Alan Bennett on student days and Edinburgh nights.
Why did you decide to apply to study at Oxford?
It was a roundabout thing. I'd first of all applied to Cambridge - my headmaster at school in Leeds had been at Cambridge and I thought the place was wonderful. I picked out Sidney Sussex as a suitably modest establishment I might get into, and indeed I did. But I had to do my National Service first, and while I was in the Army I was posted onto the Russian course for linguists, which involved going to various establishments in and around Cambridge. Then I started thinking, well, I've had a year at Cambridge, maybe I ought to try Oxford. I found out I could go in for a scholarship at Exeter College, so I started working for that while I was on the Russian course. I got the scholarship and went there in 1954.
Why did you choose Exeter?
For the same reason I chose Sidney Sussex: I thought it was quite a modest place. But I found a lot of people had reasoned similarly and consequently Exeter was just as hard to get into as any other college.
Can you recall your first impression of Oxford?
The impression of Oxford is darkness and the impression of Cambridge is light. Oxford is a darker place altogether and more sober than Cambridge. I found - and I'm sure I would have found it at Cambridge - that the beauty of the place mocked your mood. If you were ever feeling depressed, and I quite often was, you felt, how can you be in low spirits in a place as beautiful as this?
Who were your tutors?
I was taught first by the chaplain, Eric Kemp, a medievalist who eventually became Bishop of Chichester. Then I was taught modern history by Greig Barr, who became Rector of Exeter.
Other than your studies, what occupied you?
I didn't involve myself in wider student life, really. Exeter was very inward-looking, so that one did things in college. Towards the end of my second year, I began to write sketches and skits, which I used to do at smoking concerts at the end of term. It was quite a cosy atmosphere, which wouldn't have suited a lot of people.
You've written about preparing for your finals ...
For two years I'd been all over the place with my studies, and it was only at the beginning of my final year that I remembered how I'd tackled the scholarship examination and started trying the same approach. I found that not being slavish to the textbooks, playing about with facts, in a more journalistic way, was more enjoyable - I wished I'd known that from the start, though people would probably have thought it was a slightly seedy approach.
Did you make any close friends at Oxford?
One of my closest friends was, and is, David Vaisey [now Bodley's Librarian Emeritus] who came up the year I graduated. I started to do a postgraduate course, but then things began to change. I started doing other things. I went with a review from the Oxford Theatre Group to Edinburgh in 1959. I'd already been at university for five years by then, and I was rather superannuated to be doing that sort of thing, but thank goodness I did.
Had you any intention until then of pursuing a career outside academia?
Not at all. I was supervised by Bruce MacFarlane, a medievalist who was inspirational. I thought I would be a medievalist, but I began to realise that I simply wasn't suited to it. Beyond the Fringe was mooted in 1960. But even then, I didn't think it would be a career.
What do you think of Oxford now?
Well, I've always felt, as I say in the introduction to [his play] The History Boys, that there is a great inequity in the English education system. When I was at Oxford, the number of students from state schools and the number from public schools was coming close to mirroring the proportion of schools in the country. But since I left, that proportion has gone ever downwards, despite the University's best efforts, and I think that's deplorable. The other thing is that I believe education should be wholly free, as mine was. The fact that students today are saddled with a burden of debt is appalling.
What was behind your decision to give your archive to the Bodleian?
David Vaisey asked me years ago - I think it was around the time Philip Larkin died - if I had any thoughts on what I would do with my archive. He said that when the time came, would I think about the Bodley? It was something I'd wanted to do - I never wanted to go through a dealer. My writing is nothing if not English, and I felt that I'd rather be in England than, say, in Texas. And Leeds never asked!