotic reptiles. Since they’re probably already used to revealing their own lives online, perhaps it won’t make any difference to them to be on television.
But, with a few low-level misgivings, pretty soon I’d agreed to be involved. The filming took place over the course of one very long day in February at my house. Berryman is a bespectacled blonde whose deceptively scatty demeanour hides a shrewd, incisive mind.
I discovered that her interviewing technique was a process of slowly and patiently teasing out information, with the odd ambush planted here and there. A string of easy questions would be interrupted by a sudden surprise poser. Had I resented my parents sending me away from home from the age of eight onwards? How did I feel about being a relatively academic sort in an institution where sporting prowess seemed to be prized above all else?
She was like a boxer softening up her opponent with light jabs before delivering a haymaker out of nowhere. She was good cop and bad cop rolled into one.
She also had developed the habit of mirroring her interviewee’s body language, perhaps unconsciously, so that if I crossed or uncrossed my legs, she did too. Possibly because of this cunning behaviourist voodoo, she somehow managed to win my trust, because at one point she had me reading through my school reports and letters home, next to my mother.
It was fairly embarrassing to discover that I hadn’t been the all-round genius I remembered myself as being, and to read again, for the first time in 30-odd years, my petty complaints about teachers, and my plaintive pleas for extra spending money.
Then Berryman got me leafing through some old satirical comics I had drawn, as scurrilous and scatological as anything in Viz. That, in many ways, was worse. In the strips, I skewered, sometimes literally, members of staff and my fellow pupils. Had I really been that vindictive? That obsessed with bodily functions? Apparently I had.
Berryman’s crew was smaller and more lightly equipped than Denton’s had been: a cameraman and an assistant producer, plus someone to wrangle lenses and take shots of my academic memorabilia. A streamlined modern commando unit for the digital age, they brought chaos to our well-ordered household for precisely 12 hours, then disappeared. If the Public School filming had been a long drawn-out campaign, this was a guerrilla raid.
Five other Old Radleians from the original series – including Donald Payne, who eventually featured in an episode about scholarships – are also appearing in Berryman’s one-off documentary, due to air this weekend. I have not yet seen it but, from conversations with Berryman, I gather that she has interwoven our stories. Wives and children, and the odd parent, will feature. Talking-head monologues will form the backbone. Payne is now a doctor in Australia, and while he and I were reasonably good friends at Radley, we haven’t kept in touch since. I’m curious to see how much he’s changed and how much I will recognise of the boy I knew. Will the years have been kinder to him than to me, or vice versa?
The theme of my own strand, as I understand it, is that I was a schoolboy geek who, during the long weeks away from home, found solace and inspiration in the books of Ray Bradbury, Robert E Howard, Michael Moorcock and Stephen King and in American superhero comics, and who went on to forge a more or less successful career in science fiction. There may be some truth in this.
What sticks in my mind about the day’s filming was an incident at the end, when my two sons, aged nine and six, were getting ready for bed.
They had just had a bath but were still buzzing from all the unaccustomed activity in the house. While Berryman and her crew were busy packing up their kit, the boys got the notion into their heads that it would be hilarious to run up and down the stairs stark naked.
My younger son shouted out from the hallway, “Dad, this is fun! You should do it!”
And all I could think was that, in a manner of speaking, I just had.
‘A Very English Education’ is on BBC2 on Sunday at 9pm