The Meandering Career Paths of Bristol's Successful Alumni

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By Xander Brett Second Year French and History of Art

Graduates of Bristol University have been awarded Nobel Prizes, BAFTAs and knighthoods. Celebrating the rich heritage of our alumni and their meandering career paths, I called some of our old leavers in lockdown for a new podcast by Burst Radio - Off the Hook. I spoke to a broadcaster, two Olympians, an author and a diplomat. Each chnaged their field of work and each holds great affection for their alma mater.

Francesca Cumani

When Francesca Cumani was a child, she opened her windows to the sight of over a hundred racehorses. The daughter of Derby-winning trainer Luca Cumani, she grew up in Newmarket, home to Britain’s £4billion-worth racing industry. Taking time out from life as an amateur jockey, she graduated from Bristol with a degree in French and Spanish. C

Cumani at Goodwood, 2017 | Flickr / Sean Sweeney 

Upon re-entering the family firm, she helped transport horses abroad. During a trip to Australia, while acting as a spokeswoman for her father’s yard, she was picked up by Channel 7 as a guest presenter. This led to a job with CNN, presenting their global Winning Post programme in both English and Spanish.

In 2017, she was brought in as a co-presenter for ITV, helping the channel to award-winning racing coverage with many millions of viewers. She has also kept up Australian duties, assisting Channel 10’s coverage last year, and is a style icon to many, with features in Tatler and Vogue.

Alison Smale

After graduating from Bristol with a BA in German and Politics, Alison Smale studied for a master’s at Stanford University. Based in Bonn and Moscow during the fall of communism, she reported on events including the succession of Gorbachev, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Smale at the 2011 Women's Forum Global Meeting | Flickr / Women's Forum for the Economy & Society

After joining The New York Times, she helped organise their coverage of 9/11 and reported on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Promoted to managing editor of The International Herald Tribune, in 2017 she was appointed an under-Secretary-General at the United Nations. Described by The Independent as Britain’s ‘most powerful female editor’ oversees, Bristol awarded her an Honorary Doctorate in Law in 2009.

Vittoria Panizzon

Born to a Scottish mother and Italian father, Vittoria Panizzon moved to the UK when she was 17. Passionate for eventing from an early age, she was the youngest competitor in the 2005 and 2007 European Championships.

Panizzon at the 2019 FEI Eventing Nations Cup, Ireland | Flickr / Fédération Equestre Internationale

A corporal in the Italian Air Force, she graduated from Bristol with a degree in Biology, and two years later represented Italy at the Beijing Olympics as an equestrian. She joined them again at London 2012 and, from her base in Gloucestershire, now competes in various championships worldwide.

Sir David Tanner CBE

Sir David is another such Olympian. While a History student at Bristol, Sir David would bicycle almost thirty miles most days, from Wills Hall to the university boat club. In his second year, he became a coach at Clifton College, igniting an interest in teaching that would lead him to transform the fortunes of Longford School in Middlesex.

Tanner (right) at an event held by the British Embassy in Slovenia, 2011 | Flickr / British Embassy Ljubljana

The highlight of his teaching career was at Ealing Grammar School, when he took four inexperienced rowers and led them to medal-winning success at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. After joining Team GB’s rowing squad, he became their performance director and saw them through the last five Olympic Games. In 2002, he founded ‘Start’, an initiative to find new rowers that went on to produce half of London 2012’s champions.

Awarded a Doctorate in Law from Bristol three years ago, he has also been awarded an OBE, CBE and a Dyson Award. He is now a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and granted the Freedom of the City of London and the Company of Watermen.

David Nicholls

Attending the same school as Colin Firth, David Nicholls was always destined to act. After graduating from Bristol with a BA in Drama and English, he studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. Returning to the UK, he performed at the National Theatre, before turning his attention to screenwriting.

Nichols at a public reading event | Flickr / readingagency

He was awarded a BAFTA for his work on ITV’s Cold Feet and has adapted both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd to the screen, the latter being a huge hit for Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen. It is, however, his work as novelist for which he is best known.

His first novel, Starter for Ten, was adapted to film in 2006, set at Bristol University and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve and Dominic Cooper. His 2009 bestseller One Day was also adapted, directed by Lone Scherfig and starring Anne Hathaway and Ken Stott. Awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 2016, his other works include The Understudy, Us and Sweet Sorrow, the paperback of which comes out this year.

Bristol University’s graduates are as diverse as they are influential. Speaking to them, it’s clear their city of education has made a lasting impression on their work. It gave them the confidence they needed to make it big and engage an audience.

Featured Image: Cumani at Chester, 2018 | Flickr / Majorshots


Listen to these alumni on Off the Hook, released 4 July 19:00 on the Burst Radio and podcast streaming platforms. Released weekly until 1st August.

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