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Dame Stella Rimington’s School Days: “I learnt the self-confidence that comes from performing”

  • Dame Stella Rimington’s School Days: “I learnt the self-confidence that comes from performing”

The first female Director General of MI5, and inspiration for Judi Dench’s portrayal M in the James Bond universe talks to Lloyd Burgess

Where did you go to school and was it a good experience?
I did my secondary schooling at Nottingham Girls High School, but I came from a small convent school in Lancashire, a year later than everyone else, so it quite a difficult transition. I was 12, and they were all 11 when I started, so by the time I got there they all had friends. I remember going home on the first day and telling my mother that I absolutely hated it, which of course is not what she wanted to hear. But I very rapidly got into it because it was, and still is, a great school.

What are some of the best things you got from your school days?
I learned an incredible amount about myself, what I could do well and what I could do less well. So, it taught me how to make choices about the things I would do, but also that failing, so to speak, is a learning experience. Once a week a girl was chosen to read the assembly, and when it came to my turn I decided I couldn’t actually do it. I sort of panicked and the headmistress had to read it for me.  But I learned when you get a second chance you’ll be better equipped. 

Which subjects or activities did you enjoy?
There was a lot of drama and school plays, and I was always very keen on that. I learnt the kind of self-confidence that comes from performing, how to work in teams and that you don’t always have to be the lead. All the lessons for life that you profit by and develop when you get older.

I’m still involved with Nottingham Girls’ High School, who have been raising money for a new performing arts centre. I went to a school play there the other day, and the girls’ acting and self-confidence was really inspiring, but they were still performing on the same stage and in the same hall that I performed on, and I started there in 1947.

Did you have any teachers that have made a lasting impression?
We had a history teacher called Miss Pretty, who I can’t say I really liked, but she was a brilliant teacher. She was very formal, and she would give you homework, then a test. You would hear her brogue-like shoes come clicking down the corridor, and you knew as soon as she opened the door she would say, “First question…”, so you always had your pen poised ready to go. To this day I can still remember things like the dates of all the treaties of London, which was probably the first question.

Did your school encourage you to be ambitious?
Yes, I think we were actually. You have to remember that was at a time when girls were not necessarily expected to have great careers, even at a school like that where we were encouraged to go to a good university. Even when I’d spent four years at Edinburgh and got an MA, I thought, “What on earth am I going to do now?”. I had no idea, and the careers people at Edinburgh had no idea either. So I decided I was going to have to do another course, much to my parents’ despair. I did a post-graduate diploma at Liverpool University, and went on to become an archivist.

Was working in MI5 something you actively pursued, or did the opportunity come about more by chance?
You couldn’t pursue it in those days, nobody knew anything about our intelligence services.You had to wait to be tapped on the shoulder by a recruiter lurking around your university. It wasn’t until I got married and left working altogether, when my husband was posted as a diplomat to the British High Commission in New Delhi, that a man asked if I wanted a job as a part-time clerk/ typist. I said yes and went to his office to discover I’d joined the MI5.

How did you get from there to being Director General?
When I came back to London I joined up full-time and discovered there was really a two-tier career system. The men were sort of the intelligence getters, and the women were the assistants, even if you had a degree and post-graduate diploma. It was very rare for any women to move from that to the officer level. It wasn’t until the 1970s wore on and women’s lib and sex discrimination legislation came in, that we could say, “Wait a minute, why are we condemned to this second class career?” That’s when change began to happen, as it did in all kinds of professions.

What’s advice would you give to young people who might be interested in working for the security services?
You have to want to serve the country, because it’s not a career where you’re going to make a fortune. They’re not looking for people who want to be James Bond, they don’t want exhibitionists. It’s about teamworking, doing something important for the country and being prepared to do it behind the scenes.

When did you find out that Dame Judi Dench would be playing M in James Bond, and that the role would be somewhat based on you?
When I was appointed Director General the government took the decision that it was time for the announcement to be made public. As a result of that, the film people decided that M should be a woman because they wanted to keep the series up to date. And, of course, Judi Dench and I are the same age, and in those days we looked very similar. We were being more open with the public in part to get rid of the James Bond thing, to explain to the world that it wasn’t at all a realistic portrayal of the intelligence services. Yet here was M turning into someone who looked a lot like I did. It was quite funny really, and quite flattering in a way.

Did you watch any of the Bond films that Dame Judi Dench was in?
Oh yes, absolutely. In fact, my daughters saw the first one before I did, and they came home and said “Mum, she looks exactly like you.” So I thought, by golly, I better go and take a look.

Do you think schools are doing enough to combat gender stereotypes towards subjects, such as girls avoiding STEM subjects?
At my granddaughter’s school they jolly well are. Her ambition is in engineering, certainly the computer sciences, that sort of area. It’s a girls’ high school similar to the one I went to, or a modern version of it perhaps. Those schools are turning out girls who are very self-confident and very aware of all the different jobs there are. I’d like to think it was, but I’m not sure that that’s true of all schools. I’m aware that there is a huge variety of schools and ways of teaching, but for me, the world would be a better place if education was a more consistent and level thing, certainly if every school was as great as the school I went to.

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