Emma Thompson tells students ‘Newnham taught me how to think’

Emma Thompson

Newnhamite Emma Thompson returned to College to talk to students about her life and career and advised them that ‘failure is your best friend’.

The Newnham alumna studied English when she came to Cambridge in 1978. She joined the Cambridge Footlights, the world-famous student comedy troupe, at the same time as fellow students Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

She won her first Oscar in 1992 for Best Actress for her role in Howards End and in 1995 she scooped another Academy Award for Best Screenplay for her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – making her the only person in history to have won an Oscar for writing and for acting. She has been nominated for countless awards for her writing and acting since.

After a reunion with Jean Gooder, her Director of Studies at Newnham, the down-to-earth star spent an hour taking questions from students and covered everything from her Cambridge interview, her role in the Harry Potter films, to why she admires Emma Watson.

Talking about her interview with Gooder after she applied to Cambridge, Thompson said: “I was asked by the most animated woman with the most powerful intellect what I thought and it changed my life. My whole life was different from then on. I left on cloud nine because I had never had an experience like it – Newnham gave me permission to have ideas.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to write screenplays or musicals or sketches if it hadn’t been for my time here. It was so rich and it really toughened up my mind. Newnham was a safe place where I learnt how to think.”

Thompson, who starred in and adapted Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books for the silver screen and renamed the main character as Nanny McPhee, revealed that she is currently writing a musical version of the hit movies.

She said: “I’m so enjoying it because it lends itself to music and my favourite song I have written so far is called ‘Is it wrong to eat a baby?’ It will be coming to a theatre in London probably in 2020 because it takes so long to develop.”

Thompson fielded questions about being a female comic and said it is still a male domain and explained her gender-based comedic theory to the audience: “The joke is a patriarchal form of humour which basically requires you to pay attention, prepare to laugh and then laugh whether you are amused or not! It is quite a tough form – there is no spontaneity.

“I think female comedy is much more organic, where you get a laugh and then another one, there is no need to go to all this ejaculation where the joke is the male orgasm really. And female comedy is the female orgasm where you simply don’t know when it is going to happen and it can go on and on and on or be over terribly quickly!”

The Oscar-winner advised Newnham students to embrace their failures and explained how her successful career was born out of her biggest setback.

She said: “I wrote a comedy series which absolutely the biggest failure you can possibly imagine, and it was shown in the middle of the night in America and a producer saw it and said ‘that’s the woman I want to write Sense and Sensibility!’

“So things come in the weirdest ways, failure is your best friend. Obviously not all the time, but if you have got your energy don’t ever be frightened. I attribute my Sense and Sensibility offer to the biggest failure I ever had, there’s a balance in that. Newnham is the beginning for you, don’t worry about falling over.”

When she was asked about her roles in the Harry Potter film franchise and as Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast she explained that she wasn’t on set on either film for very long.

She added: “I was only on Beauty and the Beast for five days because I was only not crockery for a couple of days. Em’s great (Emma Watson who played Belle) because she made a very good decision and refused to wear a wedding dress at the end because she said, ‘it is not a marriage, we are just going to be together like normal people’ and they bought that so she did us all a big favour.”

Thompson posed for photographs with students before she headed off the Cambridge Union to give a talk there.

The talk was live streamed on our Facebook page and the video can still be viewed.