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2nd March 2022

The films for you: How cinematic is your university experience?

Film editor Benjy Klauber looks back at some of the best, and worst, depictions of university life in British film and TV.
The films for you: How cinematic is your university experience?

Frat houses, toga parties, and beer kegs full of Bud Light. Crass bodybuilding blokes, size zero models, and the odd ‘nerd’ who is very quickly transformed into a ‘football’ playing oaf. A generalised glimpse of American ‘college’ can perhaps be seen with a few aspiring janitors, several overly encouraging professors, and the odd endearing musical outcast. But on the whole, the university experience is sold to us through films like Bad Neighbours and Pitch Perfect with sanitised enjoyment, unattainable body goals, and spontaneous a cappella.

Travel the 4000 miles from the sororities of Illinois to the cracked walls of Oak House and you’ll witness a very different picture of student life. Gone are the Greek insignias, the instant college romances, and the effervescent sports coaches. In its place stand lime green walls, cheap smelly pints, and the odd signet ring. We all know the stereotypical American uni from Seth Rogan film after Seth Rogan film. How then is the British experience captured in film? The answer is in surprisingly minimal terms.

The staple Oxbridge experience. Photo: Magdalen College, Oxford @wikimediacommons

Our university experience often comes in the form of fetishised Oxbridge grandeur. Scenes such as in The Theory of Everything seem to buy into this lens of celebrated aristocracy and history. Long sweeping staircases and formal dinners seem to constitute a vision of uni life that revolves around tradition and wealth.

Gaining notoriety for its repugnant displays of excess and violence, The Riot Club envisions an experience of modern-day Oxford peppered by the legacy of famous exclusive societies like the Bullingdon club. Wealthy snobs coming together to revel in the poverty of others. It isn’t a great look, is it? Accordingly, murder, intrigue, and political scandal seem to become the natural byproducts of this uni experience. I think whilst it’s fair to say that Manchester has had its own fair share of scandals and controversies, very few of these have actually stemmed from students themselves. Far from misbehaving students, we seem to have got misbehaving bureaucrats.

What about Tom Vaughan’s 2006 hit Starter For 10? Set during the 1980s, it follows Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) in his first year at the University of Bristol. Surrounded by partying students, gobby political activists and the allure of the big city, this iconic rom com captures more of an authentic uni experience than the Oxbridge admirers. McAvoy’s constant romantic failings and stuttering manners are as endearingly relatable as they are cliché. And then, of course, the film’s preoccupation with University Challenge. What an odd thing to focus on. Who in their right mind, you ask, would invest all their extra time into University Challenge?  And yet Manchester has been a historic powerhouse in the competition, winning it more times than any other university. So next time you’re looking for something to do, don’t be so quick to dismiss your general knowledge. Contrary to the baggy clothes and perpetual drum and bass, it may be more ‘Manchester’ than you expected.

And now of course we turn to Fresh Meat, the TV show we all watched during freshers’ week to get to grips with the city. For many this became the epitome of the British university. Shagging the wrong housemate, slight crush on your poetry lecturer? Fresh Meat seems to answer the question “What would happen if The Inbetweeners made it to university?”. Sure, it takes a bit of creative licence. I can’t say I’ve ever had a flatmate who uses a hairdryer to cook their chicken. But the consensus amongst most fans seems to be that this is how the average British student lives. Full of disastrous parties and sleazy student living, perhaps its main inaccuracy is the sheer number of Etonians parading the Mancunian streets. A posh housemate here and there isn’t quite the same. Did you have a flatmate you’d never seen before? Fresh Meat is certainly a less glamorous vision than anything else.

Whilst it isn’t about uni students per se, Michael Winterbottom’s iconic appraisal of Manchester’s music culture, 24 Hour Party People, is as important a student film as any. Tracking the rise, and then fall, of bands like Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, the film is a nostalgic look at Manchester’s greatest venue, the Hacienda. Citing the emergence of these bands as a pivotal moment in musical history, the film documents the role of producer Tony Wilson in the formation of the Manchester culture we all know. Featuring a host of staple British actors, this film will make you pine for the days when Factory wasn’t just a stinky student club and was instead the home of pioneering musical producers and artists. Certainly, the drug taking was as prevalent as it is now, perhaps the only flash of continuity since the days of Bez and Shaun Ryder. And crucially, the importance of music has remained. At no other uni will you find as clear a musical identity. Even if it’s wannabe DJs in your basement, or new stars emerging from Withington’s indie cafes, 24 Hour Party People speaks more to a universal student experience in Manchester than any other film. If you’re a cinephile who loves their music, this is definitely the film for you.

Plenty more British films contend with graduation, the ultimate ‘coming of age’ moment. Often this happens within the broader narrative, with only temporary focus being given to their departure. The stately scenes in Chariots of Fire spring to mind. To be honest, they may be a bit much for us Mancunians, not to mention we probably wouldn’t find ourselves sprinting round any 13th century courtyards on our final day. More likely staggering home from Nest.

What do you do once you’ve graduated? It feels strange to end by returning to American film. Monsters University delivers a dramatic and gritty portrayal of moving into the world of work (scaring children) whilst raising some pertinent questions about acceptance and identity as we move on from student life.

However, as one of the most iconic rom coms to date, The Graduate requires a special mention. Do you feel slightly aimless as graduation gets closer and closer? Have you fostered any particular talents here or are you instead being chucked out, degree in hand, into the big wide world? Whilst for many falling in love with the mother of a family friend may not be the dream graduation, this beautiful film, scored by Simon and Garfunkel will leave you on a note of giddy hope as you board a bus still wearing an ill-fated wedding dress, and sail away into the future. Perhaps at the cost of cynical realism, we all hope for a happy ending like this. Whether it comes is a different matter altogether.


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