Cambridge & diversity

Derek Jacobi: a Bohemian rhapsody

Derek JacobiAt the age of 18 Derek Jacobi won a state scholarship to study history at Cambridge and in 1957 he joined St John's College. From a working class background, Derek was academically strong, but his passion was always for acting and the theatre. He admits that he was not a typical Cambridge student and used Cambridge as a gateway to the stage.

What inspired you to come to Cambridge?

Acting, I'm afraid! I was from East London and not in a family or in an atmosphere that foresaw further education, but I turned out to be reasonably clever—I was a swot though, rather than being academically brilliant. I had a photographic memory and learned things easily. I enjoyed school and study but my instincts from a very early age were towards the theatre, to perform, which frightened my loving parents to death because they had no knowledge of the world I wanted to be part of.

Part of the reason for going to Cambridge, since I had the ability to do so, was to satisfy my parents—to provide myself with what they would call a second string to my bow. If the Bohemian life of the theatre failed me I could become a history teacher.

But the main reason that I went was that I'd heard that Oxford and Cambridge were the hotbeds of theatre—and Cambridge was the one that I fancied most. I just liked the look of it from the pictures. I got a state scholarship and interviews at King's and St John's. The St John's interview was on a Saturday afternoon and it was the day of the boat race. During the interview the Master, Harry Hinsley I think, said: ‘Do you mind if we stop and listen to the boat race?’ For the first time in many years Cambridge won, he said: ‘That's fantastic, we haven't won for years, I'm in such a good mood, you're in!’ I didn't have to do any preparatory exams, I was in. I came out walking on air.

Did you have any obstacles to overcome?

Not obstacles as such, no. I'd never been away from home so my first difficulty was my feeling of isolation when I got there. We lived in Leytonstone which is only just over an hour's drive from Cambridge, but when my parents dropped me at my digs we all cried. It was as if they were leaving me on the moon. I'd never been self-sufficient in any way. I'd never had to stand on my own two feet really, and I felt utterly lost. But within a week, I suppose, I had tapped into the theatre community, I'd joined societies, I'd met like minds, and the whole theatrical thing that I'd been seeking was beginning to happen. The rest of my time there was idyllic.

What stands out most for you from your time at Cambridge?

My main memory of Cambridge is the theatre——the theatrical community; the people I met; the tours we did in the vacations. I loved all the theatre I did, and I did a lot—I did treat it like a drama school I'm afraid. I did the academic work as and when I could. I never went to lectures; I précised books instead. I was not a typical student as I never lived in College. I always lived in digs which I loved. My landlord and landlady became surrogate parents. They indulged me something rotten! I didn't have to be in at 10 o'clock at night or any of that. I could come up to London to see a show and come back to Cambridge in the early hours of the morning, and it was fine. I had a wonderful, wonderful life.

Academically, I got a 2:2—not a particularly good university degree and if I look back honestly I didn't really use Cambridge as it should have been used. I didn't use all the many facets available. I went for one thing and that was the drama. All other aspects were in a sense peripheral to that one burning desire. Academically I must have argued my case just well enough to get by. For me, the academic work was an effort; an effort I didn't put 100 per cent into.

What did you take away from Cambridge?

Many people that I knew and worked with at Cambridge, I am still in touch with. In 1959, I made a musical version of Love's Labours Lost that came to London for two weeks at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Just this year we had a reunion of all those people who were in the show. Only two of them had passed away and the rest were there—we sang the songs and it was as if Cambridge was yesterday and no time had passed at all. For me it was a golden age. I made fantastic contacts that started me off in the business.

Were you part of a gay community at Cambridge?

I wasn't very aware of a gay community really. Before I'd gone to Cambridge I realised that I … I didn't put a word to it, I couldn't describe it … but I fancied my own sex, that was all I knew. Cambridge was the first time … that was a huge thing. But I wasn't aware; I didn't deliberately mix with people who were like minded. I was in a Bohemian atmosphere and in Cambridge it was just acceptable. This was years before Gay Pride. I didn't proselytise but I wasn't in the closet in any sense. There was nothing of that in me at all. I was very open. I realised there was a good deal of persecution but as long as I kept my head down I was fine.

Are there any key messages you would give to current or prospective students?

I would say, make more of it than I did. I didn't take full advantage of all that Cambridge had to offer. Looking back I regret that I didn't take a fuller part: I would like to have enjoyed more of the College life. My very first night I went into dinner and as I got up to get out I overturned my soup plate: ‘Frightfully sorry, old chap, ha ha ha’. I never went back to hall, and spent most of my time elsewhere. I got through all the restaurants in Cambridge very well, and I spent all my money.

Was social class an issue for you?

Yes, there was an element of class: a loudness and confidence that people had. I was from a different world, but I should have persevered. I didn't ever become part of my College: I didn't eat in College, I would go occasionally to work, go to my tutor, and get my mail, but I never stayed there. I was not a typical student at all. I was a visitor as far as the College was concerned and I regret that.

What was the importance of the state scholarship?

It was very important. My parents didn't have to pay anything and my time at Cambridge was really free. I had a bank account for the first time in my life and I had money from the state going into it. Life seemed good. I remember once, because he was a contemporary, David Frost didn't have the cost of a cup of coffee, and I bought him one because I was relatively well off with my state scholarship. So in that sense there was no hardship.

You knew what you wanted to do from a young age—do you know where this came from?

I don't know. I can't explain it. Somewhere on the night of conception a stray gene got in there. I don't know how or where it came from. There was nothing in my family. There was hardly a book in the house. My father was totally uninterested. He left school at 13, and worked for the London Coop. My mother was slightly more educated. She stayed in school until 16. But there was nothing to suggest culture in any form, let alone performing or the classics; Shakespeare, good God!

I can remember as a kid playing in the street, dressing up in my parents' clothes, playing with other kids … and the wind changed and I stayed like it! But it was something that I never had to make a decision about and it's convinced me that many actors are born. Drama school doesn't make an actor; it teaches you what skills you have, what skills you need to acquire, your faults, your strengths, your weaknesses, but it can't teach you to act; it can't teach you to be an actor.

Have you stayed in touch with the University or St John's College?

I haven't, no. And I can't regret it very much as I've had every opportunity to stay in touch. I am an honorary fellow of St John's. Why, don't ask me! Every year I get invitations to things like the College feast, all sorts of things, and I don't go. I've been back as an actor on tour at the Arts Theatre, and I've gone into John's as a visitor, walked round the Quadrangle, and mused on my youth, but I've not been back officially at all.

I feel a greater affinity to the town, to the Arts Theatre, the ADC, lots of places; as I've said, I was never a typical student and never really part of the College life. By the time I'd finished my three years at Cambridge and I wrote my begging letters to repertory theatres around the country, some of them had even heard of me. I did a production of Edward II, which we took to the open air theatre at Stratford upon Avon. The bigwigs from the Birmingham Rep came to see it and two years later when my letter landed on their desk, they said: ‘This is that boy we saw at Stratford doing that marvellous Edward II’, and it got me the job. So for that I thank Cambridge!