November 03, 2003
Why so few British university movies?

Interesting article in today's Telegraph about something I keep meaning to blog about here but have never got around to, which is the presentation of the world of education in the movies. In this piece, Simon Brooke contrasts the portrayal of college life in American and in British movies. American college movies abound. British movies set in universities do not.

The cultural appeal of the US worldwide is not the only reason for the success of American college films, says Alby James, the head of screenwriting at Leeds Metropolitan University's film school. "When you're making a film, you must always think about the audience," he says, "and in Britain relatively few people go to college.

"In the US, though, many more people do and there is a much greater social mix, so it gives films about students and college a wider appeal."

Richard Teague, one of Alby James's students, was originally planning to set his thriller, The Gospel According to Me, at a university before he realised that a film with this setting would have a limited appeal. "Not many British films manage to recreate student life successfully, so I moved most of the action outside," he says. "Syd Field, the screenwriting guru, warns against only writing about what you know." Teague, 28, points out that including a college strand to the story line, rather than basing the whole story there, can work in television series such as Hollyoaks.

Perhaps the only British film that did try to tackle head on the manic energy and seedy detail of college life was Inbetweeners, released almost unnoticed by critics and audiences alike in 2000.

Unnoticed by me too.

But I wonder. I suspect that the reason why many British movies fail at the box office, and many more attempted British movies don't ever get made, is not that they are about the wrong kind of people, but that the people have the wrong attitude, and that it is this attitude that people can't or don't want to identify with. It's not just a matter of "recreating student life successfully", but of having characters who themselves try to make a success of student life. But if the message is going to be: university is a hell of boredom and mediocrity and there's nothing we can do about it, then that might explain British people not wanting to watch.

After all, American action movies contain all kinds of characters with totally different lives to those lived in Britain, but they're popular enough in Britain. Most people aren't either cops or criminals, yet movies have lots of both.

Simon Brooke mentions Educating Rita as the exception that proves his rule, in that she isn't really proper university material, but an "ordinary" outsider to university life. But Rita also proves my rule. Rita was trying to get ahead and make something of herself. She wasn't living a drab life. She was trying – successfully as it turned out – to escape a drab life. (Interestingly, she finds lots of students to be, after impressive first impressions, somewhat less than truly impressive.) If British movies set in a universities were about ordinary people, but people who were trying to be less ordinary, then I reckon they might do fine at the box office.

Brooke also mentions Chariots of Fire, which features the Jewish and upwardly mobile Harold Abrahams, who is scorned by the disdainful rulers of his swank Oxbridge college, but who battles on anyway to his Olympic triumph, to the delight of his more generous and open-hearted contemporaries.

None of this need do violence to the truth of university life. I mean, isn't making a success of yourself what going to university is supposed to be about?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:58 PM
Category: Higher educationThis and that