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Comedian Tom Houghton on life in the Tower of London

Watching Tom Houghton’s stand-up is an entertaining, eye-opening and rewarding experience as he humorously - and with unflinching honesty - lays bare his life of privilege, making it easy to understand and often laugh-out-loud funny for those of us who don’t own a morning suit or know which way to pass the Port.

Tom, the son of the ex-Chief of Defence Staff, lives in the Tower of London and a key element of his material is lifting the lid on, among other things, the all-boys boarding school environment in which he was thrust into at the age of six.

“This unexpected tour de force warrants a 21-gun salute” says The Daily Telegraph of Tom - or The Honourable Tom Houghton, to give him his full title. Now, the comic and Tik Tok star, who recently supported Milton Jones on tour (“touring with him has been one of the most brilliant and educational experiences of my career so far and I will be forever indebted to him”), is to undertake his first ever UK tour - Tom Houghton Honour Tour (‘Tom Houghton on a tour’, get it?) - calling in at the Junction on Saturday, March 5.

Comedian Tom Houghton. Picture: Steve Ullathorne
Comedian Tom Houghton. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

Speaking to the Cambridge Independent from his home - yes, at the Tower of London - the 37-year-old star of Comedy Central’s Roast Battle and Channel 4’s First Dates began by explaining how it is that he ended up residing in one of London’s top tourist attractions.

“I’m living in Queen’s House, which is the oldest Tudor building of note - built in 1535 under the reign of Henry VIII - and I’m living here because my father is the ex-Chief of Defence Staff, so the head of the British Military,” he says.

“When he retired, he became the constable of the Tower of London and moved into the Queen’s House, and it was just the same time that I’d been... I was in a comedy group for 10 years and I’d just done a Robbie Williams and left them and gone solo.

“I was moving up to London for the opportunity to start my solo career, so I was met with a choice of either I could rent a cupboard in zone five for £78,000 a minute with 58 other people, or I could move in for a bit with my dad in the historical palace. What an amazingly privileged opportunity to have, and so I decided to do that.

“And it’s been extended because of Covid. Obviously, my career was put on hiatus for a bit so I find myself still here for the time being until I now go on tour.”

Comedian Tom Houghton. Picture: Steve Ullathorne
Comedian Tom Houghton. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

Tom says he was a “pad brat” which, he explains “basically means that my parents lived on different Army barracks throughout my entire childhood”.

“I think I moved about 15 times by the time I was 18. I lived in Germany twice, I lived in Northern Ireland, up and down the UK...

“So the most constant geographical location in my childhood was actually boarding school; I went to boarding school at six years old. It’s par for the course if you’re a military kid because it’s sort of the lesser of two evils - either you have to change schools every one or two years, or you go to boarding school.”

Tom attended Sedbergh School in the Lake District, whose famous alumni include former England rugby captain Will Carling and “the guy who wrote The Full Monty”. Tom adds: “I’m planning on being the next claim to fame, hopefully, fingers crossed.”

When Tom first went to Sedbergh, it was an all-boys school but that later changed, happily while he was still there. “My year was the first year that ever went co-ed,” he recalls, “so when I was 17 years old, a school of 600 boys they let 22 girls join my year - and it was as mad as you can imagine.”

Comedian Tom Houghton. Picture: Steve Ullathorne
Comedian Tom Houghton. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

Apart from the obvious, there was another reason why Tom welcomed the introduction of girls to the school. “For someone like me, who was being bullied, it was actually a relief,” he says “because I was all into drama and musicals and performing, and so when the girls came I suddenly got a lot more popular because I was doing all the plays with them and everything - so they were my ticket out of being bullied; it was great news.”

On his upcoming tour, Tom - who remembers performing Cats the Musical on the stairs in front of his dad and his “Army officer mates” at five years old, dressed in a leotard with ears and a tail (he later studied drama at the University of Kent) - says: “The show is a little bit about... when my dad became a lord, I got the title The Honourable Tom Houghton, which I don’t feel like I deserve - it wasn’t earnt.

“I’ve been sacked from Wetherspoons twice, I don’t feel particularly honourable... But the whole show is essentially an amalgamation of three Edinburgh shows that I’ve done. It’s sort of a hand-picked best bits, and it’s an introduction to me and my background, so my dad becoming a lord, my mum being the backbone of the family, and then me and my sister what it was like growing up, going to boarding school...

“There’s routines about how she turned into a witch and I decided to run away from home a lot, but being in a military barracks surrounded by barbed wire I couldn’t actually run away from home, because obviously there were military patrols taking me back home... So it’s a real introduction to me and my family life.”

Tom admits that he “definitely” carries some emotional scars from being sent to boarding school at such a young age - he remembers, for example, his first day of senior school at the age of 13 being shoved into a suitcase and thrown down some stairs, and being whipped with an outstretched coat hanger.

Comedian Tom Houghton. Picture: Steve Ullathorne
Comedian Tom Houghton. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

“My third show was called Class Dismissed, and it was only later in my life that I realised there is a syndrome called Boarding School Syndrome, which does affect... I was six years old when my family plonked me off at boarding school and it's now a well-documented thing, the trauma you have of being left by your family and having to fend on your own.

“There are a lot of suppressed emotions and I definitely struggled with it for a while, until I recognised it. I’ve done therapy and all that sort of stuff and got around it, and I found that when I did the show about boarding school, I had a lot of ex-boarders come up...

“I had a lot of wives actually who came up after the show and said, ‘You’ve just explained to me why my husband’s so hard to talk to about stuff’ and that was actually a really, really lovely thing to hear.

I’ve been sacked from Wetherspoons twice, I don’t feel particularly honourable

“Going to private school it’s a tough violin to play, isn’t it? Because most people just go, ‘Well that’s a very privileged experience you’ve had’, and in many ways it is a privileged experience, but I think the damaging effects are quite sort of brushed under the rug.”

Tom continues: “There’s a book called The Making of Them, which is about boarding school, and the way he describes it is as a child you get sent to this privileged school and your parents say, ‘You're privileged to be going to this school; this is the best school you could possibly go to’.

“So when you go there and then you feel sad, naturally, because your parents have sent you away and you’re lonely, but in your six-year-old head you go, ‘But my parents are always right and they’ve told me that the school is right and I feel wrong, but my parents can’t be wrong so the school can’t be wrong, so therefore it must be me who’s wrong’.

“So it’s the kids who blame themselves for being unhappy at a school, which is just the saddest thing ever. I very much remember feeling that when I was at school; the guilt of feeling sad and lonely.”

Tom, who wants to make it clear that not everyone has a bad time at boarding school - and he certainly got some great stand-up material out of it - adds: “This is a very deep interview! But I do like talking about this stuff and it is worth it - and I’m sure there’s plenty of people in Cambridge who will relate to this!”

Human emotion, Tom notes, is universal and that everyone - no matter where they come from - knows what it’s like to feel lonely, happy, sad, etc. “What I’ve always been told people have enjoyed about my comedy,” he says, “is that I’m from a very unique situation - I live in a palace and I went to an all-boys boarding school and my dad’s a lord - but it’s making the unrelatable, relatable. I think we’re all going through the same emotions - they’re just framed differently.”

Though he may be sneered at and dismissed as ‘out of touch’ by some, Tom strives in his comedy to be as ‘real’ as possible. “I do try not be a cartoon,” he says. “There is a lot to be said about privilege and having a voice from this side that’s a genuine one, rather than just going, ‘Oh, we're all jolly hockey sticks and raft races and gilets’. That’s just such a surface level evaluation of the entire thing.”

Tom notes happily that his parents are his “biggest fans” and that his dad brings friends from the House of Lords to his shows. He has also had Beefeaters on the front row at gigs but sadly never in uniform.

Tom Houghton will be appearing at the Junction (J3) on Saturday, March 5. Visit junction.co.uk. For more on Tom, go to tomhoughtoncomedy.co.uk.

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