“I remain sort of interested and slightly befuddled by my five years there. It’s such a rare existence. It feels a little bit like another time, another world.” – Damian Lewis, The Guardian, 2013
When I recently sat down to write about Damian’s years at Eton College, I realized there was so much to write about especially because Damian got asked a ton about Eton in interviews. And this is obviously not about him being particularly eager to share his elite school experience but about the media’s never-ending interest in elite schools as well as the ongoing discussion about “posh actors” dominating the acting scene in the UK. So I find it inevitable to make a second post about Eton to talk about how Damian feels about being an “Eton-educated” actor.
Damian shares in an interview with The Telegraph that even though he went to Eton, he is not disproportionately rich and entitled. He adds:
“I also went into a profession where no amount of old school ties could help me.”
Still, we find out in an interview with Sunday Telegraph from 2001 that Damian chose to keep quiet about his education especially at the beginning of his acting career thinking that it could be damaging for him.
“I used to keep my school very quiet because I thought it was damaging. I think you can’t be really posh and be an interesting actor. I’m a bit of posh rough. At school I didn’t play the beautiful raven-tressed characters. I was a redhead so I played the comedy parts. I’ve never been asked to play good-looking toff lovers. Come to think of it, why not?”
He gives a bit more detail in a Sunday Times interview.
“I was aware as I was entering into essentially a left-wing profession, of a potential prejudice, so I never mentioned that I’d been to Eton. Once I felt comfortable I hadn’t been typecast, I did mention it, then every article started, ‘Eton-educated Damian Lewis…’”
Well, if you want to see it for yourself, just google “Damian Lewis” and “Eton” and you will have a very long list of interviews with him from the last decade and so. And these interviews do not only call our guy “Old Etonian”, “Ex-Etonian” “Eton-educated” or just “OE” multiple times but also often have Eton in the article’s title as if it was the core of the interview. Well, yeah, I have put Eton in the title, too; but it is really what we talk about in this article 🙂
When asked in the same Sunday Times interview about whether he is sick and tired of questions about Eton:
“I don’t blame people for being interested. I have a degree of interest myself. At the same time I’ve always been aware, and while I was there I was aware, that it was not fashionable. My bad Mockney accent predates Guy Ritchie’s. I toned it down. Being at Eton in the middle to late Eighties, you felt a bit out of time.”
And here is Damian discussing what it means to “feel a bit out of time”in an interview with The Guardian in 2013. He starts with the Thatcher years followed by Tony Blair and the return of the Torys:
“Thatcher was a grammar school girl and surrounded herself with those people in her cabinet – obviously there were exceptions such as Douglas Hurd. But the emphasis was on the ordinary man, working. And I can remember being very aware of the feminist movement in the 80s; Andrea Dworkin, people like that, who were incredibly ferocious. And we all ducked down under the parapet. It felt like the start of new man-ism, and everyone had to be more sensitive, and certainly you didn’t shout about your accent too much, or your male, privileged credentials. Because you might get a punch in the gob. That’s what I felt.”
I vividly remember Damian talk about his Mockney accent at Times Talks in 2016. His cohort came out of Eton at a time where Thatcher and Reagan were promoting working class conservatism and that there was a sense you did not want to sound too posh. So they played down their accent and were, as a generation, mocked as the “Mockneys.”
It seems this changed with Tony Blair becoming the Prime Minister as the leader of the Labour Party. Damian tells The Guardian:
“…with the Labour government coming in, even though Blair had been privately educated, it felt as if the old Etonian thing had been put out to pasture. And so for 20 years it had novelty value. It wasn’t in the spotlight at all. With these guys suddenly back in power, it feels as if we are going back to the days of Lord Douglas Home, when Etonians were running the country, the time of empire – a somewhat patriarchal time.”
Damian seems not to have experienced as much “posh-bashing” as some of his peers such as Benedict Cumberbatch and he brings an explanation on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row:
“It’s probably partly to do with the success I’ve had in America that people don’t identify me too strongly with it in its context. When they want to they will, and when they don’t need to they don’t, so I don’t mind too much.”
But, still, you can feel he does not particularly enjoy being asked about what he thinks about the actors from posh schools dominating the acting scene in the UK. I find his answer to this question at Times Talks quite forceful.
“Let’s just get rid of that myth for starters.”
Damian says there is only a small percentage of them that are doing really well. He cites Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne from Eton and Benedict Cumberbatch from Harrow. These schools whose students generally choose either government or army or law as their profession have now branched out to arts but it’s still such a tiny minority going into acting. Just because, he says, you have a good education and you choose to be an actor, it does not follow you are a success:
“There is every reason for you to fail. Mostly because of typecasting which I’ve fought hard against… Which is what you have been kind to mention.. which is why I enjoy so much coming here and playing blue collar Americans… ’cause it is a world away from my own background.”
This reminds me of a great line from Mad Men where Lane Pryce (Jared Harris is brilliant!) who, for those of you that have not seen the show, is a British man that recently moved to New York to work at advertising agency Sterling and Cooper, tells his wife:
“I’ve been here 10 months and no one’s ever asked me where I went to school.”
That said, I plan to write a post about how important your school is in the US, too; in the context of Billions. Stay tuned 🙂
Back to Times Talks. Damian says everyone must be represented when it comes to training in the arts and this can be met by government subsidies but of course when you have austerity, it is always the arts that get the first cuts. He appreciates the great tradition in the US where wealthy people contribute to the arts but he still believes in some sort of government subsidy to keep the independence of the arts:
“We can’t just have middle class art.”
Damian answers a similar question on Guardian Webchat earlier this year.
“You’re right, we have to protect against lack of diversity. If theatre, film, TV, dance, opera, ballet are going to remain true art forms, they must be reflective of all society. but that’s a different point from saying that only privately educated actors are becoming dominant in acting, because statistically that’s not true. A handful of actors from privileged backgrounds have done well, very well, and of course that’s high profile news. But whenever I work, wherever I work, as an actor educated at Eton, I’m still always in a minority. What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority. From whatever background. And that coming into the acting profession is when we all finally find likeminded people. But it goes without saying, I hope, that theatre and the arts generally in my view are a fundamental and important part of any child’s education, and to see any more cuts would be sad.”
OH MY GOD. The speed with which people take the words “… whenever I work, wherever I work, as an actor educated at Eton, I’m still always in a minority” out of context is mind-blowing. Not that Damian needs my defense but I cannot stand it when someone takes someone else’s words out of context and misrepresents it. Besides, doing this damages otherwise a great cause, equality for everyone in society, a cause that I deeply support. We cannot hold the good education anyone has against them and cannot expect them to apologize for the good education they have. It is ridiculous.
We have observed it earlier when Damian was invited to Acland Burghley School, a mixed comprehensive school in Tuffnell Park where he lives, as the guest of honor in the school’s 50th anniversary celebrations. A group of former alumni protest with a petition saying it is not appropriate to have Damian because his background represented privilege and inequality.
I love it that Damian, standing next to the school’s headteacher, gives a kind and gracious answer to those who criticize his participation in the celebrations:
“For those people out there who suggested by kindly writing into the newspapers this morning that perhaps I shouldn’t be here at all because I wasn’t at the school, what I would say to them is I think they are missing the point slightly because it seems to me that this evening is about more than that.”
It seems to me that this evening is about a celebration of our community here in Tufnell Park and he role the school has played here in Tufnell Park in the last 50 years.
One can certainly criticize the rigid British class system and the education system probably helping to keep the class lines intact. But one cannot deny the education good schools provide. I, in fact, think some of the qualities I very much admire in Damian, his articulacy and his wit, could well be the products of the education he has got and it cannot be put into better words than Damian does on Desert Island Discs:
“It feeds this readiness to be quick, witty, nimble, agile of mind at all times, which of course is its own defence mechanism and is there, by the time you leave, very much as a part of you.”
I am not coming from a privileged background. I was just a good student and so attended very competitive schools, without spending a dime, always on merit scholarship. So I know exactly what Damian is talking about when he talks about “readiness to be quick, witty, nimble, agile of mind at all times.” I am dreaming of a world with equal education opportunities for all kids, but how come I can hold it against someone who was randomly born into a wealthy family and just took the opportunities offered to him? Today, I am an educator myself, and that is where I still stand. And I believe it is important to see what kind of life this someone ultimately chooses for himself. Damian talks about it at New Yorker Festival:
“So, in some respects, I was born into a privileged, privately educated and boarding-schooled family. I went to one of those schools and so I am someone who is used to an experience of people with power, with money… Yes, I have grown up with those people and I have spent a lot of my time to get away from them in order to do what I really wanted to do.”
When JaniaJania and I visited Damian backstage after his brilliant performance in The Goat, we talked a bit about the Guardian Web chat he had done a few days earlier. We talked about the good questions and the silly ones and, I could not help say there was also the inevitable Eton question and told him I was surprised how quickly people took his words out of context and misrepresented it. He said he did not read any of it. I think he did the right thing.