But let’s face it, once he landed the part of Hawking he was always going to be a hot Oscar tip. The Academy of Motion Pictures does have a thing for characters gamely overcoming various illnesses or impairments.
Last year the same gong went to Matthew McConaughey for portraying a cowboy with Aids. Four years ago Colin Firth took it for playing a king with a speech impediment (royal and stuttering, sure-fire Oscar material). Memorable previous winners have included Geoffrey Rush as a pianist with mental problems (Shine), Nicolas Cage as a suicidal alcoholic (Leaving Las Vegas), Tom Hanks as the not-all-there Forrest Gump and before that as another Aids victim (Philadelphia). Who could forget Daniel Day-Lewis in what you might call the eponymous My Left Foot? Or Dustin Hoffman’s turn as the “idiot savant” Rain Man? And so it goes on. Julianne Moore as a woman battling Alzheimer’s is just the latest name on a similarly worthy list of Best Actresses.
But few people have ever overcome such visually and audibly striking impairment to such great effect as Professor Hawking.
Redmayne was not wrong in his acceptance speech when he described himself humbly as “a lucky, lucky man”. And – as I’m sure he is fully aware – his luck began a long time before he was picked for that particular role. Because young Eddie is top class in more ways than one.
That wonderful comedian Reginald D Hunter (more on him below) has a great line on the British class system. It is, he says, “a brilliant system” – much better than America’s crude racial segregation. Why? Because it’s “a way of discriminating against people even when they look just like you”.
Class is, of course, partly about money – money you’re born to, not money you earn. That’s why footballers can never be high class, though their children might. But it’s about other kinds of privilege and expectation too. It’s about how you think of yourself, how you speak, and who you know. And a lot of all that comes down simply to what school you go to.
Eddie Redmayne went to Eton.
As did his two immediate predecessors in the role of America’s favourite British actor, Hugh Laurie and Damian Lewis. Their nearest rival in those stakes, Benedict Cumberbatch, a nominee and presenter at this week’s Oscars, was at the other place – Harrow.
From choir-school boy Laurence Olivier and Westminster School alumnus John Gielgud on, the Yanks have always rather gone for posh Brits. Three-time Best Actor Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis – whose father Cecil was Poet Laureate – was sent to Bedales, an ultra-posh establishment whose fees are topped only by Eton, Harrow and Westminster.
Of course, not every British actor who has “made it” over there is a toff. Think of Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine, Dudley Moore. Colin Firth is a kind of hybrid – a comprehensive school boy who excels at playing privileged types.
But the real privilege still runs deep. And it’s getting deeper again.
The present government is much the poshest we’ve had since 1964. Just seven per cent of the population went to fee-paying schools, but 54pc of Tory MPs did, as did 40pc of LibDems, 15pc of Labour, both UKIP MPs and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. Just one school provided 20 current MPs – 19 Tories and one LibDem. Eton, of course.
David Cameron is the 19th Old Etonian to be Prime Minister, but the first since Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1964.
One in seven judges went to just five schools, including Eton, Westminster (Nick Clegg’s old school) and St Paul’s (George Osborne’s). In all, 71pc of those who sit in judgement on the rest of us went to private schools.
According to the Sutton Trust, the domination of the media by privately educated types is growing. Of the “top 100 media professionals”, it says 54 went to private schools.
And that can only get worse in a profession where it’s now almost essential to start out as an intern, working for free, if you want to get in at national level. I, like most people, could never have afforded to do that.
It’s nearly 20 years since my only brief visit to America’s Deep South but it’s so familiar from books, the movies – and especially music – that watching Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the South felt almost nostalgic.
Nearly every song on his road trip was one I could sing along to – from the minstrel showstopper Old Folks at Home to the bluegrass Blue Moon of Kentucky, the Allman Brothers’ rocker Ramblin’ Man to the Glenn Miller swing of Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
That was just Kentucky and Tennessee – and he didn’t even drop in on Memphis. Probably because Saturday’s first episode was his venture into the White South. I look forward to him returning home to the Black South this weekend.
And if there isn’t a brilliant soundtrack album to follow when the series is over, the BBC is seriously missing a trick.