Interview with Frank Halford
Frank Halford is famous for being the teacher who gave a ten out of ten to Douglas Adams for an essay when he was ten years old. Douglas often told the anecdote till the end of his life. Despite the fact that he became a famous writer, this mark remained quite important to Douglas, a proof that he could write something good even when he had doubts and suffered from the writer’s block.
So, it’s of course a great pleasure to be able to have an interview with Frank Halford, a 77 years old retired teacher but a famous name for all the Douglas Adams’ fans and definitively a nice man to have a chat with.
Nicolas Botti : What kind of school was Brentwood? Was it a typical english schooI?
Frank Halford : It has altered somewhat since Douglas was there. Then, it was a school for boys only, whereas now there are girls as well. The school was divided into two parts, the Preparatory School and the Main School,which itself consisted of the Junior and Senior Schools. The Prep 7 to 11 , Junior 11 to 13 , Senior 13 to 18. There were 217 boys in the Prep. and 1087 in the Main School. Now, there is a Pre-Prep 3 to 7 in addition. There are 140 boys and girls in the Pre-Prep, some 240 in the Prep and 1120 in the Main School. Boys and girls are taught together in the Prep and Pre-Prep but separately in the Main School until the Sixth Form when they are aged 16+ and taught in small groups. In Douglas’ day, the Prep was completely fee-paying but there were some scholarship boys in the Main School. Now, the whole school is fee-paying. For day pupils, it costs parents £12,144 a year and for boarders, £21,426. You ask if it was a typical English school. Well, the answer must be no for schools in general but yes for schools of its type. That is to say, it is a member of The Headmasters’ Conference to which a select number belong. These are all independent and private,but are sometimes, confusingly, called Public Schools. Brentwood was founded in 1558 so this year there were great celebrations in honour of its 450th anniversary with a service in St. Paul’s Cathedral for the whole school and a wonderful dinner in the Mansion House with The Lord Mayor of London for a smaller number of adults! The Lord Chancellor of England was there – he was at school with Douglas but slightly older.
NB : Douglas started the same year than you and left in 1970. When did you meet Douglas for the first time? What did you think of that boy?
FH : Douglas entered the Prep School in 1959 as a day boy. He came into my form,Remove Two, in 1961. I remember him as tall and bright, but frankly, little else. After all, this is 47 years ago, and the other 23 boys were bright as well. But yes, there in front of me is my Mark Book for 1961 – 1962 and I see that on the 7th March 1962, Adams D.N. – the staff called them by their surnames as did the other boys – has the mark 10 for his composition. It was the only time I ever gave a perfect mark but of course, I had no idea of the effect it had on him or that he would remember it so many years later. Throughout all the years I taught English there were many,many boys who wrote so wonderfully well that I marvelled , and I told them so, yet there was always a reason for taking off at least half a mark. Interestingly enough, however, I used to say to them that I had only once given a perfect mark and that was to a boy named Adams – and that was long before he became famous!
NB : At the beginning, Douglas lived at his grandmother’s place, Mrs Donovan, who was very present at the school. Do you remember her?
FH : Do I remember Mrs Donovan? Ah, Granny Donovan. It brings back a picture of a lovely motherly soul who,I seem to think, looked after stray dogs. Could that be right? One would have to ask Sue.
NB : You’re famous to Douglas Adams fans for being the teacher who gave him once a ten out of ten for an essay. Do you remember what was the subject and why it deserved such a high mark?
FH : What was the story about? I don’t recall. Douglas thought it was a typical boy’s story about hunting for buried treasure.
Why the mark? Well, it would have been perfectly spelt and punctuated and grammatically correct of course, but that would have been the starting point. Then he must have shown he could express himself in an easy natural manner, with no awkwardness of phraseology but showing a wide vocabulary and evidence of a love of words allied to a certain maturity. I have no doubt that there were humorous touches and that would have influenced me! A lot to ask from a boy who would not be 10 years old for another four days.
NB : When he was a boarder, Douglas joined Barnards, a small house, and loved to tell stories to others and also wrote a comedy sketch “Doctor which” (a parody of Doctor Who). Do you remember this one?
FH : In his last year at the Prep. Douglas joined the boarding side. He remained a boarder for the rest of his time at Brentwood. Now, I definitely have to correct you about one thing. There was one television set in the Prep. and the boarders were allowed to watch Dr. Who on a Saturday. This inspired Douglas to write a spoof on it called Dr. Which. This would have been when he was 11 years old. I was there. I saw it which I would not have done if it had been elsewhere. Incidentally, in the Main School, Douglas was first in Otway, the Junior boarding house, and then for the rest of his time in School House, one of the senior boarding houses. Barnards was a house next to School House in which, normally, lived half-a-dozen single masters. Perhaps some of the older boys had rooms there, hence the reference to Barnards. Where did you see that?
NB : In MJ Simpson’s biography : “When Douglas became a boarder, he joined Barnards, a small house of fourteen boys overseen by House Master Alan Brooks…. It was at Barnards that Douglas first showed an interest in Dr Who, writing a comedy sketch called “Doctor Which”.
FH : I don’t know where Simpson got his information from but it is certainly wrong. Alan Brooks was housemaster of the junior boarding house, Otway, from 1963 or 64 until 1973. Barnards was never a boys’ boarding house. As I have said, Douglas was in Otway in 1964 and 1965. I am supporting my statements by reference to the Blue Books I have kept from my time on the staff. The Blue Book is a small publication issued annually to every boy, and now girl of course, and member of staff. It gives the names of masters – and mistresses – , their addresses, when they were appointed, if they are a housemaster or tutor, whether they are a head of department, which form or set they take. It also details the school clubs and societies of which there are more than 50. Then the other appointments such as the School Doctors, the Sanatorium Sister, the Secretarial Staff etc. etc. Then it gives the names of all the pupils with their date of birth, house , form, when they entered the school , if their father or grandfather were at Brentwood and if they are a House or School Prefect. So it is a mine of information. Indeed as I type this I am listening to a BBC radio programme on boy choristers and hearing the voice of a former master at the school who was appointed in 1954 so the Blue Book informs me.
NB : You saw Douglas for the first time since he left school in 1992 when you met again at the Brentwood Prep School Speech Day? How did it happen? What did you talk about?
FH : When we met again for the first time after many years in 1992, Douglas greeted me as an old friend. I do not remember what we spoke about though I remember feeling flattered when he mentioned me in glowing terms during his speech that he gave as Guest of Honour. Afterwards he invited my wife and me to stay at his holiday house in Provence, which we did the following year.
Every Christmas, Douglas and his wife Jane held a Carol Singing party at his London home. I remember that first year for us in1992 being introduced to various well-known personalities, though I regret to say that one or two names, known to millions, were not then known to me as pop music was – is – not one of my interests. There would be 80 nor so guests, perhaps more, which Douglas divided into the four voices, we all had music and we would sing for perhaps an hour, accompanied by a fine musician on a Grand Piano, having our glasses refilled with champagne. Then we would all go into another room where a hot meal was laid out as a buffet and served to us.
Then we would sing for another hour or so. Douglas had a lovely voice and always took the solo in The three Kings by Peter Cornelius.
The rather remarkable and wonderful thing is that Jane has continued the Christmas Carol Singing Party every year since Douglas died.
NB : Did you read all his books? Which is your favourite?
FH : I think after the first of the HHGG it has to be Last Chance To See.
NB : Can you tell us about the last time you saw him? How did it happen? when? What did you talk about?
FH : The last time I saw him was on May 5th 2001. It so happened that Lacey and I had booked a coach tour called, I think, Western Highlights of the USA. She had expressed a desire to see the Grand Canyon among other things. I e-mailed Douglas to say that we would be passing through Santa Barbara. I received the following reply.
It’s great news that you’re coming over. Is there any way we can lure you away from your party and give you lunch ourselves on the 5th?
So that was arranged. Douglas picked us up and drove us to a hotel where Jane and Polly were waiting. We had a memorable lunch on the terrace overlooking the sea and the talk just flowed. I remember particularly one thing he said. At an American airport, he had recently met Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. “Douglas”,said Colin, “I saw you act in a play at Brentwood School when I was 6 years old.” Colin’s father, David, was one of the masters at the school at that time. David was not on the staff for very long, and so I myself had never made the connection when Colin many years later became a famous actor. What else we talked about, I wish I could remember, but it is a long time ago, and I did not make a note. I am sure I said something about my difficulty in understanding jargon, and Douglas sympathised and said something pithy on the subject. I remember laughing. Of course, one laughed a great deal in Douglas’ company. My great and lasting regret is that I had my camera in my bag, intending to ask a waiter to take a photo of us all at the table and I completely forgot!
So, it was a great occasion. A few days later, we flew back to England. The telephone rang. My eldest son John, who works at the BBC, said, “We have just heard that Douglas Adams has died.” It was May 11th. I had said good-bye on the 5th.
It was a terrible shock. It would be very difficult for anyone who had not actually been in his company for even a few minutes to conceive what a magnetic personality he had. He was a big man in every sense of the word. When we met, he would enclasp me in a great bear hug. He had such a wide knowledge and yet bore his learning and ,yes, his fame very lightly. He would talk so easily and yet would listen too. He had a wonderful sense of humour and such a ready infectious laugh.
I was much affected by his death. When I was first interviewed by the BBC, I found there were times when I unable to speak for emotion. Then again, for the American video, I had to stop at times. The interviewer said,”He must have been an amazing man because everybody has been affected just like you.” And then, after all this time, when the BBC interviewed me only last autumn for a new programme, I still found it difficult to talk at the end. Of course I was so surprised and humbled to be so appreciated by him. I miss him.
The 7th March 1998, The Daily Mail published an article that you can download here (thanks to Frank for the scan). Here are also a few words from Frank about the article : “Please ignore what Douglas says about my teaching him about mixing up Latin and Anglo- Saxon . That was certainly someone else much later. Then I did not say to the reporter that Douglas was unnaturally tall, but that he was unnecessarily tall which is a word he used when writing to me referring to a waiter. I thought he would recognise and appreciate it.”
Download the Daily Mail article.