After Hurtwood... Richard Follows: actor, business entrepreneur, fund raiser, Star Wars enthusiast
Career journeys onward from Hurtwood take many strange twists and turns, and it is always fascinating to trace these paths with a view to sharing, challenging choices made and wisdom gained. Reinvention takes many forms. Meet Richard Follows who left us in 1999, heading off to Southampton to pursue a degree in Drama, Theatre and Television Studies. Having earned his legendary Hurtwood spurs as a knock-out Pontius Pilate in the 1998 Christmas show Jesus Christ Superstar, the years that followed covered all kinds of interesting work in film and television. Change came in 2008, and a turn-around in fortunes precipitated a self-reinvention, tortuous at times but ultimately clearly fabulously successful. I catch up with world-travelling Richard, surrounded by files and books and some very interesting props, between business in the USA, India, Malaysia, and Denmark, to name a few, and family in Cyprus, China, and The Netherlands – and obviously flourishing in the commercial world. Confessing with a rather bashful pride that he is head-hunted on a regular basis by some of the world’s most successful companies, he is also clearly a proud husband and dad, who is delighted to share his rather unique progress onwards from Hurtwood. Interested? I am, particularly when he reveals another slice of his life, to reassure me that Mammon and the commercial world has not stolen his soul. From somewhere not far from his desk comes a life-size, impressive, screen-accurate Darth Vader helmet. Hell, yeah – we're talking Star Wars and we’re not talking fancy dress: this is one fulfilled human being, so settle back and Follow (sorry, had to be done, once only) the journey.
Arrival at Hurtwood was a convoluted and considered choice for Richard, following negative boarding experience and a more successful spell in the British School in Brussels. An advert in a Sunday newspaper, many years before, for a school with a difference had caught his mother’s eye and he reluctantly, hating change, was encouraged to cross the Channel and visit. Not realising that this was also an interview, he was uncharacteristically withdrawn. But Richard Jackson could see a potential and gave him a second chance, where he shone, having now seen the theatre! He soon benefitted from the measured wisdom of Graham Highfield at Ewhurst Place, where later his brother also boarded. Like most of the transitional experiences of his life, the start was a little 'bumpy’ with him struggling at times, to accommodate the challenges of roommates with a wholly different ethos from his own. But he soon found committed friendship (along with future best man) and the support and advice of a ‘bunch of teachers’ who all shared a ‘passion and belief’ in what they were doing with Theatre and Media instantly fulfilling him in all the right ways. Accounting however (‘Sorry, Cosmo,’ he says) gave way to Law, where Sue Maddox inspired him to achieve a sustained stream of top effort grades, even as he struggled with the academic challenges. ‘The grade system,’ he tells me, ‘really worked for me, and Sue made a great impact on my logical brain.’ It made him work to his limits and beyond, achieving skills that ultimately informed and enriched his career change – not that he realised that at the time.
He clearly revels in his memories of Hurtwood, recalling joyously working on amazing videos with Luke, back when Media facilities, which were still pretty basic, functioned in the ‘tape to tape’ era and squeezed around Theatre space. He loved it all, he tells me. His greatest love, however, was acting: he ‘lived in the theatre’, totally absorbed in every aspect of performance and relishing all the challenges. David Broome is affectionately remembered as giving him the only detention of his life, although he forgets the nature of his transgression. Meanwhile, he hit the boards in all kinds of roles, memorably as a ‘half-naked’ waiter in the Christmas musical ‘Cabaret’. But it was the role as Pontius Pilate the following year that really changed things. Mike Friend’s rather brusque suggestion was that the part required the sacrifice (at the altar of theatre?) of his rather unsuitable hairstyle. Courtesy of Dom Woods with the clippers, young Richard swiftly found himself with a shaved head, a new look, and a very pleasing new confidence. With the addition of a leather jacket, he jokes that he felt a new object of respect as the ‘crowds parted’ around him. He felt he had ‘arrived’, adding, ‘though I never made it into the Theatre Foyer picture gallery’. We’ll come back to that. Later.
Moving straight on to Southampton University following his A-level results was a natural progression, as that is where he established all kinds of interesting creative connections, soon finding himself involved with Panavision and interesting projects like Band of Brothers and Children of Men, all of which involved working on both sides of the camera. Squeezing in a stint as a Butlin’s Redcoat, he opted for a year of postgraduate study at drama school (choosing the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts over Mountview), where he was awarded a Dance and Drama Awards (DaDAs) scholarship. Richard acquired an agent and a welter of parts across TV, theatre and film including Batman, A Bedroom Farce, and The Real Football Factory continued to enjoy building on his range and reputation. However, the financial crash of 2008 sadly closed many doors: ranks were closed, and he found himself out in the cold, looking for work. Paying his way, he eschewed ‘the stereotype of waiting table’ in favour of developing his acquired skills with computers. He had been ‘pulling them apart and reconstructing them’ for as long as his father had indulged his restless mind and hands. Now, he established his own small business and began to monetise those skills by building systems, advising, extending possibilities for individual needs, and, swiftly, commercial enterprises.
As his twenties turned into his thirties, I.T. seemed to promise interesting challenges and the kind of financial independence he needed, soon taking a job with a small company, consolidating his knowledge and skills for a couple of years, gradually moving towards the challenges of the bigger companies. This is where things got really interesting, as he found himself developing skills as a kind of intermediary between all kind of processes, contracts and negotiations. Putting his CV ‘out there’ he was soon working for a much larger conglomerate, Mars. What was he doing? Building internal websites, establishing interactive skills, learning the tools of the trade alongside the management of both men and machines. His role expanded into specific brand focus, helping in development, advertising and cinema deals, as well as human interaction, at times with the likes of Jamie Oliver.
Richard also took advantage of Mars’s work within Global Communities and conservation, being chosen as a member of a small Mars team to help restore a coral reef in Indonesia (now the biggest restored reef in the world), working in partnership with the local community. His PADI Divemaster scuba qualification gained whilst working in Cyprus proving invaluable.
A leadership course a few years later consolidated his practice and shortly afterwards Richard was ‘advised’ from the top to apply for a highly prestigious senior position: ‘Not,’ he tells me, ‘the kind of advice you ignore.’ A few years later he found himself Senior Strategic Vendor and Contract Manager for a now 61-billion-dollar company, A P Moller-Maersk. And there we have it: the extraordinary leap from theatre to performance to business.
Without prompting and with great generosity, Richard connects the honesty and integrity that he experienced in his educational journey at Hurtwood with the skills that have consolidated his journey. He sees his role as applying a tenacious and logical attitude, supporting people in their roles, and maintaining an honest openness, as abilities that were honed in the two years he was with us. What delightful praise, and what reward indeed to find yourself courted on a regular basis by all manner of established businesses. Box ticked.
So how can we join his extraordinary career trajectory with his love of theatre and performance, as well of course with his family life and parenthood? The connection is a 20 year+ recreational commitment to a cosplay costume club – ‘dressing up’, to you and me. He rarely admitted to this indulgent bit of fun, an homage to his great love, Star Wars, until, it seems, it gradually morphed into a highly enjoyable and beneficial side-line to the day job. As part of what Richard refers to as ‘Bad Guys Doing Good’, with his fellow performers he has helped to raise thousands of pounds for charity events from Help for Heroes to Children in Need, and in his particular role as Darth Vader has had the extraordinary pleasure of raising smiles from some of the most profoundly sick youngsters in hospitals like Great Ormond Street. Delightfully, these are not the only rewards. The costumes involved are all the dedicated products of their fanatical commitment, and so screen-accurate and professional are the costumes that Disney now employs the actors for red-carpet events from Leicester Square to Cannes, to appearing on Disney+ shows such as The Mandalorian and Andor and many glamorous spots in-between, like conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall as the Dark Lord, to celebrate John Williams. In the immediate future is a voluntary appearance at Pinewood Studios to support and encourage young aspirants into the business, all of which is both rewarding and enormously enjoyable.
So, a great work/life balance, I would say, and an excellent role model for our students. Any specific advice? I ask. ‘Listen, listen and listen again,’ he tells me, referring as he has regularly in our chat, to the advice offered by interested teachers and compatriots throughout his journey. ‘Listen to the suggestions of those who get to know your skills, particularly those who have clearly followed their own passions.’ He refers to Clive Wouters, one of his ‘amazing Theatre teachers...the first teacher who did not deal in ‘B******T’.
He comments that at Hurtwood you ‘start as a child, but at the end you have to take decisions as an adult.’ ‘Staying open’ is key, he observes, and he clearly has, I find myself thinking. It has been a delight to share the stages of his journey with such a generous supporter of the Hurtwood philosophy, but also with such acuity in self-analysis and awareness at every turn.
By way of closing, Richard repeats his belief that the educational shaping of his A Level year has made him the successful and fulfilled person who is sharing his memories with me. Headmaster and namesake Richard (Jackson) wrote in his final report that he was ‘so glad that (he) had come to Hurtwood.’ As Richard Follows reasserts: ‘It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.’
Thank you, Richard, for being so candid, for being so generous with your advice and your praise, and for doing us all proud. Oh, and please, pretty please, can you bring Lord Darth Vader over for a playdate at Hurtwood? I think we can guarantee a good audience – and maybe that picture ...in the Foyer...?