Oxbridge Interviews Blog

Oxbridge Alumni – David Attenborough

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1037280e / Sir David Attenborough

A broadcaster and naturalist with a remarkable career stretching over several decades, Sir David Attenborough is responsible for bringing the wonders of nature to a global audience for over 50 years.

David was the middle of three Attenborough sons, his elder brother Richard later going on to become an actor, whilst his younger brother John became an executive at an Italian car manufacturer. From an early age, Attenborough was fascinated with animals and the natural world. He attended a grammar school in Leicester before winning a scholarship to study natural sciences at Clare College, Cambridge in 1945. Whilst at Cambridge he pursued his interest in geology and zoology.

young attenborough

After graduating, Attenborough was initially rejected from a position at the BBC, but rather fortuitously forged a career there after Mary Adams, head of factual broadcasting, saw his CV and offered to give him a chance. He was initially discouraged from presenting and appearing on camera because Adams felt his teeth were too big… It was here that Attenborough started making the nature programmes that would come to define his career.

In the 1960s, Attenborough left the BBC to study a post-graduate degree in social anthropology at LSE, but would soon return as the new controller of BBC2. The channel had been established in 1964 but had struggled to take off, so Attenborough quickly overhauled it, establishing a new set of programming that would come to define the channel’s identity for many years to come. In particular music, experimental comedy, travel, history and archaelogy all featured on BBC2. He also took advantage of the switch to colour TV by introducing live Snooker. Attenborough’s success in the role prompted many to throw his name into the ring for the BBC Director General job, but he decided he had not appetite for it, and so resigned in 1972 to continue with full-time programme-making.


He continued to work on several nature documentaries throughout the 1970s, but it was in 1979, when he began work on Life on Earth, the first in his famous Life series, that Attenborough really captured a global audience. The series would become the benchmark in quality in wildlife filming, and lasted for over 30 years, culminating in Life in Cold Blood, broadcast in 2010. Each programme documented a different aspect of life on earth, with the latter programmes covering the major groups of terrestrial animals and plants.


Attenborough has worked on numerous other documentaries, and has won an array of awards and accolades, including honorary awards from BAFTA and the royal society, and his knighthood in 1985. He also enjoys the unusual distinction of having had several species named after him, most notably a fossilised armoured fish discovered in West Australia, now known as Materpiscis attenboroughi. Attenborough is widely regarded as a national treasure (though he dislikes the term), and, at 88, continues to lead the field in nature programming.

Of interest to Geographers…

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The BBC have launched a new app called Your Life on Earth, which tracks the geographical changes, both man-made and natural, that have taken place since the day you were born. You can find the site here.

Oxbridge Alumni – Monty Python

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One of the great comedy team of all time, Monty Python comprised Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam. The work of the Pythons to this day is among the funniest material ever performed, and their influence on comedy has been compared to The Beatles’ influence on music.

Chapman and Cleese met whilst at Cambridge and began writing comedy together and performed as part of the Cambridge Footlights, whose president at the time was Idle. During his presidency, the Footlights was also comprised of comedians such as Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Graham Garden and Germaine Greer. On tour in New York with the Footlights, Cleese met Gilliam, who would later move from the U.S. to the UK, working on several comedy projects with the other Pythons. Palin and Jones met at Oxford, where they both performed as part of the Oxford Revue.

After working in various combinations on projects after graduating, Cleese and Chapman were offered their own show on the BBC, at around the same time Palin, Idle, Jones and Gilliam were offered one on ITV. Cleese was reluctant to work with Chapman alone, so invited Palin to join their team, who in turn brought in Jones and Idle, with Gilliam providing the animation. Thus, the fusion of the Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Revue was complete, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus was born.


Monty Python’s Flying Circus revolutionised sketch comedy. Abandoning the traditional format of finishing sketches with punchlines, the Pythons adopted a new meta-self-awareness, allowing their sketches to flow into one another, or cut off sketches abruptly as they began to wane. A classic example of this was the use of Chapman’s anti-silliness character, who would walk into sketches and order them to be stopped because things were getting “too silly”. Other ways included dropping a 16-tonne weight on the head of one of the characters when a sketch seemed to be losing momentum, having a knight in full armour come in and hit a character on the head with a rubber chicken, or most notably through an innovative use of Terry Gilliam’s animation.

Following the success of Flying Circus, the Python team later embarked upon a series of film projects, most notably with The Holy Grail in 1975, which mocked Arthurian legend. Timeless moments from the film include the black knight scene, where a knight dismisses the loss of all four limbs as merely “a flesh wound”, and the surreal French insults, including the famous “your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries”.


Four years later Monty Python made another film, this time serving up and satirising the New Testament era, with a story about an unwitting Jewish man called Brian, who was mistakenly followed as the messiah. Life of Brian is endlessly quotable, and has frequently been voted as the funniest film of all time, featuring brilliant lines like “Blessed are the cheesemakers”, “What have the Romans ever done for us” and, of course, “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”.

Each of the original members has had great critical and commercial success as individuals, and the Pythons worked on numerous projects and continued to reassemble for several years after Life of Brian, until Chapman’s death from cancer in 1989. At his funeral John Cleese delivered a memorable and irreverent eulogy, which included all the euphemisms for being dead that the pair had written in their legendary dead-parrot sketch.


Monty Python’s unique style of humour and comedy has exerted a strong influence on some of the great comedians and performers since, including but not limited to David Cross, Vic and Bob, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Seth MacFarlane. Their sketches and films have stood the test of time, and remain as side-splittingly funny as they were when originally released.

Oxbridge Alumni – J.R.R. Tolkien

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A distinguished writer, poet and academic, J.R.R. Tolkien is best known as the author of the dizzyingly popular The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series of books, and is credited in some corners of the literary world as the father of modern fantasy. 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in South Africa. Bitten by a baboon spider at a young age, Tolkien moved to England with his parents, where he first lived in Birmingham, and then later in a Worcestershire village annexed to Birmingham. Tolkien enjoyed village life, and many of the places he visited inspired his later novels, most notably his aunt’s farm of Bag End.

After attending King Edward School in Birmingham, Tolkien won a place at Exeter College, Oxford, where he initially studied Classics but later changed course to English Language and Literature. He graduated in 1915 with a first class honours.


After a harrowing experience fighting in the First World War, in which virtually all of Tolkien’s friends were killed, he returned to the UK and took up a series of academic positions, culminating in a fellowship at Pembroke College, Oxford, as professor of Anglo-Saxon. It was during his time at Pembroke that he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He received support and encouragement from C.S. Lewis, his long-time friend and author of The Chronicles of Narnia.

It was Tolkien’s ability to construct detailed and vivid worlds, creating whole languages and cultures as the backdrop to his novels, that really marked him out as a pioneer of the genre and a unique talent. His Middle-Earth stories were initially intended for children, but as he began writing them they took on an altogether darker feel, addressing an older audience.


The Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s, and has remained so ever since. In 2003 it topped a BBC poll of the UK’s best loved novels, and in a 1999 poll of Amazon customers, it was judged to be their favourite book of the millennium. The books were adapted to epic feature-length films in 2001, in one of the most expensive and ambitious cinema projects ever undertaken, and helped to introduce a whole new audience to Tolkien’s great stories.

Oxbridge Alumni – Stephen Fry

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A comedian, actor, writer, presenter and all round celebrity intellectual, Stephen Fry is a beloved national treasure, and it all started for him at Cambridge. 

Despite being described as a genius by one of his teachers, Fry had a difficult and troubled upbringing, and was expelled from two different schools. At the age of 17 Fry was arrested for credit card fraud, and consequently spent three months on remand in prison. Upon his release, he resumed his education, eventually sitting the Cambridge entrance exam and scoring highly enough to win a place at Queen’s College.


Fry (pictured above with Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltraine and Ben Elton) talks fondly about his time at Cambridge, from which he graduated with an upper second class honours in English Literature. His time there, however, could hardly be defined by his degree. Fry appeared on University Challenge, joined the Cambridge Footlights and became heavily involved in student theatre and comedy, regularly touring to the Edinburgh festival in the summer. He also met his future comedy collaborator, Hugh Laurie, alongside whom he starred in regular Footlights shows.

After graduating, Fry moved to London, where he became involved in a number of productions. In an eclectic career, he has appeared in sitcoms, sketch shows, films, TV dramas, and documentaries, as well as hosting and featuring in a number of other productions on stage and screen. He first gained fame in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, as part of a double act with Hugh Laurie, with whom he also appeared alongside in Jeeves and Wooster.


Fry was golden-globe nominated in his leading performance as Oscar Wilde in the film Wilde, and has also appeared in American dramas Bones and V for Vendetta, as well as Kingdom, where he played the title role. In addition to his drama work, Fry has also written and presented several documentaries, most notably his Emmy-award winning Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive, which catalogued his struggle with mental illness, and more recently Out There, where he interviewed and challenged politicians from around the world over their views on homosexuality.

Fry has also contributed columns for magazines and newspapers, and has written four novels, three volumes of his autobiography and numerous other books and publications. He appears on numerous panel shows on TV and the radio, and is well-known for his voiceovers on cartoons, video games and, most notably, the audiobooks of the Harry Potter series. He is perhaps, however, best known for his long-standing stint hosting the comedy show QI.

fry norwich

Today, Fry is president of Mind, the mental health charity, as well as sitting on the board of Directors for Norwich Football Club, and numerous other honorary positions, including as a fellow of Queen’s College. Fry is outspoken and opinionated, and his views are well respected publically. He is generally regarded as a national treasure.

Oxbridge Alumni – Christopher Marlowe

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One of the great playwrights, and regarded as the equal of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe is a towering influence on English literature, with an enigmatic and intriguing life story to match. 

Little is known about Marlowe’s early life, though he was baptised on the 26th February 1564, making him a few months older than Shakespeare. After attending The King’s School in Canterbury, he won a scholarship to complete his Batchelors degree at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. in 1587, the university was initially hesitant to award him his masters degree, as they believed him to be going to Rheims to be ordained as a catholic priest. The Privy Council, however, intervened on his behalf and assured Cambridge of his sound character, prompting speculation he was working as a spy.


Marlowe wrote only a small handful of plays, but he is regarded as the foremost Elizabethan tragedian, and was a great influence on Shakespeare, who rose to prominence following Marlowe’s mysterious early death. Marlowe’s plays were known for their blank verse and overreaching protagonists. Perhaps his most well-known is Doctor Faustus, based on the German legend of the Faust, a scholar who signs a pact with the Devil in return for worldly riches and hedonism.

The detail of Marlowe’s life remains shrouded in mystery, with speculation of spying abound whilst he studied at Cambridge. Marlowe took unusually long absences from his studies, and returned to spend far more than he could have afforded on his scholarship income. He was arrested several times during his life, including in the Netherlands over his involvement with the counterfeiting of coins. In 1593 a warrant for Marlowe’s arrest was issued, after heretical writings were attributed to him. He presented himself for arrest but was murdered several days later, in circumstances that remain unclear.


In the absence of many facts about Marlowe’s life, he has proved a constant source of speculation and rumour, often well supported by the evidence. Among these are the rumours that Marlowe was an atheist, a homosexual and even that Marlowe faked his own death, continuing to write under the assumed name of William Shakespeare…

Regardless, Marlowe remains both an enigmatic and yet hugely influential figure in English and world literature.

Oxford Jargon: A glossary of terms

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Over the years, Oxford students have developed their own lexicon to describe the very unique experience of studying at the university. It might seem a bit confusing at first, but this glossary should help you get to grips with it.

Blue/half-blue – the term for someone who represents the university in a varsity sports match against Cambridge. A blue is rewarded for the most prominent sports, whilst a half-blue is rewarded for the less popular sports.
Boatie – a slang term used to describe a rower
The Bod – the Bodleian library is the university library, a copyright library, so full of the most niche publications.
Bop – a college party or disco. Expect fancy dress.
Collections – college exams at the beginning of each term
Compsci – someone who studies Computer Science
Cuppers – annual inter-collegiate sports cup tournaments
Dean – fellow of a college responsible for disciplinary issues
Formal Hall – dinner in college hall. Everyone must wear a suit and gown, and the master of college will say grace in Latin at the start of the meal. Think Harry Potter
Go down – to leave Oxford at the end of term
Graduand – a student who is about to graduate
Hilary – the second of Oxford’s three academic terms, running from January to March
JCR – junior common room, often a well-used communal space for students to hang out in college
Michaelmas – the first of Oxford’s academic terms, running from October to December
Plodge – the porters lodge, a building in each college home to the porters
Porter – part security, part reception staff, but an integral part in the running of any college
Proctors – the university’s own police force. Historically the proctors had a royal warrant, imbuing them with the powers of the constabulary, including the right to arrest suspects. Their main responsibilities now are student discipline and university exams.
Punting – a boat driven by pushing a long wooden pole into the ground, popular among tourists and students alike
Scout – a cleaner who is paid to clean your college room
Trinity – the third and final academic term, running from April through to June
Sub fusc – mandatory dress for university exams: black suit, white shirt and bowtie for gents; black skirt, white shirt, and a rather ad hoc velvet ribbon for girls. Add a gown and you are good to go.
Tute – a small, discursive class of one to five students led by a doctor or professor
The Union – a members only debating society which plays host to high-profile speakers, topical debates, and termly balls and drinks events.

Oxbridge Alumni – Alan Turing

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Alan Turing was a mathematician, computer scientist, cryptologist and logician. He is widely considered to be the founding father of computer science and artificial intelligence, and played a pivotal role in defeating Nazi Germany in the second world war. 

Turing attended school in St Leonards, where his teachers were concerned he was too much of a science specialist. Nevertheless, he won a place at King’s College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1934 with a first class honours in Mathematics. At the unusually young age of 22, he was elected a fellow of King’s College on the strength of his undergraduate dissertation, in which he proved the central limit theorem. Whilst at King’s, Turing reformulated an earlier paper by Kurt Godel, arguing that machines are capable of performing any conceivable task if it was mathematically computed and represented as an algorithm. This discovery forms the foundation upon which modern computers are built.

Cracked security code

After completing his PhD at Princeton, Turing returned to the UK, where he began work as a codebreaker. Turing reported to Bletchley Park on the 4th September, 1939, the day after the UK had declared war on Germany. Turing designed a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, with his role enabling the allies to defeat the Germans in several crucial battles. Winston Churchill later claimed that Turing had made the single biggest contribution to allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.


The latter part of Turing’s life was overshadowed by tragedy and injustice. In 1952 he was prosecuted for homosexuality, at a time when such acts were a criminal offence in the UK. As an alternative to prison, Turing was chemically castrated, but he committed suicide two years later. Following an internet campaign in 2009, UK prime minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology for the “appalling way Turing was treated”. In 2013 he was granted a posthumous pardon by the Queen.

Oxbridge Alumni – Jane Goodall

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Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, Jane Goodall has enjoyed a rich and exciting career in primatology, ethology and anthropology.

After a fortuitous meeting with Kenyan archaelogist Louis Leakey, Goodall found work as a chimpanzee researcher and worked at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, an area that would later come to be synonymous with her work. In 1958, Leakey arranged the funding and sent her to Cambridge, where she attained a PhD in Ethology from Newnham College. Goodall became only the eighth person in the university’s history to be accepted to study a PhD, despite not having completed a batchelors degree. Her thesis, titled “Behaviour of the free-ranging chimpanzee”, detailed the first five years she spent at Gombe.

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Goodall went on to spend decades working in the Gombe Stream National Park, where she developed unconventional methods and interpretations of chimpanzee behaviour, choosing to name the animals and emphasise their individual personalities. She suggested similarities between humans and chimpanzees in emotion, intelligence and family and social relationships. Her research is best known for refuting two longstanding assumptions, namely that humans were the only animal capable of using tools, and that chimpanzees were vegetarians. Speaking on Goodall’s discovery, Leakey remarked “We must now redefine man, redefine tools, or accept chimpanzees as human!”

Goodall has written dozens of books and appeared in numerous documentaries. She is widely acknowledged as one of the great naturalists, and has won many awards over the years.


In 1977, Goodall set up the Jane Goodall Institute, and is a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats. The organisation now has over 10,000 groups in over 100 countries. Goodall now devotes much of her time to advocacy on behalf of chimpanzees, travelling around the world speaking and campaigning for animal welfare.

Oxbridge Alumni – Oscar Wilde

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An accomplished poet and playwright, and an emblematic figure of Victorian high society, Oscar Wilde’s legacy in art and culture endures to this day. 

Born in Ireland to a surgeon-father and poet-mother, Wilde enjoyed a cultured upbringing, before going to Trinity College, Dublin to read Classics. From there he went on to study at Magdalen College, Oxford, between 1874 and 1878. Whilst there he became involved with the freemasons, and flirted with the idea of converting to Catholicism.



It was, however, his association with aesthetic and decadent movements that most clearly marked out his time at Oxford. Wilde decorated his rooms with objets d’art, such as peacock feathers, lilies and blue china, and threw lavish parties characterised by showy costumes, languishing attitudes and large amounts of wine. Some saw the movement as vacuous and shallow, but gradually Wilde built a myth around himself, before graduating with a double first in Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores. On graduating, Wilde wrote to a friend “the dons are astonied beyond words – the Bad Boy doing so well in the end!”


After finishing at Oxford, Wilde moved to London, where he socialised in fashionable cultural circles. Wilde, always talented and extravagant with words, published dozens of poems and plays, to critical acclaim. Wilde subscribed to aesthetic ideals, and saw art as reigning supreme. He explored and refined these ideas in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In later life, Wilde was imprisoned for gross indecency, after it emerged he had had a sexual relationship with another man. He was sentenced to two years of hard labour, after which he left for France, only to die at the age of 46. In the latter part of the 20th century, Oscar Wilde became an icon for the gay rights movement. Many of his most famous plays, including Salome and The Importance of Being Earnest, are still on stage today.

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