No sex please, we're students

Television - Andrew Billen finds <em>College Girls</em> contains nothing titillating at all

College girls? Where last did I see the phrase? Was there a soft-porn frat pack movie of that name or was it a Playboy strapline? Since the preview tapes of Channel 4's new documentary series were titled simply St Hilda's, I suspect there was some last-minute activity down in Horseferry Road to rename it and tempt a few randy viewers away from the final instalment of I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here on ITV1.

They will have been disappointed. The first episode of this six-part series on the last all-woman college in Oxford (9pm, Sundays, C4) contained nothing titillating at all. The new girls' rooms were positively anchorite and their inhabitants showed little interest in boyfriends, drugs or rock'n'roll. St Hilda's being single-sex seems hardly to have detained the film-makers at all. In fact, the college itself is hardly dwelt on and you learn little of its geography or appearance.

But these emphases are correct. The battle over co-education was won and lost in 1997 when St Hilda's own students voted to keep things as they were. In any case, although Oxford is composed of colleges, few students are bound by their walls. A documentary about St Hilda's as a fortress would have been hardly worth doing - whereas a documentary about Oxford as a teeming breeding ground for the ruling classes is always worth attempting. The director Kevin Sim and the producer Anna Hall demonstrate that they believe it is worth doing properly.

Avoiding cliche, Sunday's opener, instead of starting at the freshers' fair or the first disco, began with clips of student demos from 1968, the year that Laura Paskell-Brown's left-wing parents got it together. Age had not withered their idealism, nor custom staled their habit of selling the Socialist Worker on Saturday mornings. In Laura, they had produced a model fellow-traveller. The only problem looming was that she was going up to Oxford 30 years too late to riot.

With remarkable timing, however, 1998 happened to be the year Tony Blair imposed tuition fees on students. Soon, Laura was one of 14 Oxford students refusing to pay. A little later, she was one of only five. She was a sympathetic rebel, puzzled by her peers' apathy, in much need of the support she did generate, and unsure how far her principles should take her. The cameras followed her back home to Manchester where her father, whose wisdom she admitted she swallowed a little too liberally, advised her that although he believed in mass resistance and not martyrdom, she should carry on the good fight a little longer.

"I have to know I have the support behind me, especially you and Mum, because I am scared," she said. She gave in, in the end, but not so soon that she spoiled the big demo. As she said: "You have to work to get a revolution and it is going to be a long process."

The downside to following Laura's story so intently was that we missed out on the details of the progress of Afshan Ghani, the other fresher the programme concentrated on. She is a first-generation Brit whose Pakistani parents live humbly in South Wales. Her dream was to be a doctor and we saw her beaming pride as she donned her first £17 white coat. But torn from her small community, her ambition began to seem to her to be overwhelmingly vast. In the second term, a lecturer explained that it took 17 years to become a consultant and she panicked. We last saw her being met at the railway station by her mother. Presumably, she quit. I would have liked to hear more about her reasons for doing so, and whether the college, formally or socially, had provided the support she needed.

It was a good first film, but the second episode is even better, concentrating on Lucy Aitkens, a bubbling socialite who wants to be elected librarian of the Oxford Union. Lucy is garrulous, bubbly and full of naked ambition. "One thing about the Oxford Union," she says, "is that I've learnt so much about politics, like how to lie to people. That's awful and I probably shouldn't say it . . ."

But she does. Blonde Lucy, whose decolletage is much in evidence and for whom tuition fees, one gathers, are no problem, has mastered the air kiss. Banned from canvassing for votes, she leaves cards in men's rooms saying: "Don't forget I love you." Running against her is the dark-haired, cardigan-wearing Hattie Cadman from Brasenose. Keep tuned for the surprise ending.

The instances of Lucy and Laura demonstrate that the successful Oxford student knows she is in for the long race, that her successes and failures there are not determining but exemplary. They come to Oxford with their ambitions fully formed but willing to have them sharpened by experience.

The same virtues of patience and aspiration are evident in this series' production values. Shot over four years, it has found the right stories to tell, yet managed to emphasise that each drama is merely a blink in the history of the university. "It is autumn in Oxford. They call it Michaelmas," purrs the narrator. It is all very stylish, charming, unjudgemental and, to anyone who went there, nostalgic. I just hope someone gets laid, eventually.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times