“The Riot Club” is based on Laura Wade’s Bullingdon Club-inspired Royal Court play “Posh”.
Show Hide image

If only the lads of The Riot Club were a little less revolting

Lone Scherfig’s film adaptation of the 2010 play Posh feels unbalanced: we want to see a bit of naughty fun before the nastiness kicks in.

The Riot Club (15)
dir: Lone Scherfig

In Buñuel’s sticky 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, a group of wealthy dinner-party guests are holed up for days on end in the home of their host. The plush apartment becomes increasingly degraded, with livestock even straying in at one point, but for reasons the diners cannot fathom, no one can bring themselves to leave.

In The Riot Club, we are trapped once again at dinner with the overprivileged, only this time it isn’t that they can’t leave but that they won’t. These are ten Oxford undergraduates convening their hedonistic society in the dining room of a village pub. It’s another dinner party that will end in destruction and derangement. Buñuel’s meaning was tantalisingly opaque but The Riot Club couldn’t be any clearer if the pub was called the Dog and United Kingdom. For an appetiser, the picture serves up metaphor. It is metaphor also for main course. As for dessert – more metaphor, anyone?

The film is adapted by Laura Wade from her play Posh, which was a hit at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2010. In both cases, any similarities to Oxford dining societies attended by members of the current cabinet are intentional. In the absence of testimony from actual members of the Bullingdon Club, Wade has had to imagine what must have gone on. Her screenplay falls between two stools, neither fictional enough to float free of its biographical moorings, nor able to exploit the gossipy buzz that would arise from knowing that a character is based on David Cameron or Boris Johnson, or that the snivelling wretch in the corner whom nobody likes is George Osborne.

It is freshers’ week and Miles (Max Irons) is singled out as Riot Club material by some of the old guard, including the president, James (Freddie Fox), who looks like an albino cherub, and the fencing champ Harry (Douglas Booth), with his oil-paint eyes and cheekbones visible from space.

We know that Miles is a decent sort, because he converses freely with Lauren (Holliday Grainger), who is from the north and is therefore an authentic and principled person. She upbraids a fellow student for recounting a joke in which the punchline involves someone getting a place at Bristol. And her idea of post-coital conversation is to compare her working-class vocabulary with Miles’s upper-class one: she dabs her lips with a “serviette” after “dessert”, whereas he would reach for a “napkin” after “pudding”. It is no reflection on Grainger to say that even the most temperate viewers may find themselves picturing Lauren drowning in a sea of foie gras.

Language is certainly important in the film. One toff receives a harsher beating from a cashpoint mugger after pointing out the flaw in the phrase “PIN number”. But the problem of characters functioning as symbols, rather than as people, extends beyond Lauren. Had greater effort been made to coax out likeable qualities from the posh boys, there would have been so much more at stake once their behaviour went from bad to brutal. (I would have settled for them being distinguishable from one another. It’s hard not to nod sympathetically when a witness says: “I couldn’t tell them apart.”)

The audience might even have been made to feel complicit if we had some emotional investment in these people who are shown doing unspeakable things. The Riot Club can’t countenance that ambiguity. The nearest it comes is in the character of the pub landlord, played by Gordon Brown (oh, if only). His attitude to the rich is subtly obsequious in a way that helps facilitate their appalling behaviour. So eager is he to curry favour with them that he overlooks their insults and is even willing to be paid off in the early stages of their debauchery.

A more strident film might have made the case that he is the real villain of the piece – that he stands for the rest of society, the rest of us, willing to brook endless inconvenience and discomfort so that the wealthy can enjoy their liberty. When he turns the sign on the pub door to “Closed” after his guests have left for the evening, the thought that he may be calling time on Britain as a whole is enough to distract you temporarily from realising that it’s news­agents and bakeries that tend to have those sorts of signs, not pubs.

The Riot Club is the third British adaptation by the Danish director Lone Scherfig, following An Education (from Lynn Barber’s memoir) and One Day (based on David Nicholls’s novel). It shows her to be in possession of her usual mix of a sympathetic eye and an uncertain sensibility. She might have looked for pointers in Patrice Leconte’s 1996 film Ridicule, which told a similar story set in the court of Versailles but had the good manners to indulge in some naughty fun before the nastiness kicked in.

The Riot Club is caught uneasily between the humane and the Hogarthian, too middlebrow to throw in its lot with either camp. Scherfig gives us the worst of both worlds: there is none of the infectious glee of bad behaviour but plenty of hand-wringing in the morning after. Her film is all hangover. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
Show Hide image

Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Quiz
Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge