Godfather of Hull 'mafia' that spreads from Parliament to BBC
THEY are known as the "Hull Mafia" – an organisation whose operatives are found everywhere from the Houses of Parliament to the BBC.
But they are far from a shadowy group intent on world domination.
Instead, they count Oscar winners and leading broadcasters among their number – and are all graduates of University of Hull's drama department.
"It is rather flattering, even if the Hull Mafia does sound a bit alarming," said Michael Walton, an emeritus professor of drama at the university.
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Michael, of West Hull, has edited Huddled Together: 50 Years Of Hull University Drama Department.
Published to celebrate half a century of play-making, the book includes reminiscences from the well-known – including the broadcaster Dame Jenni Murray – to those who have used their years at the Cottingham Road campus to enter careers in areas such as teaching, advertising, or, in the case of David Hanson MP, the House Of Commons.
Michael said: "What I am really proud of about this book is that it shows how many people came here without necessarily having the greatest expectations, found it suited them down to the ground, and that it has stayed with them for life."
Michael began teaching at the university in 1965, two years after the department was formed by Donald Roy.
"I never expected to stay for more than a year," said Michael, who grew up in Newcastle and arrived at the university after a trainee director scheme at York Theatre Royal.
"But there was a sense of building something which had never been done before. There were drama departments at Manchester and Bristol, but we felt we could do something different, from film or TV to how to stage a play, or sell a play."
Drawn into a seven-day- a-week working schedule – "There was always something new happening," he said – Michael and his fellow drama department staff gave their students space to try new things. This included staging some obscure plays – including, on one memorable occasion, a surreal drama by the American playwright EE Cummings.
"We turned the performance space into a dream world, with about half a mile of mirrored plastic around the walls, so the space looked much bigger than it was," he said.
"Then, about a week before the performance, we finally heard back about the royalties, which was bigger than our entire budget.
"I rang the American Embassy and asked to speak to the cultural attache, this voice said 'Hang on a minute' and a minute later, I was told they would meet the bill. They paid for it, just like that."
In this creative atmosphere, Michael said students could find out what, or what they did not, want to do.
The late Oscar-wininning director Anthony Minghella was one of the youngest members of his intake.
"He was a guy who could play the piano and draw, he was interested in set design, but had never been to a professional theatre production in his life," said Michael.
"He absorbed knowledge wherever it came from and he was always more interested in what you were doing than telling you about what he was doing, even though what he was doing was invariably more interesting. He was as a nice a guy as you could hope to meet."
While Anthony, like some other new arrivals to East Yorkshire, might have been unfamiliar with their new place of study – "He, like a lot of people had to get hold of an atlas to find out where Hull is," said Michael – he shared an obvious affection for the department, thanking the university, Michael recalls, during his speech at the 1997 Oscars.
That affection bubbles through the rest of the recollections, ranging from the poignant, Abbi Greenland, the final entry in the collection, is the third generation of her family to study at the University of Hull, to the droll. BBC sports correspondent Gordon Farquhar, who says he was "disabused" of his abilities to act, did at least learn the importance of grace under pressure "I learned how hard it is to remember lines after you've been accidentally kicked in the testicles by a fellow cast member."
The publication, part of a planned series of celebrations for this year, points, said Michael, to one common thread.
"If it had been another 138 people featured, it would have been entirely different," said Michael.
"But the unifying thing that once you've read drama here, there is something with you that stays there for life. It is a bond with everyone that has gone before, even if it was 40 years earlier."
Huddled Together: 50 years of Hull University Drama Department costs £14. For more information, e-mail jmichaelwalton@ gmail.com