Throwback Thursday: Back to School with Damian Lewis

Damian and his brother Gareth, source: Damian Lewis

Well, it’s that time of the year! Most kids around me and, of course, not only kids, but also adults like me, whose job is teaching from Pre-K to university, are all going back to school… well, sort of… remotely… with hopes of going back to normal in the spring semester.

Happy School Year to all students, teachers, and parents!

So, come join us in celebrating this “back to school” week with a fun trip back to Damian’s early school days! ENJOY!

Well… Damian grew up on Abbey Road, not far from the famous Zebra Crossing, in a traditional upper-middle class British family. He tells Mr. Porter:

“If you split everyone up into ‘posh’ and ‘not posh’, I’d end up in the posh lot. But in some ways I’ve rejected it by choosing to do what I do.”

In an interview with Esquire, Damian says he was a pretty shy child until he turned eight. This all changed drastically when he turned eight to the point that his mum took him to the family doctor with an ultimatum attached:

“It’s either him or me. One of us has to go.”


I believe it is around this time his parents send Damian to boarding school. In an interview with Guardian in 2002, Damian tells his story of leaving for boarding school:

“My parents were incredibly inclusive. They discussed boarding school with us and said if we didn’t like it we could go to a day school. But I was a pretty manic kid aged seven. I kept getting into trouble. I actually wanted to get away.”

Haha. No wonder his childhood nickname was Damage!

Ashdown House is a boarding school in Sussex near where, according to Men’s Journal,  “A.A. Milne set Winnie-the-Pooh. Lewis and his chums would go to Pooh Corner and toss Poohsticks.”

Sounds FUN, huh, for eight year olds?

Ashdown House Prep School, source:

But the first term of boarding school was not easy even for our outgoing, noisy boy! Damian remembers his young self in first term of boarding school pretty vividly:

“I ran around like a headless chicken, full of nerves, for two weeks. And then I cried for a week. There was still caning when I was there. We were caned for the greatest sin there was, which was talking after lights out… Because it made everyone tired… And if the school was tired, it couldn’t operate well.”

And… caning happened to Damian, too!

“Regularly. Until my mother complained. It was the end of the 70s. Things changed massively through the 80s. That was the end of a more Dickensian way of schooling… My mum being my mum, she didn’t complain because she thought it was being cruel to me, but because it was clearly not working. Which was brilliant. Because I was being repeatedly caned. It’s shocking to Americans – of course they can’t believe it.”

Damian, you are absolutely right, Americans, of course can’t believe it. On the other hand, I BELIEVE it. Having grown up in Turkey, I know for a fact that caning was still a favorite pastime for some teachers in 1980s and I, as a girl, had my share, too — and guess for what? The greatest sin of all in a day school: Talking to friends during class time!  🙂 Haha I don’t remember how many times teachers told my mom: “Your daughter is very smart but she speaks A LOT!”

Anyhow… Back to young Damian as a well-behaved boy, in fact, a head boy — which changed over time!

“My duties included turning all the lights off,” he recalls. “I was a responsible young chap.”

Later, he recalls less responsible things:

“Midnight raids on the school pantry, sneaking into girls’ dormitories, having midnight feasts, tying sheets together and shinning out of the fourth floor window to pick up slippers we’d bunged down. It was all very Tom Brown’s School Days.

Can you SPOT our boy in this pic? 🙂 He has not changed much, huh?

copyright: Damian Lewis

This blog gave me so many happy moments. And one of the happiest ones is a recent email we received from Mr. Marcus Thorp – the young teacher in the class photo! Mr. Thorp came across our article and sent us a message intended for Damian. A lovely line in the email is that Mr. Thorp still remembers the plaid jackets Damian and Gareth wore in the picture above! 😀 I was thrilled to pass his message on to Damian’s personal assistant and hope that Damian has connected with his teacher!

So, overall, it was a happy childhood at boarding school, Damian tells Hunger Magazine:

“A good experience of childhood sets you up for life. I went to boarding school, and if you have certain attributes you thrive in those places, and I think I had those attributes. So I succeeded at school, and it was a happy time for me.”

As much as it was a happy time, Damian and his brother Gareth felt the need to tell their mom to stop her regular Sunday visits to school:

“It was kind of weird just having your mom appear, just be with you for an afternoon. You had to try to cram all your experience into an afternoon with your mother, who was desperate to know everything. And then you’d be saying goodbye to your mum again before you went back to school, into a dormitory, into a sort of Dickensian setting.”

Ashdown House is also the place where Damian discovered theater:

“Each summer we staged a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta. It was all so English. I used to sing the solos. I had a sweet treble voice.”

Damian’s first ever role was a policeman The Pirates of Penzance, a Gilbert and SullivanAnd, by age 12, he had already played in 12 Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas.

Damian told the sweetest story on Desert Island Discs about how a school incident might have finished his career… At age 11, he was in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida and just forgot the whole third act 😀

Damian guesting on Desert Island Discs, December 2014, source: bbc

“It’s like an actor’s nightmare that actors have before they’re getting ready for press night but it happened to me in real life. I stood on a stage in front of the entire school with Mrs Woodgates playing the piano from the side and singing at least one song for me and saying quite a lot of my dialogue as well.

I was stood there mouthing it on the stage like I might just fool them if I just keep moving my lips. The headmaster said it was the worst dress rehearsal in his history of being at the school.”

Awww… That’s one sweet 11 year old boy whom I applaud not giving up on acting right there after such a trauma! And he, in fact, goes ahead to receive a school prize for his role as Bottom — a character who provides comic relief throughout the play —  in A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Hear Damian talk about it on Times Talks London:

While Damian does not have regrets about his own boarding school days, he thinks it may not be for everyone… He shares his honest opinion with Polly Vernon in an interview for the Sunday Times Magazine:

“It wasn’t awful… But I know what happens to you as an eight-year-old when you’re sent to those places. I know what it does to you.” He pauses, because, he says, he’s trying to find a way to phrase the next bit without reusing an expression he deployed on Desert Island Discs, “when Kirsty asked me the same thing”. But he decides to go ahead and reuse it: “Because it’s my expression, and I like it. It’s a ‘sphincter-tightening exercise’, is what it is. It’s a moment as a young boy when you learn to deal, quickly, independently, and away from your home. It is a life-forming experience. And the homesickness and crying at bedtime … Others of my generation, who send their children away, would argue that that’s OK, that it’s not the end of the world, you get over it and they will have a brilliant time. That would have been my parents’ view. But on balance, I think I decided that wasn’t OK.”

source: Sunday Times Magazine
source: Sunday Times Magazine

In a more recent interview with The Evening Standard he also refers to the temper he thinks he has because he went to boarding school at a young age.

“There is a latent anger in a lot of people that went to boarding school at an early age. I was eight. And I loved it over the five years, but I think the adjustments for eight-year-olds are a lot. And I think it informs who you are for a long, long time.

This is probably not particularly insightful. But if you learn a mechanism that early to deal with situations that are foreign to you — trying to find your place within a group — you naturally suppress a lot of your own instincts. And I think exercising that amount of control is very clearly related to outbursts of anger later on.”
OK I really have to jump in and applaud Damian for this very honest and open account of how it feels for an eight year old to be away from home learning to deal with life on his own. I was quite older than that when I left home, I was 18 when I left for college, and having grown up as a spoiled brat and an only child, even at 18, I was like a fish out of water for a month or so. Thus, I cannot imagine being an 8 year old at a boarding school. Having said that, I agree with Damian leaving home relatively young, and 18 is probably a good age to do that, makes you learn how to survive and stand on your own feet and explore and learn how to deal with life and be an independent individual, which in my experience, has been priceless.

Back to the interview…

PV: “For your kids?”

DL: “Yes.”

PV: “You and Helen talked about sending them to boarding school?”

DL: “We still talk about it. My children are right at that age. We thought about it and discussed it enough to know that we wouldn’t do it. But there are times when I look at my children bouncing off the walls, and stuck in a slightly precious north London environment where everyone’s worrying about the blah blah blah, and I do think they could be running around, muddy knees, playing sport for an hour and a half, every day of the week. And they might just be doing that. Maybe. But …”

PV: But ultimately, no?

DL: “Ultimately, no.”

copyright: Damian Lewis

Still, it seems, he understands why his parents wanted to send him and his brother to a prep school in Sussex:

“My parents believed – with much justification I think now that I’m into school-run hell – that we should get out in the fields and get our knees dirty and get away from the precious competitiveness of North London day schools.”

After he graduates from Ashdown House, Damian enters Eton, a boarding school that has produced 19 prime ministers and educated generations of the aristocracy about which I wrote earlier here.

Let’s finish with The Logical Song by Supertramp that Damian chose as one of his tracks on Desert Island Discs.

Damian with host Kirsty Young at Desert Island Discs

Well, the song goes…

“When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical…”

Damian says:

“This is now a standard pop song that is known the world over. But I think it’s a brilliant song. And, it’s really a song to anyone who went to boarding school from an early age.”


Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

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