British boarding education: paving the way for Oscars success


It’s hard to escape the headlines at the moment – Battle of the Brits, Hawking versus Sherlock, Brits take Hollywood by Storm etc.  For those of you who have been living in a news-free zone for the last few weeks, there are four British actors nominated for Best Actor or Best Actress in the upcoming Oscars ceremony to take place next month: Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones for ‘The Theory of Everything’, Benedict Cumberbatch for ‘The Imitation Game’, and Rosamund Pike for ‘Gone Girl’.

Pundits place Redmayne at 10-11 favourite for Best Actor, with Benedict Cumberbatch trailing behind at 12-1, while the two female actors are thought unlikely to win.  So, why all the hype? 

Many of the stories surrounding the Oscars focus on the stereotype of the ‘posh Brit’- which is unsurprising, as three out of the four of the nominated actors are Oxbridge graduates (Benedict Cumberbatch went to Manchester University and the two female actresses to Oxford). In particular, much is being made of the fact that Eddie Redmayne attended Eton and Benedict Cumberbatch spent his school years at Harrow – probably the two most famous boys’ boarding schools in the world.

Additionally, current darling of the film world Eddie Redmayne did not even go to Drama School!  After doing a great deal of acting as a student at Eton, he went to Cambridge to study History of Art, acting in “at least a play a term”; he then progressed straight into an all male version of ‘Twelfth Night’, playing Viola.  The rest, as they say, is history… So how did he manage to be so successful without any formal training at all?

When speaking on this subject, Redmayne has several times named two inspiring drama teachers at Eton, commenting:

“They treated us like professionals and we had a state-of–the-art theatre which meant that the adjustment between school and working professionally didn’t feel like that much of a leap”. 

What becomes increasingly clear is that such success in the performing arts among ex-boarders is a pattern. Eddie Redmayne is just one of several Old Etonians dominating the acting world at the moment- the list includes Dominic West, Tom Hiddleston and Damian Lewis.  When you add in Benedict Cumberbatch (Harrow), Felicity Jones (King Edward VI Handsworth School) and Rosamund Pike (Badminton School) there does seem to be some weight to Eddie Redmayne’s suggestion that high-quality school drama has the power to inspire.

All of the aforementioned individuals acted in school and college productions, enjoying, as Redmayne describes, the fabulous facilities and coaching that a British boarding school can provide, before using their talent to get into a top university where they continued to hone their talents in student productions.

Admittedly, we can’t all be Oscar winning actors- but I have seen first-hand the confidence and poise that stage acting at school level, and indeed drama and debating generally, can offer a child. My own daughter was part of the Taunton School debating team which came second in the world at the International Independent Schools Public Speaking Championships held at Trinity College, Toronto, in 2008 and then won the following year at Deerfield Academy, Massachusetts.  She is now, incidentally, now in her final year at the University of Edinburgh, having spent a year on a coveted exchange programme at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  And, while on the subject of Edinburgh, for the past three years Taunton School has taken a group to the world-famous Edinburgh Festival, a truly awe-inspiring experience.

Drama doesn’t have to be elitist, either.  Here at Taunton School, casting is open to all and is as inclusive as possible.  For example, last year we staged a hugely successful performance of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ with a cast of 50, and other recent productions have included The Crucible, Macbeth, George’s Marvellous Medicine, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Picnic at Hanging Rock as well as  musicals such as CATS, Once Upon a Time, Phantom of The Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables (shades of Eddie Redmayne again).

We are very lucky to have a purpose-built theatre with full sound and lighting facilities as well as another fully equipped studio space but, as our Head of Drama Jane Harris always says, “All you need is passion”.

So, it seems that the world is your oyster with a little confidence. Undoubtedly, the ability to stand up and address an audience is an asset in any career and something that we, as parents, would all like to be able to offer our children.

So let me say, with passion: the very best of British luck to all those at the Oscars!

Caroline Nixon, M.A. (Oxon.), M.Ed., is the International Recruitment Director at Taunton School.

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