Michael Portillo: ‘I tried to make a film of Macbeth with Diane Abbott as Lady Macduff’

·7-min read
‘I was fairly confident I was clever’: Michael Portillo recalls his grammar school days with fondness - Andrew Crowley
‘I was fairly confident I was clever’: Michael Portillo recalls his grammar school days with fondness - Andrew Crowley

Both my parents were highly educated people, my father was a university professor in Spain, until he was exiled, and my mother had got a First from Oxford and worked as a teacher. So it was a bookish house and the general ethos was towards education.

We lived in Stanmore, Middlesex, quite close to the Harrow County School for Boys, the grammar school in Gayton Road – hence alumni being known as Old Gaytonians – and so I went there. Our school motto was Worth Not Birth or, in Latin, Virtus Non Stemma, and that was our school badge and our school song. I should explain we were at the foot of Harrow-on-the-Hill; on top of the Hill was Harrow School, and a great rivalry with that famous public school had been conceived, although whether they knew or cared about us I cannot be sure.

Anyway, I’m the youngest of four surviving brothers – at one time there were five – all of whom went to grammar schools. My brother had gone to Harrow County before me, and he and his friends were always doing pranks and getting into mischief, carrying masters’ cars on to the school stage and things like that.

As a result, I thought there were going to be a lot of japes and it was all going to be great fun, but what I encountered was quite different. It was harsh. There were prefects and lots of rules, and corporal punishment, and a very severe Scottish headmaster by the name of Dr A R Simpson, who was extremely old fashioned and a stickler for dress. We also had a deputy head who was very keen on caning boys; every day at Morning Assembly he would read out a huge list of boys who had to go and see him for one reason or another.

Michael Portillo in his school days at Harrow
Michael Portillo in his school days at Harrow

At Harrow County you had to be either a Boy Scout or a member of the Cadets, and I chose to become a Boy Scout – my scout troop was called The Merry Men. The annual camp was at the beginning of term in September and required us new boys to spend several cold nights in a tent on the school field, following which we had to attend classes in full Scout regalia.

So it was all pretty terrifying, but things changed after a year when Dr Simpson retired and Roy Avery came in. He was the mildest of men and there’s no doubt life became easier then. But after a while all the school furniture became higgledy-piggledy and broken: before lessons you had to go hunting around for chairs and desks that were still intact. So liberalisation had more than one effect, although obviously we were all pretty relieved to be out of the era of corporal punishment.

I was an anxious and nervous boy, more than a bit timid. Well, it was quite a big school with 900 boys; to go from a school where you’re the oldest to a school where you are very much the youngest is intimidating, and I’ve always had a doubt about taking the next step in life – I suppose that’s what they call imposter syndrome nowadays.

Also, I was very unsporty, and it was just a huge embarrassment being unsporty. There was a Welsh rugby teacher who constantly used to yell: “Portillo you’re a damned rabbit.” And in my very first term I got a sporting injury, which seemed to me most unfair: my front tooth was knocked out by a boy named Harris – I still remember his head bashing into mine and breaking the tooth – which has caused difficulty throughout my life.

Michael Portillo in his school days with his English Master JS Golland.
Michael Portillo in his school days with his English Master JS Golland.

Fortunately, I was fairly confident I was clever. There were mainly splendid teachers, at least the ones I dealt with were very good, although there were some duds of course; the biology teacher was a dud, and the physics teacher, too, but that didn’t matter to me so much because I was going to be an arts pupil and those courses were taught very well.

We were given wonderful books to read. Le Grand Meaulnes had a big impact on me; it describes this yearning for a moment that is only just glimpsed, it’s the most nostalgic book conceivable, and I remember after reading it carrying around a great weight of sadness. And I read Shakespeare, too, of course, and 55 years later I’m always quoting Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida.

Theatre was very important; a lot of my friends were very into theatre. When I was 14 or 15 I had been a pretty ghastly Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, and this is where I come back to my timidity, I found myself too inhibited to become an actor, so I turned to production management and became the man who sorted out the money.

We planned to make a film of Macbeth; we wrote a shooting script and knew everything we needed to do including special effects. Also, the idea behind this venture was that it could be a way of making a connection with girls. We made approaches to Harrow County School for Girls, and consequently we did meet a lot of girls (Lady Macduff was to be played by Diane Abbott).

We then had to raise the money. We had a budget of £200 to hire costumes, and buy a camera and film; in those days the technology was Super 8. I wrote to a lot of stately homes and eventually got permission to film at Osterley Park, although we had to take out insurance for a million pounds which was a bit frightening, although the premium was only about a pound. Unfortunately the film never got made because we never managed to raise the money.

Michael Portillo at his home in London - Andrew Crowley
Michael Portillo at his home in London - Andrew Crowley

The school was academically very successful. In my year, 22 boys got into Oxbridge, 21 of them on either exhibitions or scholarships. Most of my friends went to Oxford but I went to Cambridge. One of the school friends I went to Cambridge with was Clive Anderson. On the first day he and I went along together to Footlights to be auditioned: Clive got in and I didn’t. When I got to Cambridge I still felt very unsure of myself, not least because Cambridge was full of public schoolboys and they all seemed to be so very self confident.

Many years after I left, when I was defence secretary, I was in a car late at night with a Major General, and he said: “My name is Andrew Ritchie and I was at school with you,” although he was a year or two younger. “Wasn’t it a marvellous school!” I said. And he replied: “Well it was for the likes of you academic chaps who were going to Oxford and Cambridge, you were very well catered for, but for the rest of us who weren’t so clever, we were rather left to hang.”

He’d done very well in the school’s Cadet Corps and gone on to have a very distinguished military career. But I really had to think about his comment. I’d always assumed Harrow County had been good for everyone: it was certainly good for me and my immediate crowd.

I stayed in touch with Roy Avery*, my second headmaster, which may tell you something about how I feel about my school. He would ring me after seeing one of my television programmes and say, in a very headmasterly way, “Michael … Alpha!”

And I would reply: “Naturally, Roy! This is all due to you and the team, and I just want to say how grateful I am.”

*Roy Avery (1925-2023) died the very afternoon of this interview