Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch and the public school education that launched them

Did having a Harrow and Eton education help or hinder the Imitation Game or Theory of Everything stars?

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Once our great public schools used to churn out generals, archbishops and even prime ministers. But now they’re producing a raft of Hollywood stars. The latest to roll off the production line are 33-year-old Old Etonian Eddie Redmayne, and Harrovian Benedict Cumberbatch, a stately 38.

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And they’re not the only ones taking the film and TV world by storm – Dominic West, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie (all Eton); Laurence Fox and James Dreyfus (Harrow); James Norton (Ampleforth); and Rory Kinnear (St Paul’s). Surprised?

Perhaps not when you realise that when Cumberbatch was at Harrow, there were a dozen student plays mounted every year, many performed in a (then brand-new) bespoke 380-seat theatre. Meanwhile, at Redmayne’s beloved Eton, there were more than 30 student productions annually. Dominic Maxwell, an Old Etonian who is now The Times’s chief theatre critic, says that, as a result, “Anyone at Eton learns a lesson that not everyone learns: that theatre is important. Those at Eton who are good at theatre get an extraordinary chance to practise.”

Redmayne certainly seized that opportunity – and if he started out with any nerves on stage, they’d soon have been dealt with, given that he was performing in front of a future king – Prince William was in the same year at Eton. In a Radio Times interview in 2013, Redmayne explained the real effect Eton had on his acting, singling out the two drama teachers, Simon Dormandy and Hailz-Emily Osborne, for specific praise.

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He said that the pair “treated us like professionals and we had a state-of-the-art theatre, which meant that adjustment between school and working professionally didn’t feel that much of a leap.” Osborne returned the compliment, recalling her brilliant pupil’s first role (a non-speaking part), at 13, in The Madness of King George. “All Eddie had to do was stand and look terribly concerned while the elder boy hammed it up and went mad, but I was just riveted by him. He came across as so professional, even at that young age.”