Rainer Hersch

Rainer Hersch can still remember the look of astonishment on the face of his flatmate at Lancaster University, on discovering that he wasn't studying music at all.

At that point the future stand-up comedian, pianist and conductor was neglecting his official studies and spending most of his time playing the piano - including accompanying singers, instrumentalists in the music department and playing for the Theatre Studies pantomime.

Rainer acknowledges that his student days at Lancaster were not straightforward, but he feels it gave him the space he needed to find his way. He says: "Lancaster gave me the freedom to explore and discover what I was. It also gave me the chance to write and perform as a comic actor and that has led me to what I am doing now."

He would not have been able to imagine then that he would end up as an award-winning performer appearing on every major comedy stage in Britain (including 13 times at the Edinburgh Festival), as well as more than 30 countries in four different languages.

The first time he saw Lancaster was the day he arrived as a fresher from his home in Thames Ditton, near London. The Monty Python mad schoolboy had already shown early initiative by organising lunchtime viewing of TV shows of the comedy for his pals. He had also extended his passion for playing piano by setting up his own school music society which booked such luminaries as future Tchaikovsky Piano Competition winner Barry Douglas. Rainer's own dad who underwrote costs of the concerts.

A career as a musical impresario seemed to beckon, but a friend of his father, who had studied music but ended up working for an engineering company, put him off the idea, so a useful option seemed to be economics.

University opened up a paradise for the awkward and eccentric teenager. He loved the college system, joined 10 student societies including the Labour Party and the Review Group. He even stood in (and won) an election for JCR president in his first term - normally the preserve of experienced final year students. "I really wanted to participate in everything," he recalls. "Of course, I also believed in all the usual student stuff: equality and socialism. I still vote Labour but I'm not out on the streets."

Most importantly, joining the Review Group gave him the opportunity to write sketches and perform. By his second year he was a co-director of the Review Group's annual show which took place in the Nuffield Theatre. He also auditioned, and was accepted as a pupil by the distinguished pianist John Clegg, and took music as his 'free ninth'.

He was having a wonderful time, but it was not helping his studies. With a year to go before his finals, he was brought up short by one of his professors, Vudayagi 'Baloo' Balasubramanyam, who had heard him play the piano. He warned Rainer that, he was on a path to degree failure unless he changed his ways. Rainer recalls: "He said 'You know what you want to do when you leave. Don't screw your degree up - pass it and then move on. "It was the sort of pep talk that I respond to. I was flattered and slightly embarrassed that someone had taken an interest in me."

Professor Balasubramanyam's intervention was enough to make Rainer buckle down in the final year and succeed in gaining his degree. "In some ways, I did it for him" Rainer later reflected. The two reconnected recently when 'Baloo' came to see him perform in the West End and Rainer was able to thank him for what he had done.

Post Lancaster he went back to London where he started his career in arts management at the English Bach Festival. He also had other jobs, in the touring department of agents Harrison/Parrott and his last job with a title, as Touring Manager of the London Festival Orchestra.

Meantime, he had also started a hobby - performing on the comedy circuit in a double act with a friend from the Review Group. Within five years, the hobby had grown into another job. At the age of 30, he turned to solo comedy full time, later making a specialty of taking a comic approach to his first love, classical music.

Twenty years later he boasts appearances on TV, radio and for Comic Relief. He now tours a number of solo shows - All Classical Music Explained, Organtastic!, Rainer Hersch's Victor Borge and Mozart: Ze Komplete Hystery. He is also a prolific broadcaster for BBC Radios 3 and 4 and has a number of programmes for full orchestra which he has performed as far afield as the St Petersburg and Tasmania.

Looking back on Lancaster, Rainer feels considerable gratitude for the lessons he learned there: "It taught me to grit my teeth and get on with it, when I took a wrong turn. Lancaster University was also an environment where I could express myself and pursue my interests."