Tom Hooper’s nostalgia resurfaces on Oxford rivers

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Something good can come out of rowing. For Academy Award winning director and Univ alumnus Tom Hooper, it was the realisation made while walking back from the river along Merton Street that he wanted to eventually come back to the “architecturally compressed beauty” of Oxford to film it all.

At the impressively young age of 27, while filming Love in a Cold Climate for the BBC, he had the opportunity to return to the city and close down the whole street to film the series that would continue to propel him to his position today as one of the UK’s most prestigious directors, currently being courted to direct the Freddie Mercury biopic.

Though the charm of rowing lasted just a year, the lure of the dreaming spires is clearly something which has continued. Hooper explains that he has “always had a strong connection” with the city; it’s where his parents met and fell in love and he describes childhood experiences of being given guided tours of the city by his parents with fondness. Each part of Oxford held some memory for them: “on this street corner this happened” and “on that one, that.” He even made his first film in Oxfordshire, a fairly self-explanatory short entitled “Runaway Dog”. The city was always “slightly mythologised”.

The intensity which we all know of Oxford and the way that it “burns brightly but briefly”, is also a huge part of Hooper’s life – the way, when working on films, you “adopt a new family” and have an “intense experience” of filming, it ticks so many of the boxes of an Oxford term.

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The names that Hooper reels off as having been contemporaries at Oxford are awe-inspiring and the word he uses continuously is “special” – it was a “special year”, or, that’s how it felt at the time, and part of the reason that he cast Eve Best in The King’s Speech was because of “that special connection”. While it’s easy to romanticise this relationship, and perhaps even look idealistically to the future for the alumni network that we’re all continuously informed exists, there is disconcerting whiff of nepotism about the whole thing.

The connection which develops with actors is something Hooper feels strongly about – the rehearsal period permissible in theatre, for example, is something he very much yearns for when directing film and he stresses again and again that he is keen to return to directing stage at some point. That he would cast people based on this link is, of course, understandable.

The theme of choice is something that comes up repeatedly in conversation with the director. He stresses that the hardest aspect of the film industry for him is this ‘choosing’ – after all “you spend two years of your life on a choice”. Though of course he is incredibly lucky to be in the position of making those choices, it is interesting to hear the director talk about his previous commercial work. If you want to be a director, direct anything and everything: this seems to be his overwhelming advice for other hopefuls.

When I ask if he has any regrets about his time at the university, or any particularly embarrassing highlights, he remains somewhat coy, but does note that he was once “spectacularly naïve” and attended a party called “spiked”, unaware of the connotations. With this boyish innocence firmly in the past, the overwhelming message which comes across in my brief time with Hooper is his fondness for this university and his nostalgia. His rowing days may have been inconsequentially put to bed, but his memories of juvenilia and student experience clearly still hold resonance.

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