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The Cambridge Footlights – the drama club that has produced icons such as Monty Python, The Goodies, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and many others

Tijana Radeska
Footlights

The Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, or “The Footlights”, as it is commonly known, is an amateur theater group mainly for the students at the University of Cambridge in the UK. An interesting fact is that while there is no official drama school at Cambridge, this amateur club has produced some of the greatest English actors in history.

The ADC Theatre is the home of the Footlights.

The ADC Theatre is the home of the Footlights. Photo credit

The club was founded sometime in 1883, and they when they first appeared in front of their Cambridge audience the club still hadn’t come up with the name “Footlights”. However, the group was ambitious, dedicated, and determined to gain the sympathies of an audience not just in Cambridge, but across the nation.

A street performer on the High Street in 2010

A street performer on the High Street in 2010. Photo credit

There is not much info on the history of the Footlights in their first eighty years, but the modern world has certainly become familiar with the club’s famous alumni.

In 1960, two guys from the Footlights – Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook – connected with another two guys from the Oxford Revue (the equivalent of the Footlights in Oxford) – Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, and created the show “Beyond the Fringe”; the audience was charmed. They first appeared at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and from there they performed all around England. The show was beyond success.

Beyond the Fringe - On Broadway circa 1962 to 1964. From left, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller.

Beyond the Fringe –  From left, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller

As the members of the Footlights (and those of the Oxford Revue) graduated and left the University, management of Footlights was handed down to next generation, who inherited not only the club but also its astounding the success.
In 1963, a new generation of students – Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, David Hatch, Bill Oddie, Chris Stuart-Clark and Jo Kendall – wrote the show “Cambridge Circus.” Following the tradition set by their forebearers, they first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Then, following great reviews, they performed at London’s West End, before touring in New Zeeland and the United States. In the States, the Footlights appeared on Broadway and got a whole-page article in Time. 

1971 Festival Fringe Club Membership Card

1971 Festival Fringe Club Membership Card. Photo credit

Over the next decade, each year took them a step higher. The Footlights actors and their friends from the Oxford Revue made the world burst into tears of laughter. Together, they represented (and still do) the “Kingdom of the British comedy.”

Cleese and Chapman were joined by Eric Idle a year later, and while the three of them performed at the Footlights, Jones and Palin did so at the Oxford Revue. While performing in New York, Cleese met Terry Gilliam and then… well, we all know the story – Monty Python was born.

Group shot of the Monty Python crew in 1969

Group shot of the Monty Python crew in 1969. Photo credit

Besides Monthy Python, there were also The Goodies –  Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, and Bill Oddie – another branch from the Footlights.

The Goodies - Left to right: Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden in a screenshot from the title sequence of the BBC TV series

The Goodies – Left to right:
Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden
in a screenshot from the title sequence
of the BBC TV series. Photo credit

While Monthy Python and The Goodies were conquering the world, the Footlights nurtured new geniuses, such as Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, who together with a few other students created the 1981 show “The Cellar Tapes,” which was broadcast on television in 1982. At the 1981 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the aforementioned trio, together with others, including comedian Rowan Atkinson, won the inaugural Perrier Award.

The Footlights was certainly a magical crossroad where great minds met to create great entertainment for the world. Today, Footlights is recognized as a finishing school for many of Britain’s most well-known comic entertainers, and meanwhile, the University of Cambridge still has no drama school.