We girls were all sleep-walking our way into university. With a clutch of ‘A’ Level passes, and ‘S’ Level distinctions, we’d leapt the hurdles of the Cambridge Proficiency exam in English, won our County Major scholarships, and some had even managed an ‘O’ Level in Latin during our two years in the Sixth Form. We had all passed the obligatory two foreign languages at ‘O’ Level as well.
We were poised to be part of a social experiment in education. This was the era of the Robbins report (1963). A ‘new mini- wave’ of 50,000 of us were about to enter the popular Redbricks and the so-called ‘Plate Glass’ universities founded in the 60s: Sussex (1961) – still a building site – Keele (1962); UEA (1963); York (1963) Newcastle (1963). During this period the number of universities had doubled from 20 to 43. We numbered only 0-5% of the population who were eligible for university entrance in those days.
We were poorly prepared. None of us were groomed for Oxbridge entrance. The UCCA forms had to be filled in. We were allowed to chose six universities – rating in preference from 1-6.
We pursued innocent pleasures in our ‘free’ time.. We danced to Bill Haley and the Comets’ ‘Rock Around the Clock’, Johnny Ray,Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers. We were on the cusp of Beatlemania ( I bought ‘Love Me Do’) by the Beatles – their first single – in 1964. I still have it.
Fascinated by British New Wave cinema I read the books and saw the following films:’A Kind of Loving ‘, ‘The L-Shaped-Room’ (1962), ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘A Taste of Honey’,’This Sporting Life’. Suddenly, Northern cities became sexy – I went for interviews at Leeds and Birmingham ( not quite northern!) universities. E.P. Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ was also published in 1963. Class and social barriers were breaking down.
And then there was ‘Billy Liar’ and my 60’s crush of the actor Albert Finney, ,to engage my thoughts. I saw him on the stage in ‘Luther’,too, stood outside the theatre and got his autograph, Wrote him a fan letter; received a reply, which I still have , dated 8th November 1960, and addressed from the Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street/London W.1
‘Dear Amanda/ Thanks for your letter/It was smashing/ My hair is auburn and my eyes are blue-green/Hope you enjoy the shows/ Yours sincerely/ Albert Finney.
The theatre now became an enchantment. We ‘A’ Level English Literature girls travelled up to see the ‘revolutionary, 1962 Peter Brooks’ RSC production of King Lear with Paul Schofield as Lear and Alec McCowen as the Fool. Two mesmerising performances; burned into my memory for all time. Interestingly, in 2004 the Daily Telegraph published a survey in which RSC actors voted for the ‘greatest Shakespeare performance in history’ – and the winner was Paul Schofield as King Lear.
I did a little ‘Am/Dram’,too, when our school and the local boys’ schooll ( Sir Anthony Browne school, Brentwood) put on a joint production of ‘Romanoff and Juliet’ by Peter Ustinov. I somehow landed the part of Juliet, and got to ‘snog’ my first major heartthrob and ‘crush’ – Brendan Braine, who played Romanoff. For a boarder, starved of male company, this connection was deeply appreciated. The first taste of a boy’s lips.
I even- very briefly- considered – then swiftly rejected – the idea of going to drama school.
But we were not well-heeled young women, so theatre visits to London were a rare treat. We were more preoccupied with which subjects to read at university. I longed to read English, but wasn’t encouraged to. Many – if not all of us- chose the wrong subjects – French or Geography,simply because we were ‘good’ at those subjects. ‘Sociology’ – because it was ‘trendy’, and lastly Philosophy, because as young people we were questioning the world around us. We were all confused and misguided – indeed not quided at all. So, when I received an acceptance from Birmingham University from their prestigious Philosophy Department I took it blindly, but not before my English teacher, Miss Vashon-Baker said to me:’Why on earth aren’t you taking English, Amanda?’
‘Because you, Miss V-B, never told me to.