Sheffield Hallam Degree

Last Update: 26 December 1997

Honourary Degree Ceremony at Sheffield, November 28th, 1997
by Julie Kimpton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had been humming and hahing for weeks about whether to go up to Sheffield and join the throngs outside City Hall, and with that ogre "Real Life" - in the form of the completion of our house sale due the very same day - the scales had almost wholly landed in the "No, let's be sensible" camp. However with its usual caprice, fate was chortling round a corner and, with literally hours to spare, threw a walloping great spanner into the works.

I found out it would be possible for me to attend the actual ceremony.

The phone went into overdrive. Half-made plans were hastily resurrected - and I subsequently found myself at Stoke-on-Trent station on a damp Thursday evening, waiting for the Rugby train. At Rugby, Heather was waiting for me, and had prepared for the event with military precision. The car was full of duvets, bedding and dictation machines. There were at least three maps of Sheffield. We were ready.

Thursday night was spent at a friend's house in Nottingham. Lynne had generously given up her bedroom so that her three cats would not invade the beauty sleep of the intrepid travellers; and so, unlike most soldiers of fortune, we spent a relatively comfortable night - though the image of your average Chosen Man sleeping on a child's fold-out chair-bed under a "Forever Friends" duvet cover is an elusive one.

Next morning's equally military objective of being up and off with the lark at 7.30am was slightly dimmed by a very long queue for the bathroom - and last minute decisons: Is My Blouse Ironed Sufficiently? (yours truly) and Which Blouse Should I Wear? (Heather).

Eventually, we were enroute. The weather was absolutely atrocious and on the M1 the already reduced visibility was reduced even further by spray thrown up by lorries, and every lunatic in the area wanting either to drive up our tailgate, or change lanes a couple of feet in front of us. When we finally turned off the motorway, traffic was starting to build and we found ourselves approaching Sheffield on a completely different road to the one we thought we were on. With only half an hour to get to City Hall and traffic almost at a standstill, we cried "To hell with the maps!" and with gay abandon followed the convoluted signs to the nearest Park and Ride.

Once we had left the car, things picked up somewhat. Following the directions given by the ticket officer, we caught the new electric tram ("You want the one with the yellow circle on front, not the red square...") straight to City Hall, arriving with about ten minutes to spare.

I'd been told to go to the stage door, where I'd be met. However, there was nobody at the stage door. So we went in. There weren't exactly masses of people about, so we descended on the sole occupant of a little glass booth, and metaphorically accosted him. "If yoo are wiv the Press" he replied, gallantly, "Yoo are in de wrong place. Ah'v bin toldt...Ah've bin toldt that..." Visions of being cast out into the rain and gales outside the hall - not necessarily by this small person, but perhaps his much larger compatriots - lingered before us, and we rapidly recited our liturgy of Name, Number and the fact that we had been told to be there.

Following his somewhat vague directions, we went "up front" - but found nothing apart from The Ladies'. After wandering around for a bit, we went inside the main auditorium, admired the floral displays on the stage and generally tried to look as though we belonged. Heather started to chat with a couple of the staff members who had been employed as ushers, and more people started to arrive. Eventually, I unearthed my erstwhile contact, found out the details of the ceremony, and where I would be allowed to watch. This turned out to be from the middle of the TV cameras on stage - or from a virtually front row seat on the left of the auditorium. I went back and discussed this with Heather, who was by now getting along quite famously with the ushers, and we decided that we would go with the flow, since no one seemed to mind at all that she was there too.

It was getting very close to 11am, and there were quite a number of people about - and still nothing seemed to be happening. What was going on? At last, there was an announcement that there would be a ten minute delay, and would everyone please take their seats. Erstwhile reporters, we investigated the source of the delay - and discovered it was because foul weather and hold-ups on the motorway had conspired to make Sean, who was travelling down from the Lake District, late.

Suddenly, I was told that a photocall was imminent! Not having time to think or feel anything about this (which is just as well), I followed the huge zoom lenses and high-tech press people onto the stage, and - armed with my trusty Olympus Mju compact - prepared to click away with the best of them. Accompanied by loud cheers, Sean appeared - and it was every lens for himself. Not exactly a scrum, but admidst the calls of "This way Sean!" and "Smile please Sean, just another one!" I didn't have time to take in much, apart from the fact that he looked very smart, a little nervous, and rather proud to be there.

I quickly discovered that the best way to get any pictures at all was to avoid the the professionals, and just try to fit in any available space between elbows, legs and arms. This worked quite well, until Sean quietly said, "That's enough, lads" and competently drew the photocall to a close. Satisfied for the present, the cameras withdrew. Trying to look professionally casual, I went back to my chair, tripping over a tv cable on the way.

After a last flurry of people finding seats, the ceremony proper began. There was an amusing introduction by a member of the Governing Body, which largely consisted of How to Climb the Steps, Collect Your Certificate and Leave With Your Dignity Intact. The Governing Body then formally processed into the hall to the accompaniment of stirring music, and the Chancellor gave a rousing speech about Moral Values and Bright Futures. The honorary doctorates were to be awarded next - only two at this ceremony - one to Professor Sir Harold Kroto, and the other to Sean Bean. Both awards were preceded by an introduction that illustrated the recipient's career and acheivements to date.

For Professor Kroto, this award must have seemed like a drop in a sea of honours - in the last three years alone he has won the Nobel Prize, been elected to the Royal Society, and become Sir Harold. I wondered how they were going to describe the second recipient. I need not have worried, for as the applause for Professor Kroto died away, and the announcer began to introduce Sean Bean, the reaction from the hall was tremendous.

The address was well balanced, humourous and peppered with references to our hero's physical attributes - which met with equal amounts of laughter and applause from the audience. It was generally agreed that Sheffield had seen "nothing like it". The speech followed the general lines of "Northern working class lad makes good," with several references to opening up opportunities in education for future actors, so that their paths would be made that much easier. The assistance that Sean has given to a Northern theatre group was also mentioned, and the speaker highlighted not only Sean's more popular screen roles such as in GoldenEye and Sharpe; but also his work with the RSC and in Derek Jarman's Carravagio. To thunderous applause, Sean then went up on stage, and collected his award, then took his seat on the far side of the stage with other members of the governing body.

The ceremony then proceeded to general awarding of degrees and diplomas for the School of Cultural Studies. I speak from prior experience: basically there are hundreds and hundreds of awards to get through. Blocks of students join a procession, names are read out and the procession joins the production line of "up steps, cross stage, vice chancellor, shake hand, certificate, shake hands, down steps, out." At the beginning of the ceremony, specific instructions had even been issued regarding applause, and, to be fair, at the start, everyone followed the rules - only applauding at the end of each class of award, not for each student - though a special exception had been made in the case of a special diploma or prize being awarded. All in all, a very ordinary day....

Ah, but could any day involving Sean Bean ever be ordinary! It started with people, tired of obeying the rules regarding applause, prompting timid clapping from a dissenting few for their friends and family. Thus struck a note of anarchy that raised the tone quite considerably. Next came a wolf whistle or two, and good natured comments such as "Nice One Anne/Steve/Mike" - which met with general hilarity. Whether this made the degree recipients bolder, I'm not certain, but the inevitable moment came when one of the female students went up the steps and instead of heading for the Vice Chancellor, quite understandably veered and planted a smacker right on the cheek of the Venerable Doctor Bean.

As the audience broke every rule in the book with wild clapping and cheering, Sean beamed - a huge, lovely smile.

Of course if one of them does it, as sure as eggs is eggs, another will quickly follow, and amongst those who didn't go over and kiss him, there must have been ten who wanted to. A subjective opinion, and one that couldn't be proved by any laws of science - but I'd bet Sir Harold's Nobel Prize it was true!

By way of variation, another girl then gave Sir Harold a kiss, and things were in great danger of turning into a veritable Oscar Ceremony. Owing to the injunction of the podium and the Vice-Chancellor's body, I didn't actually see the moment when another student sat on Sean's knee, but this caused a complete uproar in the auditorium - tempered with more of that highly illegal applause. The final class to be awarded their degrees, Women's Studies, had obviously been in impromptu closed counsel, because they decided to top everyone. All ten diverted from the well trodden path to the Vice-Chancellor, and kissed Sean - who, by that point, was leaning forward out of his seat to welcome the next in line with a broad, highly unacademic grin.

The proceedings were thus brought to a close, and as the audience started to leave, I went to find out what was happening next. I knew that there were more photos scheduled, and probably interviews, but not where and when. I wandered over to the front of the hall, where I overheard a couple of the University staff. One of them was concerned that she had still not taken the "official" University pictures, and was anxious to see these completed and out of the way. The logistics of this, and the following interview session, were then arranged and explained to everyone, and I made sure where I was meant to be and where to go. Light blue touch paper and stand back, I thought. Whew, am I really here? It was quite honestly the first time I had had the opportunity to stop and think about all this.

Most of the students had by now left the hall, though a few lingered to have their photos taken with friends and family in front of the stage in a more leisurely and relaxed atmosphere. I wondered why more people weren't hanging on to see the "celebrities"; until it occurred to me for most of the students THEY were the celebrities this day, their families were their guests and had come solely to see their son/daughter/friend - unlike Heather and myself. Most of the people who were here to see "their" star were stuck outside in the rain. It was quite a humbling thought; we really were very lucky indeed, and lucky indeed for the opportunity of being there.

At this point my train of thought was luckily interrupted, and Sean came out onto the stage again for the second photocall of the day, this time accompanied by Abigail. I hadn't seen her earlier, though I understand she had been watching the ceremony. She was wearing a black trouser-suit, is petite and attractive, and looked just as nervous as her new husband had been earlier!

The journalists seemed to have thinned out after their initial earlier outburst of photographic Rugby League, but there were still a few clicking away merrily. This time, they were banished to the relative safety of the main hall, as the stage was kept clear so that the Official Party could be arranged in groups by the Official Photographer. And as any of you who have been through a wedding ceremony, and have been arranged into groups by your own photographer can attest; boy, are you arranged!! I think it must be a photographer's mission in life to take the longest possible time to arrange the most complicated group possible into the least possible space. To an outsider - yours truly, for example - it was ideal, and there was much clicking and automatic winding of film. Sean and Abigail obligingly turned, moved and smiled to order; for shot after shot, and then just when you thought it was safe - there were individual photos! At this point, had I been the object of all this attention, I would have been ready to attack the photographers with a blunt instrument - but the consummate trouper that Sean is, he just carried on, smiling and trying to interpret the increasingly complicated instructions he was being given. "Now turn this way; NO! THIS way. Not ALL the way, just a bit more. NO that's TOO FAR!!"

Eventually all of this ended. Either the photographers had had enough - or they had run out of film. The Official Party, including Sean and Abigail, started to wander off back stage. They stopped for a minute near the back of the stage, and now that officialdom was gone, were chatting quite happily. I've said this before, when I reported at Ilkley, but can't stress it enough, even this time when I couldn't hear a word of what was going on. Out of the glare of the spotlight, Sean is just so, so different. The body language, his - well, their - whole demeanour was different. Suffice it to say, they both looked Very Happy.

It was time for the interview session. I gathered what remained of my sanity, and, feeling rather as though I was about to launch into an rendition of "Thunderbirds," I marched after the members of the press backstage, retracing our steps of earlier that morning. I was glad Heather was following along as well - but no-one seemed to mind anyway. We passed the stage door, went down another corridor (surely we would reach Thunderbird One soon....) until we came to the dressing rooms. There was an area arranged as a sitting room, with a red suite and a more classic "dressing room" area off to the right. Sean and Abigail were already there, and everyone was just asked to find themselves somewhere to stand. It was becoming faintly surreal. Sean came forward, and stood in front of one of the chairs. He had taken off his gown and the mortarboard, but was still wearing the three piece suit he had worn for the ceremony. He didn't sit down, which surprised me, and I got the impression that this interview session wouldn't last very long. No one forced the pace, or said what the format of the session would be, but it seemed that there would be no lengthy individual interviews, just a few questions tabled from the floor, so to speak. Throughout, Abigail remained very much in the background, standing in the doorway and watching from the sidelines.

Sean started the proceedings by requesting that everyone speak one at a time. We recorded the interviews on Heather's dictaphone, and as a precaution Heather also took notes in shorthand (thank goodness you were there, Heather). Heather has already written a full transcript so I'll concentrate on my personal opinions of the moment. I personally think most of the questions asked were singularly unimaginative, and I really do wonder when someone's going to manage to come up with something that does not involve "How do you feel about being a sex symbol?" There are many celebrities out there who would have a pithy epithet in response to that sort of question, especially when faced by an ambivalent press who can be both a blessing and a curse, one minute building you up, and the next casting all manner of aspersions about you. To his credit, Sean seems to be above it all, or remains oblivious to it, and replies as honestly as he can. The overwhelming impression is of someone who is still genuinely surprised by his fame, and the effect it creates.

On a more down to earth level, I was very surprised that no one had offered their congratulations on his marriage - especially since Abigail was there as well. Everything seemed to be drawing to a close, and I was determined to say something. Fortunately, someone asked if they could take a last photograph, and the failure of the flash to operate until the last possible moment broke the ice and also allowed me a few extra seconds to go over and offer my congratulations. Sean seemed a little surprised, but very pleased, and so I'm glad I said something. Hardly deserving of a medal, but it made me happy.

And then it was over. We thanked the powers that be for letting us be there, for looking after us, and then Heather and I wandered off to the front of the hall, out of the main entrance, and over to Cole Brothers opposite, where we had lunch. It already seemed as though the whole ceremony had been a long, long time ago. The wind blew and it was still raining, but it had been a good day.

 

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