Three leading names in film, television and theatre have praised the impact that studying at the University of Exeter has had upon their careers.

Playwright and screenwriter Alice Birch, filmmaker and director Jessica Swale, and actor and comedian Marc Wootton all studied humanities degrees on the Streatham campus and have since gone on to win multiple awards and earn widespread acclaim for their work.

Lady MacBeth writer Alice, and Jessica, director of the film Summerland, both lauded their former lecturers and tutors for the way they gave them the space and encouragement to write and to take themselves seriously as artists. Actor Marc, best known for his comedic role in Nativity!, said his teaching had proved to be “influential” and had given him the power to tell his own story.

In conversation with Professor of Film, Linda Williams, and film critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode, the trio reflected upon their university experience on stage, and in front of a live audience of alumni, students and offer-holders at a first-ever Arts and Media Showcase.

The event, held at RSA House in London, was organised by the Global Advancement team along with the Department of Communications, Drama and Film, and was compered by BBC television presenter Rob Walker, who is also an alumnus of the University (English and Drama 1997).

Alice Birch graduated from her English degree in 2009 and is perhaps best known for her screenplay of Lady MacBeth (2016), for which she won a 2017 British Independent Film Award and was shortlisted for a BAFTA. She has also written adaptations of the novels Mothering Sunday and The End We Start From and written for a number of critically acclaimed television series, including Dead Ringers, Normal People and Succession.

“I had an amazing tutor at Exeter – Sam North – and he took me very seriously, as seriously as I was taking myself, which was quite something,” Alice reflected. “And he introduced me to another Exeter alumni, David Eldridge, who was incredibly kind and met me for a coffee and said, “If you want to write, write”. It was the sort of thing that a few people had said, and it was a bit annoying because it was like, ‘but my ideas should be enough, surely?!’ And he was like, no, write a play. So, I did.”

“I knew I wanted to write, and Exeter gave me a lot of space to bounce around things. I am very glad we were allowed to do so in that space.”

Jessica Swale secured her Drama degree in 2004, and has since become an award-winning writer, director and filmmaker. Her first play, Blue Stockings, is one of the most frequently performed in the UK, while her second, Nell Gwynn, won her an Olivier for Best New Comedy. Jessica’s debut feature film was Summerland in 2020, and she is currently working on Paddington: The Musical with Tom Fletcher from McFly.

“There is absolutely no way I would have started writing if I hadn’t been on a course where they encouraged you to believe that it was worth telling your own stories,” she said. “Everything I had done before Exeter was work that already existed. It was ‘direct a Shakespeare play or a Greek play or, you know, a Stoppard play’. But (at Exeter) we were really allowed the chance to make new work.

“Something that I remember from the course, with Jane Milling as my tutor, was when we studied Restoration Theatre. Jane genuinely is responsible for inspiring me to write a play about Nell Gwynn, which then was the play that gave me the impetus to move on. That was at the Globe and then and that was the play I won the Olivier for. And that genuinely wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for being encouraged to learn in this safe environment.”

Fellow Drama graduate Marc Wootton (graduated 1996) is best known as the creator of the beloved Mr Poppy character from the Nativity! film franchise. Marc has also starred in television series including My New Best Friend, The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin, La La Land and High & Dry. He told the audience that the teaching at Exeter had “infected him” and related an anecdote about a practical lesson in Thornlea, which had proven useful to him very recently.

“I remember getting really irritated once, in a practical session which was all about surprising yourself with something in a box,” he recalls. “I was thinking ‘as if, you don’t know what’s in the box, you’ve already conjured it in your head!’ And the teacher kept drilling this person to open a box and be surprised by what was in there. Like, ‘is it gonna be a necklace? Is it gonna be a necklace? Oh no, it’s a ring!’ or whatever. And I’m so cynical about it and so ‘oh, this is ridiculous!’

“But, in the play that I just finished at The National, I had to surprise myself every night. And I honestly thought back to that class and how I was doing that very thing now. I knew what was coming but the audience didn’t; I was having to trick them and truly believe that I didn’t know what was coming. I had to try my best to be in the moment and be truly surprised.”

The event also included several alumni being interviewed by Linda and Mark, and there was a drinks reception and networking session for all the guests.

“Our first-ever Arts and Media Showcase was a great success,” says Professor Jane Milling, Head of the Department of Communications, Drama and Film. “Jessica, Alice and Marc provided a fascinating and honest insight into the life of a creative, and they had our audience hanging on their every word.

“And it was wonderful to hear how their degree have informed their careers and artistic practices. It is testament to the inspirational academics we have here across the Faculty, and a timely reminder of the value of a degree in arts and humanities.”