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Andrew Davies, (UCL English, 1957) returns to an old haunt

Words Kate Hilpern Portrait Julian Anderson


Andrew Davies finds The Marlborough Arms in Bloomsbury a little quieter now than it was in his day.

Professor Smith was an Old Norse man, and ran the scene like the mead hall in Beowulf, emptying his pockets and putting the money in a heap on the table

The Marlborough Arms in Bloomsbury was the place to be on Friday nights when I was a student. It was the nearest pub to Foster Court, where the English department was, and that meant it was frequented by Professor Smith and his cronies. Smith was an Old Norse man, and ran the scene like the mead hall in Beowulf, emptying his pockets of all his money and putting it in a heap on this long table. A man named Dodgeson (you only ever used surnames in those days), who was the lowest member of the academic staff, was sent to the bar to get the rounds in and nobody paid for drinks until all the money was all gone.

It was great, although daunting. Smith, who was always head of the table, spent much of the time boasting about things like receiving the Order of the Elephant, and you were always expected to get stuck into some fierce debates.

For a boy from a little village in Wales – where the only place to meet girls was the local chapel – it was a fantastic eye-opener. I wanted to get out into the big, wide world and, as a Dylan Thomas devotee, there was part of me that wanted a life like his, but perhaps not so self-destructive and fatal. So London seemed the place to be. I did, in fact, get into Oxford, but they said I had to do my National Service first and I thought, “Bugger that, I want to get started now.”

Once in London, I started to sample all the pleasures on offer in the mid-1950s – pubs, jazz clubs and coffee shops – and had a good social life from the off. I didn’t have much money, though, and can remember having the option to have half a bitter every day or save it all for a big Saturday night. I went for the latter.

It’s funny to think how fashionable the coffee shops were back then. One favourite Spanish place had a guy playing the flamenco guitar, while another, called Macabre, had the 1950s equivalents of goths hanging out. There was also a “stagey” one called Act One Scene One in Soho, opposite the 2i’s Coffee Bar where fledgling popstars like Cliff Richard were discovered.

Then there was the college bar, down in the basement – a shabby place with green leatherette seats that were stained and torn. That’s where I met my wife, Diana. I was in the second year by now, and she was in the first year, sat on Tom Courtenay’s knee. She went out with him briefly, although I think she was secretly waiting for me.

I was a clever student, but not very conscientious. You had to have Latin A-level to do the English degree and because I only had O-level, I did an extra exam, for which I was taught by a strange old lady in a tiny office in one of the university’s front yards. I can remember hanging out in the basement of Bentham Hall, where I lived for the first two years, playing snooker on my own, knowing I should be doing my Latin. But she must have had a soft spot for me, because one day in her hermit grotto she told me I’d just squeezed a pass.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. I wrote plenty of poetry, but I could never seem to write any short stories that satisfied me at all. At one time, I thought I might be an actor, but when I played the juvenile lead in a first term play, my friends all told me I was so terrible that I vowed never go back on stage. One girl, Elizabeth Savage, who I had a terrific crush on, said she thought I was good “because you just played yourself”, which I thought was terribly sweet. That was a very chaste relationship. We’d go to Heals together and sit on the posh sofas, talking about our hopes and dreams.

David Lodge was in the third year when I was in the first year and later wrote How Far Can You Go? based on those university days. When I read it, I wondered how on earth we were both at the same university at the same time, having such completely different experiences. There was he, clearly destined for a glittering academic career, whereas I was just a pretty cocky young thing chasing the girls. He was such an earnest student and I was not. But despite them being such carefree days, I got a good second class degree and the confidence to go into teaching and later writing.

The funny thing is that the pub hasn’t really changed much – dark but spacious and split into different rooms. Sometimes you’d get invited for a sherry in one of the literature student’s rooms, but it was never the same as being here in the pub with old Professor Smith and the gang.

Andrew Davies is a writer of screenplays and novels, notably A Very Peculiar Practice and House of Cards. His latest project, an adaption of War and Peace, airs this winter.


This year, UCL awarded honorary degrees to: Dr Denis Gillings CBE, Executive Chairman of Quintiles; American biologist and Nobel Prize winner Dr Linda Buck; Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Lesley Regan; historian Professor Norman Davies; artist, painter and former politician and diplomat Mr Ibrahim El-Salahi; environmental researcher Ms Fran Moore; former British diplomat and Permanent Representative to the European Union Sir Stephen Wall; international lawyer Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf; and former director of the Nuffield Foundation Ms Sharon Witherspoon MBE.

UCL awarded honorary fellowships to: GP and former Chair of the Council of
the Royal College of General Practitioners Dr Clare Gerada MBE; Chief Executive of the Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence Mr Bill Williams; Founder and Chairman of GSP Real Estate Mr George Farha; Director of the Grosvenor Group and Chairman of the Environment Agency Sir Philip Dilley; and Founder, Investor and Chairman of The Clean Gas Company and Co-Managing Director of Good Film Productions Limited Mr Martin Rushton-Turner.

Philanthropy Day*


number of people taking part in the Jeremy Bentham mask record attempt


number of students and staff taking part in Philanthropy Day activities


number of masks distributed on Philanthropy Day


number of student societies involved in Philanthropy Day


  • Contents 2015/16Contents 2015/16
  • DeconstructedDeconstructed
  • InboxInbox
  • A UCL beginner’s guide to…A UCL beginner’s guide to…
  • Free RadicalFree Radical
  • Alumni Network launchAlumni Network launch
  • Jeremy Bentham SpeaksJeremy Bentham Speaks
  • The Strong RoomThe Strong Room
  • Extra CurricularExtra Curricular
  • CloisteredCloistered
  • Life, the Universe and EverythingLife, the Universe and Everything
  • This Radical LifeThis Radical Life
  • Paper ChasePaper Chase
  • Beautiful BacteriaBeautiful Bacteria
  • CitiesCities
  • Hello London!Hello London!
  • Lessons for lifeLessons for life
  • In Bentham’s footstepsIn Bentham’s footsteps
  • This idea must dieThis idea must die
  • London  vs  WorldLondon vs World
Portico Issue 2. 2015/16