“But aren’t these the people you’d secretly quite like to be?” asked Lone Scherfig, the Danish director of The Riot Club.
“No,” I replied, aghast. “No,” said several of the other Cambridge students in the room.
Several weeks earlier, six of us had been recruited as script consultants for a new film based on Laura Wade’s Bullingdon Club-based Royal Court play Posh. I hadn’t seen the stage version, which came out shortly before the 2010 election, but I’d read reviews saying it would have its subject matter running scared.
In any case, the filmmakers had approached us as they wanted a left-wing perspective on their portrayal of “a certain kind of Oxbridge lifestyle”. It was encouraging to think Film4 was interested in making their critique an informed one. I was also, I must admit, rather flattered to be asked – and why they had chosen Cambridge over Oxford for their focus group seemed beside the point.
Scripts were couriered to our college pigeonholes, and we got reading. It was a good laugh, and apart from a few blunders obvious to those of us familiar with the topography of Oxford, it seemed its accuracy to real life wasn’t bad. Adapting a stage play for the big screen is a bigger task than immediately meets the eye. At the Royal Court, Posh could be a romping satire with sharp critique. But it struck me that a film on general release would need to be more serious, more nuanced if it was to maintain its bite.
I wouldn’t advocate a monumental change in perspective, mind, as others undoubtedly will. As soon as I started reading, I realised the elite universities’ managers and well-meaning students would complain the film would “set access back years”. This cry follows any “bad publicity” for Oxford and Cambridge – usually films and TV programmes which depict privilege, ancient customs and upper-class accents. Take Young, Bright and On the Right, a rather salacious BBC2 show following young Tories at Oxford and Cambridge. Depicting Oxbridge as this sort of environment would deter poorer and state-educated students from applying, I was repeatedly told.
Only 7 per cent of Britain’s school-age population attend private schools, but 39 per cent of students at Cambridge did, and 43.2 per cent of Oxford students. Studying at Cambridge, what I found even more shocking was that a majority of the state-educated remainder attended the rump numbers of grammar schools. Plenty of others switched to state sixth forms after years of fee-paying.
The “access” narrative is all too often used by university managers to shirk responsibility for the problem, and pass the buck to those with no power to sort things out. In my first term at Christ’s College, I stumbled across a fancy dinner in the name of a top London private school. All the while student union officers made cheery pleas for volunteers to show kids round the place. The university does all it can, they said, but state school kids just don’t apply. It was our job to dispel the myths of the Oxbridge privilege bubble, but any affirmative action to balance the numbers was totally out of the question. But when the private school domination of Oxbridge is so stark, can the universities seriously tell the public it’s their own fault for believing falsehoods?
The trouble with Posh – now renamed The Riot Club – was that its depiction of Oxbridge stereotype did not appear a critique at all. In the focus group the filmmakers listened patiently, noting down horror stories of sexism and snobbery students had experienced at the hands of the drinking societies. But they seemed most puzzled by one student’s suggestion that society members were awkward and well, rather boring. Where’s the glamour in that?
The Observer’s Catherine Shoard said the film “comes on dressed as a cheerleader for the left, then can’t help but defect”. But “queering” the stage production’s political agenda is “great news for the viewer”, she says in her four-star review. Obviously the dear British public can’t deal with an overtly political film.
The glamour, grandeur and archaism of our establishment has propelled a fair few Brit flicks to box office success, after all, The King’s Speech and The Queen among them. On the small screen, we’re told the servant porn that is Downton Abbey is there by popular demand. Jenny Diski has argued that the makers of shows such as the original 1970s Upstairs, Downstairs were contrastingly concerned “to write about the unconsidered underlives” – this was also the era of Cathy, Come Home. These days making films about the dispossessed is rather old fashioned. In 2011, Joanna Hogg, whose film Archipelago focuses on the minutiae of an upper-middle class holiday on the Scilly Isles, suggested it was a brave act for the privileged to articulate themselves in film. “I had been silenced,” she said.
“We love watching rich people behave badly,” writer Wade told the Observer. “It has a sort of grisly fascination.” But seeing yet another film franchise cash in on the international following of the British aristocracy is hardly like a visit to the zoo. Not when the two universities that dominate the British establishment continue to be so shamefully complacent about their exclusivity.
I later discovered the reason producers had chosen Cambridge over Oxford was that the Film4 executive in charge was Cambridge-educated himself – and so had contacts to activate in the Fens. It emerged that before our own focus group, the filmmakers had popped champagne corks in a discussion with the drinking society types themselves. I began to wonder if there was also a “grisly fascination” to watching Cambridge leftwingers.
The type of wealthy, misogynistic men at the heart of the film are symbols of the power imbalance that Oxbridge continues to perpetuate, but they are also a distraction from it. If their presentation zigzags between lazy stereotype and glamorisation, what chance is there to think about the wider reality? It’s not only the restaurant-smashers who benefit from the quad-to-quad-to-quad trajectory. No doubt there’ll be baying and laughter all round when The Riot Club opens next week but this issue deserves a sharper critique.