Critics who slammed Eton-educated Damian Lewis for opening the anniversary celebrations of a local comprehensive school missed the point, he said at the event.
The Homeland and Wolf Hall actor instead heaped praise on the “creativity” and “diversity” of Acland Burghley School in Camden, north London, which launched its 50th anniversary celebrations on Wednesday.
Former students started a petition against his role as guest of honour after claiming he represented “privilege and inequality” and his invitation was not appropriate given the school’s “long and proud tradition in comprehensive education”.
Standing next to headteacher Nicholas John and Lucy Amis, daughter of the school’s architect Stanley Amis, Damian joked that he was the “best available” and apologised to those hoping to see notable former students Eddy Grant, Ms Dynamite or Madness saxophonist Lee Thompson.
He said: “For those people out there who suggested by kindly writing into the newspapers this morning that perhaps I shouldn’t be here at all because I wasn’t at the school, what I would say to them is I think they are missing the point slightly because it seems to me that this evening is about more than that.
“It seems to me that this evening is about a celebration of our community here in Tufnell Park and the role the school has played here in Tufnell Park in the last 50 years.”
Damian, whose wife, actress Helen McCrory, stood in the audience as he addressed a crowd of approximately 450 before starting a countdown to a laser show, said he had lived in the area for 10 years.
He said: “It strikes me every time I walk down the street that there is more creativity, independence and support in this neighbourhood than any other neighbourhood I have lived in in London.
“That is of course exactly the qualities they teach the students here at Acland Burghley.
“It’s central to its ethos, and why it has been such a success and why it has been recognised as special status in performing arts and creative studies.”
He added that he was lucky to benefit from a “thriving creative community” at Eton and that schools were more successful if they excelled in the arts.
Speaking from notes, he concluded: “I share with you the hope that Acland Burghley can continue to grow and be a beacon of curiosity, independence, creativity and diversity right here in the heart of Tufnell Park.”
While many parents and students celebrated his appearance as an “inspiration” – including 13-year-old Louie Cooper who jumped into a picture with the actor, some disagreed.
Rachel Cohen, 44, attended the school between 1982 and 1989 and started the petition which had garnered 100 signatures before the event.
She said: “It’s really just about how do you celebrate the anniversary of a really good comprehensive school that has always taken a very radical and socially progressive attitude towards education and been very committed to inclusive education within the community and arts being very central to that.”
But she insisted it was not a personal protest against Damian and she hoped he would become more involved in the school in the future.
Headteacher Mr John, who joined the school in September, is hoping the start of the celebrations will help him to raise money to improve some of the half-century-old buildings.
He said he wanted the school to focus on improving its academic standards and continue excelling in the arts and engagement with the community.
“The fact that he is an actor involved in the community is great,” he said about Damian. “It’s about community and creativity.”