John Fortune

Doctor of Letters

 Madame Pro Vice-Chancellor: John Fortune

Today we honour John Fortune, of Bremner Bird and Fortune, unmissable Sunday night viewing on Channel 4, best known as one of the two ‘Long Johns’, his duologues with John Bird. He’s the tall dark one.

Alas, we are not about to be entertained by one of the indubitably funniest men alive. Tradition leaves the speaking to the orator. Difficult for the orator, though not as bad as it was for the Headmaster of Bristol Cathedral School. When John was the guest speaker at the annual dinner of the Old Cathedralians, the Head had to follow him, while the guests were still holding their split sides.

John Fortune is, then, a Bristolian, who values and is valued for his connections with the city. In 1999, a theatre bearing his name was opened at the Cathedral School. His twin sister, born also in Bristol on June 30 1939, still lives in the city and we are delighted to welcome her and John’s other sister who are also with us today. John attended the Cathedral School from 1950 – 1957. In that period, the school was a ‘direct grant grammar school’ with free places for boys (it was then single sex) who passed the entrance exam. John was just such a scholarship boy, and it was at the Cathedral School that his future career was to be determined by the influence of a singularly charismatic teacher, AE, Sandy or Teddy, Martin. The School Magazine records the appearance of our honorary graduand in 1956 as Thomas Mendip in The Lady’s Not For Burning, where, quote, his ‘warm and intelligent interpretation of the part, next to the direction [by Mr Martin] was chiefly responsible for raising the production well above the usual run of school plays’. In his final year, John was to achieve greater heights as Henry V, his performance was ‘outstanding’, he was ‘every inch a king’. We have a photograph of the young Henry, in his crown, kneeling at the feet of the bewimpled French princess.

With Henry V behind him, John went straight to King’s College, Cambridge to read English, having missed National Service by one day. Here he was taught by one of the most illustrious of English scholars and champion of DH Lawrence, FR Leavis. Something of Leavis must have rubbed off on John: he is quoted as having said that ‘if you were a working class boy and had an outside lavatory, the girls at Newnham thought that was very Lawrentian and sexy’. He soon discovered the extra-curricular attractions of Cambridge Footlights. It was here that he met John Bird and began a friendship and partnership that has lasted over forty - five years. They were both ‘grammar school’ boys, John Bird in Nottingham - he too was recently honoured by the University of Nottingham - and their careers have ever since been intertwined.

Grammar school boys, Bird and Fortune, joined public school boys, such as Peter Cook and Nick Luard, in what must have been an amazing mix of talent, where diversity led to interaction and brilliance, exactly what university life should be like. The roll call of members of Footlights from 1957 to 1966 is the roll call of British comedy: Michael Frayn, John Bird, Peter Cook, John Wood, David Frost, Eleanor Bron, John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, Graeme Garden, Trevor Nunn, Bill Oddie, Miriam Margolyes, Eric Idle, Clive James. But, you may ask, Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor, where is John Fortune?

It is at this point, or shortly after leaving Cambridge, that, in fact, John Fortune is born. Up until now, he is John Wood. On seeking to join Equity, required for anyone wishing to act on the professional stage, John Wood had to become someone else, there already was a famous theatrical John Wood. So, he became John Fortune, taking his mother’s maiden name. That was lucky, I said, thinking it was a much better name than Bird. Not for my mother, said John. How so? Well for the first part of her life she was a Miss Fortune – thank you John. So as John Fortune, he joined Peter Cook as a director of the Establishment Club, founded in 1961 in seedy premises in Soho. The invitation from Peter Cook has to be seen as an enormous loss to adult education, for John, still inspired by Teddy Martin, had thought to devote himself to ‘taking Yeats to the coalfields’, and had been offered a job by the WEA, the Workers Educational Association.

To Peter Cook we owe the comedy duologue: Bird and Fortune as the Long Johns, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as Pete and Dud, Peter Cook and Timothy Birdsall on a park bench in the Footlights revue of 1959, directed by John Bird. Peter Cook also for the brief transatlantic existence of the Establishment Club and the first venture into television in a show produced by Ed Sullivan for NBC - cancelled after two editions ‘because of incompatibilities’.

John returned from the USA in 1964, and the closure of the Establishment Club, owing to it being taken over by gangsters, was not such a disaster thanks to television. David Frost had been busy exploring the possibilities. That Was the Week That Was (TW3) was abruptly withdrawn in 1964 owing to the General Election and Bird and Fortune filled the gap with Not so Much a Programme, More a Way of Life. This ran for 62 episodes on BBC1 from November 1964 to April 1965: cast John Bird, John Fortune, Eleanor Bron, Michael Crawford, David Frost, Roy Hudd, Cleo Laine, PJ Kavanagh, William Rushton, producer Ned Sherrin – another roll call. In 1967, the BBC commissioned A Series of Bird’s, eight episodes of something which baffled the Light Entertainment department. Producer Dennis Main Wilson, observing that Bird and Fortune were finding it hard to keep up producing enough material, introduced them to Michael Palin and Terry Jones. And here beginneth Monty Python.

It is clear then, Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor, that we who love television satire in all its forms owe an enormous debt to John Fortune. He is still performing - the Bremner Bird and Fortune show has taken political satire combined with cabaret and comedy, as created in Cambridge over forty years ago, and sharpened its edge. It is generally acknowledged that the two programmes by Bremner Bird and Fortune, Beyond Iraq and Between Iraq and a Hard Place were one of the strongest critiques of the recent engagement in Iraq. A book based on the programmes is to be published in the autumn. However, I would like to return to Bristol, to his birth in 1939, to his mother, who delayed this event by one day so that he missed national service, to his mother who gave him the name of Fortune. To return also to Henry V, and Shakespeare. John is a very private man, he shuns publicity, I have been careful not to pry into ‘the secret parts of Fortune’ (Hamlet). He is anything but ‘a worky-day fortune’ (Anthony and Cleopatra). For those of you graduating today: ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men /Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’ (Julius Caesar). We are indeed delighted today to have honoured ‘Outrageous Fortune’ ( Hamlet).

Madame Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you John Fortune, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.


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