The director behind the BBC’s Bafta-winning Bleak House, Emmy-nominated productions of Jane Eyre and Generation Kill and the new film adaptation of John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor talks to Alison Boulton.
St Anne’s, 1980
What made you choose Oxford to study?
My school first suggested it. I went on a taster weekend for law at Balliol and decided Law wasn’t for me but Oxford definitely was. I loved the people I met and the place itself. I had a really inspiring English teacher at school, Pippa Donald, who had recently done an MPhil at St Anne’s and pointed me in that direction as she thought I’d respond to the particular set of tutors who were there at that time.
What were your impressions of Oxford at the time?
To be honest at first I found it rather overwhelming, despite being a Scholar. I’d had meningitis in my gap year and was still recovering. Neither of my parents had been to university and I seemed to be surrounded by very clever people, who all seemed to be incredibly confident. After a bit I realised there was a lot of bluffing going on and that I had as much right to be there as they did. I couldn’t believe how much was on offer, from the treasures of the Ashmolean to the quality of speakers who came there.
I was diligent but not brilliant. My heart was in making films and I spent a lot of time imagining literature as movies.
What was your social life like?
Lively. It revolved around the Oxford University Film Foundation, and the LitSoc – that’s where I discovered kindred spirits. We had some incredible speakers. I’ll never forget hearing Seamus Heaney read to the LitSoc or Karel Reisz at the Film Foundation. It was also an exciting time at the Union – I remember often hearing William Hague speak – and a lot of other inspiring people who one thought would go into politics but actually didn’t.
Did you take part in any extra-curricular activities?
I was on the committee of the Film Foundation from my first year. I’d known since the age of eight I wanted to be a film-maker and a lot of my focus at Oxford was on figuring out how to achieve that goal. I made a documentary about colleges going mixed, which was picked up by the Guardian and Channel 4 News. I also spent a lot of time with fellow students who were serious about film-making as a career – Mike Hoffman, Rick Stevenson, Rupert Walters, Anthony Geffen and Lionel Wigram – all of whom have gone into different aspects of the industry. They had discovered early on the power of the University’s name to get interesting people to come and speak and advise.
What were your tutors like?
My tutors were one of the best aspects of Oxford for me. They were tremendous characters. Ann Pasternak Slater was completely inspiring. Not only did she have a wonderful mind, but she seemed to combine her work effortlessly with being a mother. She also allowed her students to see her as a whole person, not just as an academic. She taught me a lot about life. She encouraged me, and built my confidence for later challenges. Dorothy Bednarowska was absolutely brilliant. It wasn’t just her superb tutorials on Conrad, James and Dickens: she was a fantastic storyteller in her own right. I remember turning up with my essay one week, and being handed a glass of sherry. ‘You’ve three years at Oxford’, she said. ‘The first is for settling in, the second is for taking as many lovers as possible. The third – it’s finals.’ Patricia Ingham made me appreciate words in a totally different way through her brilliant History of the English Language teaching. I’ll often hear usages even now and think of her teaching.
Has your Oxford qualification helped in your career?
While I can’t say it has directly in the sense that a vocational qualification might, it certainly gave me access to a group of people I would never have met otherwise, and exposed me to different kinds of thinking.Reading English gave me the mental discipline to develop arguments and structure things and it also made me think a lot about storytelling, which has been invaluable in my career. I have been lucky enough to work with some great contemporary writers, from David Simon to Tom Stoppard, and having a background in literature has given me incredibly helpful points of comparison. When I became involved in the Oxford Screenwriting Competition after leaving university, understanding these elements helped a lot. My degree also helped me secure a Fulbright scholarship to Film School at UCLA.
What have you taken away from Oxford?
An ability to argue a case, a thoughtful approach and confidence to achieve. Also the best group of friends anyone could wish for. I think there is a sort of Oxford spirit. Several of my closest friends, including my husband Oliver, are people I have met since leaving the University who turned out to have gone there. They combine really sharp minds with originality and wit and a very original way of thinking.
How do you think of Oxford now?
With tremendous affection. That’s partly because it is such an extraordinary place, and a privilege to have studied here, and also to have experienced the vast range of cultural riches it offers. To have been immersed for three years in a group of amazingly bright and talented people was unforgettable. I ended up marrying someone who was five years ahead of me at the university – so I never knew him at the time I was there – but somehow we have a shared Oxford past. Last year I found myself visiting the University again with my twin daughters and being reminded again what an extraordinary place it is.
What is the picture in your mind when you remember Oxford?
Remembering Ann Pasternak Slater introducing me to Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and also hearing John Carey lecture on the Elizabethans. Oh, and dancing to Mud at a college ball.
Portrait of Susanna White courtesy of Studio Canal. Student photo courtesy of Susanna White.