Al Murray didn’t enjoy his time as a boarder – but the experience certainly stood him in good stead for a career in comedy…
My parents sent me to Bedford School in Buckinghamshire – a boarding school – when I was nine years old, so when I think about those days the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that I was never at my real home; there’s nothing about the actual school itself. That might sound a little odd, but it was the feeling I had for most of my time there. Boarding school was a real culture shock for me. I grew up with two sisters, so I went from a family with three females and me - my dad worked abroad a lot - to a room with 10 boys in it. Trust me, nothing can prepare you for a change like that.
I didn’t like it at all. In fact, I couldn’t stand it. The whole thing just wasn’t for me and I never felt like I fitted in properly until I was a lot older. When I got to sixth form it was brilliant, because I was much more my own boss – and let’s face it, who wants to be at home when they’re 16? When you’re that age, boarding school is actually a really good laugh. But before that I struggled. The school put a lot of emphasis on PE and games, and I wasn’t sporty at all, which made me a bit awkward around everyone - more than I already was, anyway! I had friends, though not loads, and I had a bit of a stubborn streak where I wouldn’t like popular things, like punk rock, just to be deliberately contrary.
I carried that streak into my lessons. I wasn’t the best pupil and if I didn’t like what was being taught you could forget it. If I was interested in something I would really, really get into it, but if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t care less. I could be quite focused like that. I remember O-level maths - I did O-levels, I’m such an old fart - and I just wasn’t interested. Whereas playing the drums, I could have done that all day. I started drumming at school and I still drum now as a hobby. It’s something that has really enriched my life, but it’s also a good example that shows I could learn things. It’s just that my focus wasn’t always where it should have been.
When I was at school I had absolutely no idea that I would end up doing what I do now. None whatsoever. Even by the time I’d got to university, it wasn’t on my radar at all as a possibility or an option. There was only one teacher at Bedford, Mike Morrison, who steered me towards that direction. He was a really brilliant drama teacher who was into writing and performing and encouraged me to participate. But there was never any suggestion that it would lead to stand up or anything like that. Not even the merest hint. I’ve met up with him since, and he’s basically astonished that I’m doing what I do. So am I, if I’m honest! But again, once I knew it was what I wanted to do, I became very focused and put everything into it.
The thing I learnt from school that has helped me with my career has more to do with environment than anything on the curriculum. Boarding school sets you up for being self-reliant, which is what you need to be a stand-up comic. You’re on your own, basically. The two are similar in that way.
When it came my daughters’ education, there was no way I was going to send them to a boarding school. They go to a local secondary. I didn’t want them to have the negative experience that I had, and to be fair they didn’t want it either. And whenever they moan about school I say to them ‘well at least you get to come home at the end of the day’. But you can’t get hung up about it. It was a different world in 1977.
I have my opinions about the standard of education my daughters are getting, and I’m not sure the reforms are working, but I think the politics of education is caught up in the same thing that all politics is currently caught up with, and that is the mindless windscreen wiper tribalism that means nobody actually gets to sort anything out properly. The problem is tribalism in politics. Everyone knows it’s a compromise, but they act like it isn’t. Education has fallen down that crack, I think.
About the author
Al Murray is a comedian, best known for his character ‘The Pub Landlord’. He is an ambassador for Music for All charity (www.musicforall.org.uk)