Doctor of Letters
Wednesday 20 July 2016 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Professor Martin White
28 years ago, almost to the day, David Nicholls was sitting here, in the Great Hall, waiting, along with the other Drama and English students, to have his degree conferred upon him. As today, parents and friends, including David’s late father and his mother were here, and I’m delighted that his mother is here on this day too, and we welcome her to this ceremony.
In my fictional account of that day in 1988, as David waits, he reflects on the difference between him and the young man who had arrived at the University three years earlier, from his parental home in Eastleigh, and who, in David’s own words, had ‘oiled my Doc Martens, pulled on my brand new donkey jacket, clambered beneath an army surplus rucksack and set off, perspiring heavily, to university.’ The next three years, he recalls, ‘were a blur of ill-informed debates, intense friendships and heart-shredding crushes. At the end of it, I was left skint, dazed and still badly dressed, but with an absolute conviction that university had been the central event of my life. I was very aware of life changing, and of books and films and music and friendship being at the root of that change.’
Today, David is one of the most successful screenwriters for television and cinema and an internationally best-selling and critically acclaimed novelist. But the journey to that success was neither rapid nor straightforward. Indeed, on that graduation day he was looking forward with a mixture of excitement and apprehension to the next step he planned to take: a teaching job in China.
However, fate intervened in the form of so many bureaucratic obstacles that his enthusiasm waned, and after a rapid rethink he auditioned for a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. He was successful, spent the next year in Bristol working to save the rest of the money he’d need and then headed to America. But although he learned at the Academy that he couldn’t dance and he couldn’t sing, he had as a student shown real acting ability in both comic and serious roles, and once back in England managed to get some theatre work, an Equity card and a job at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. There, he also started reading plays for the Literary Manager and loved it. Back in London, he got a job at the National Theatre, as an understudy, an experience that would pay off later. But the turning point came when he rejected a small role with the RSC in favour of a job as a script reader for radio. ‘And that was the right choice,’ he says. ‘It was just this terrific sense of relief. I realized that what I loved about acting was the writing: it was the characters and stories and structure and scenes and dialogue.’
Then, 1999, and a real break. A friend from university asked him to co-write a film adaptation of Simpatico, a play by the American writer, Sam Shepard, the film was made and the money it earned him allowed David to concentrate on writing.
But write what? Then a friend from university gave him a copy of the Irish writer, PJ Kavanagh’s memoir, The Perfect Stranger, which tells the author's own tale of growing up, finding and losing love, and discovering his path in life. More important, it suggested that the anxiety about what you might do with your life, the failures and thwarted plans, the confusion of one’s ‘messy twenties’ might be a story in itself and, most important, gave David some assurance that he too might have something to write about.
Initially, he wrote mainly for television where he enjoyed almost immediate success co-writing the third series of Cold Feet,ITV’s cult comedy about three couples experiencing the ups-and-downs of romance, and he followed this with two solo-authored TV drama series - Rescue Me and I Saw You. Interestingly, the two strands of his Drama/English degree emerged with his next projects - a much-praised modernized version of Much Ado About Nothing and an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D'Urbervilles, both for BBC TV. His engagement with TV drama has continued throughout his career – including the acclaimed original drama, 7.39 - and he’s twice been nominated for BAFTA television awards.
David has also written extensively for cinema and has been particularly successful in the art of adaptation: he wrote the screenplays for his own novels Starter for Ten and One Day, as well as for Great Expectations and, released last year, the much-praised Far From the Madding Crowd.
Madam Chancellor, it is, however, as a novelist that he has become most well known. His first novel, published in 2003, was Starter for Ten, the story of Brian Jackson, a working-class boy at Bristol University with an ambition to win University Challenge and with it, the heart of Alison, his fellow team-mate, believing that what a woman really wants from a man is a comprehensive grasp of general knowledge. The lesson Brian in fact learns is the rather more valuable one that there’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom.
Two years later, David published The Understudy, which drew directly on his own, frustrating experiences as an actor: he describes a typical occasion when playing a Russian peasant in Chekhov’s The Seagull: ‘I used to go on every night, nod at Judi Dench and then walk off. Afterwards, I’d sit at the back of the theatre and chat, flirt and plan.’ But he was also understudying the lead role of Konstantin, and though he never got to play the part, looking back on this period of his life -- and the book it led to -- he observes that, ‘Things that work, do often come out of things that haven’t.’
His third novel, One Day, was published in 2009 to extraordinary critical acclaim. The book opens on the night of graduation day, 15 July 1988 (this time at Edinburgh University) and traces the lives of the two ill-matched protagonists – serious-minded Emma and the hedonistic, self-centred Dexter – and traces their lives, together and apart, on the same date for the next 20 years. Although the core of the narrative is the couple and their will-they-won’t-they relationship, the novel is not only very funny but also deeply moving, while the events are set carefully in their changing social, cultural and political context across those two decades, characteristics that have drawn comparisons with -- and praise from -- writers including Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby.
It was a colossal success. It remained on the Sunday Times top ten bestseller list for ten weeks, and has since sold over five million copies and been published in 40 languages. David’s work as a novelist is remarkable for its ability to appeal not only to the widest readership, but also to win plaudits from the most serious critics, and that’s equally true of his most recent novel – Us - published in 2014, which garnered praise from the popular press to the literary journals and was long-listed for the 2014 major literary Man- Booker Prize.
David’s books up to this point had explored growing up, student life, trying to make a career and a life after University. Us is a sequel to One Day in the sense that it’s about what happens next, but the tone is different: it’s also very funny but it’s darker than the earlier book.
Us is the history of a marriage, recounted over the course of what may well be the couple’s final weeks together. It’s about the demands of living together, about parenthood, about the relationship between reason and emotion, science and art -- in one extremely short chapter, he manages to deliver the entire history of art from cave paintings to the present day, in about 20 lines – as well as travel, parents and children, middle-age and youth.
It is impeccably structured. Made up of 180 short chapters (the last of which is only four words long) with intriguing titles such as – my favourite – ‘pompidou paris accordian cat amazing’, it moves between past and present with a perfect rhythmic sense of when to leave or revisit a particular plot line. David has observed that as a novelisthe is influenced by the film director Billy Wilder and as a screenwriter by Charles Dickens, and that cross fertilisation is clearly at work here too.
Us is a blend of acute observation about public and private life, enlivened with spring-heeled dialogue and comic set-pieces that can make a reader laugh out loud, while also engaging with the powerful emotions of failure, loss, betrayal and rejection. And even as David makes the reader confront and share with his characters their moments of true despair, one hears in his writing the life-affirming, healing power of laughter, at moments faint and distant to be sure, but always there; this ability to fuse, often in a single moment, as in life, both the height and depth of experience, being the sure sign of a writer of distinction.
Madam Chancellor, it is with great pleasure I commend to you David Nicholls, novelist and screenwriter, as eminently worthy of the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.