Cricketer, Comedians, and Campaigners: Rectors, 1967-1993
This post continues our mini-series on former Rectors of the University of St Andrews.
Sir Learie Constantine (1967-70) Son of a sugar plantation worker and grandson of a slave, Constantine trained as a barrister, and was the first High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago to London. He is best known as an outstanding cricketer of the inter-war years, the ‘best West Indian all-rounder of his generation’. His daughter graduated from St Andrews in 1949. During his rectorial drag he was given a red gown as was the custom. From University Hall he received a Quaich and key to and freedom of their Hall, from Southgait Hall a cricketer’s box; a travelling rug from Sallies; a large teddy bear from the SRC; a tie with pink elephants on it from Hepburn Hall, a silver tray with a chunk of R&A turf from the Atholl, an engraved tankard and a fluffy hielan’ coo from Hamilton and cricket cap, catapult and stones from Canmore, as well as half a smoked salmon from the Union. He intended to be active as rector but was plagued by ill-health.
John Cleese (1970-73) was the first of a series of media-based Rectors who took their responsibilities seriously. His was the first election based on single transferable voting and the first where candidates visited St Andrews in numbers. His election reflected discontent with the previous performance of rectors, as well as the changing demographic of the student population. His was a very well-managed campaign with ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’ as a catchphrase. As rector he entertained his students, twice bringing the Monty Python team to St Andrews. His rectorial address was called ‘Cowardice’ (as opposed to JM Barrie’s ‘Courage’ rectorial address of 1922). During his drag he was presented with an 8 week old piglet by the Porker Club; it was so restless and noisy that it was ‘farmed out’ at the next stop at Dean’s Court! He was first Rector to break with tradition and appoint a student as his assessor on Court. He valued the personal contacts in St Andrews and the personal experience in the University. He described his time as Rector as ‘an extraordinarily pleasant experience.’
Alan Coren (1973-76) Wit, humourist and satirist, Coren was Editor of Punch (1977-87) and The Listener, TV critic and columnist. He wrote over 30 books and was a familiar presence on television and radio through programmes such as ‘Call my Bluff’ and ‘The News Quiz’. He tore a telephone directory in half during his rectorial address to prove his strength. He made a film with his predecessor as an introduction to St Andrews and its University; Cleese had actually suggested Coren as a good successor. He was a very hard working rector who took his work on behalf of the student community very seriously.
Frank Muir (1976-79) After service with the RAF during the war, Muir made his name as a writer of radio comedy scripts and compère or participant in TV programs and radio panel games. Whilst Rector he was voted Radio Personality of 1977. On the day of his arrival in 1976 a ‘cortege’ of cars actually processed through the town, each bearing a large coloured initial of his name. One of the gifts given, from a women’s hall of residence, became a favourite bath time toy for his grandchildren. Beloved by the students due to his availability, he was a frequent visitor to St Andrews, seeing students, visiting halls, writing for the student newspaper and charities magazine. He supported the St Andrews Festival and persuaded eminent actor friends to perform in 1977. He also helped raise money for scholarships, had a Rector’s hardship fund and gave £1000 to be invested to set up a comedy prize. He also provided a gown for the Rector’s Assessor on Court.
Tim Brooke-Taylor (1979-82) arrived by helicopter. It was known that he was to be winched down to the North Haugh but as the helicopter hovered above the town, someone was seen to fall out of it … it proved to be a dummy rather than the Rector-elect. He was lowered onto a motorbike and was delivered to the more traditional coach for the Drag. There were female sporting Blues among those pulling his carriage and when they stopped at the R&A they were all invited in for drinks. Radio and TV personality Brooke-Taylor took his role as Rector seriously and preparing for The Goodies had to be fitted in around Court meetings. He regarded St Andrews as ‘the happiest university’ he had been to.
Katherine Whitehorn (1982-85) This distinguished columnist on The Observer was the first female to be nominated for the post and first female Rector, and also the first Rector to be elected unopposed since 1918. She arrived, as Lord Rosebery had done 72 years before, by boat, but where he had been expected to walk up the steep Kirk Hill to his waiting coach, she was ‘dragged’ up the more relaxed route via the Pends. She wrote: “They told me there might be a few people to meet me on the quay. When I came up on deck I saw all the harbour walls lined with cheering students in their red gowns. It was one of the most moving moments of my life.”
Stanley Adams (1985-88) had intended to arrive by hot air balloon but the traditional St Andrews weather decided otherwise so he came in a 1923 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. He was known as a crusader against price-fixing and cartels within the European pharmaceutical and chemical industries, and for his battle against EEC Commission who breached his confidentiality as a whistle blower in 1973. He continued his combative approach in St Andrews and campaigned for changes which were not always popular with the student body, such as advocating a merger with Dundee and abandoning the student election of his assessor. He attended all court meetings during his period in office. He was subsequently imprisoned for plotting to have his wife killed so that he could benefit from her life insurance.
Nicholas Parsons (1988-91) Nicholas Parsons, actor, comedian and radio personality, seems to have hoped to arrive in a balloon or on an elephant or riding a penny-farthing bicycle. In fact he poked fun at himself by driving backwards out of a lorry in a Renault 5, a parody of a car commercial in which he was appearing at the time. He went into a series of high revving manoeuvres but had to stop because of the crowd. He was the first successful candidate to campaign and defend himself at the hecklings in 1988. He persuaded media friends to give quotes in his support which were used in a poster. He was an active Rector, inviting students to contact him at any time including phoning him at home. He talked about the Rectorship on The Wogan Show (BBC) and even worked St Andrews into an episode of Dr Who in 1989.
Nicky Campbell (1991-93) arrived in full medieval armour on horseback, waving a sword. He was given gifts including an inflatable golf club, a flag from the 18th hole of the Old Course, and a dead fish. As a radio DJ, Campbell boosted his appeal in the run up to the election by playing requests from St Andrews students on his radio show. He was elected despite never having visited St Andrews. Part of his installation celebrations included a live transmission of Radio One FM’s ‘Into the Night’ from the Students Union. He attended few court meetings and resigned half way through his term due to his wife’s illness, only the second person in the modern era to do so.
Senior Archivist (Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments)