What is it about Oxbridge that inspires such controversy? From the eternal discussion of the amount of state school/black/free school meal pupils who get in and how these statistics are measured (grammar school pupils, stop milking it, you were not a salmon), to the constant cries of alumni influence across the board, there’s something about these ancient institutions that inspires debate. To read the newspapers it would be easy to suspect that we had inadvertently signed up to some kind of Freemasons society, yet we’re all still battling for internships and jobs – perhaps it’s just against one another.
This idea of elitism, substantiated or not, is a subject that has been gaining increasing popularity on the art scene, peaking in the recent Royal Court offering, Posh. Playwright Laura Wade’s hugely successful play (which transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End in June) focuses on a very thinly veiled version of the Bullingdon Club, the Riot Club, and is all but confirmed to be filmed in the next year, following in the footsteps that other Oxford-focused ‘stage to screen’ classic, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Discussing the motive behind Posh, and its popularity, director Lyndsey Turner said that she and Wade had been looking for angles to take on the subject for a while – they wanted to focus on “a club” and met with many different Oxford Societies. They chose to create the Riot Club after attending a dining society event at the Randolph where the two of them were disgusted and fascinated by the “overwhelming sense of entitlement”.
The script has been updated since Oxford’s own production stormed the Union in Michaelmas 2011, and Turner insists that it is now a “much better play”. Oriel Classicist Susanna Quirke took the original script to the Union debating chamber in a controversial move that prompted national press coverage, sold out performances and the quiet exit of the entirety of the ‘Buller boys during the interval.
Turner suggests that the obsession with “belonging to a club” is what made the show so popular. She claims “Oxford itself is a club” citing the vocabulary that so soon becomes second nature (‘pidge’, ‘vac’, ‘tute’, ‘blues’ etc) as an example of the exclusive nature of the university. She is very quiet about her own university attendance, and it becomes apparent after a while that Turner is an Oxonian herself, an ex-Balliolite. She was, unexpectedly, however not in fact involved in Oxford drama at all during her undergraduate days (“there’s so much money and it’s not that good”) but was the Editor of this modest publication. When asked whether her Oxford roots had given her any advantage in the theatre world she expressed doubt, certainly the friends she made during her time were kept, but not as ‘contacts.
But why is it of interest to the world what goes on in these old institutions? Considering Turner’s assertion that it is the “club” that the world feels left out of makes one wonder what is in fact so different about this (or these two) universities. Guardian writer Tanya Gold recounts in a 2008 article her time at Merton, where on Friday nights “everyone used to get drunk… and weep” while on Saturdays the “tourists would come in and stare at us in our Brideshead Zoo”. Is this what art focusing on Oxford is about? Are we merely being gawped at in our (sandstone) cages? Surely our understanding of the Oxford ‘language’ and refusal to think in terms of anything but numbered weeks is not enough to make this such a focal point of modern culture.
The finest line in Posh, in my opinion, is when one very drunk Riot Club member – after the landlord refuses to take his money to make up for their ‘riotous’ behaviour – exclaims “you want to be like us, you just can’t bring yourself to admit it.” Perhaps this is what’s behind the country’s obsession, not just with Oxbridge, but with ‘poshness’ – we watch Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs/Parade’s End because secretly everyone wishes they were posh. Journalist Barbara Ellen takes an adverse view that “mocking the posh and smirking about silver spoons rammed into gobs is a comic artform honed by the masses as a response to centuries of oppression”. So what is it then? Do they want to be us? Are we even us? I went to a (dubiously) comprehensive school and though I sound it I don’t feel that posh, so perhaps that’s why there’s no play about me. Yet.
Love it or hate it, embrace the Brideshead dream or vomit every time you hear the name Sebastian, people like posh. The fixation with Eton, Oxbridge and the Bullingdon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Welcome to the riot club.