How TV drama became university challenged

When TV drama focuses on higher education, the results are excellent. Why, then, has it so often ignored academia? Gerard Gilbert reports
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The Independent Culture

From Brideshead Revisited to Lucky Jim, CP Snow to David Lodge, and Howard Jacobson to Howard Kirk, universities and their sometimes insalubrious employees form a fruitful and well-established genre of British literature. Our television drama and comedy, on the other hand, seem strangely averse to higher education, as if the subject opposes the medium's demotic instincts. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of people in TV are graduates. However it's as if the gonk-wielding swots on University Challenge have reinforced a very British stereotype of the intellectual and persuaded generations of commissioning editors – probably against their own experience – that academia is deeply uninteresting and fit only for an occasional snigger.

And snigger we did when Britain's most famous TV students – Rick, Vyvyan, Neil and Mike of Scumbag College – aka The Young Ones – took on Footlights College, Oxbridge, in their famous 1984 parody of the quiz show. In fact The Young Ones dates from a decade when television drama discovered a racier, more grown-up side to university life. This was a complex and intriguing world of venal and priapic lecturers and administrators juggling pliable students, radical politics and economic realities.

And while Porterhouse Blue, Malcolm Bradbury's 1987 Channel 4 adaptation of Tom Sharpe's best-selling comic novel, brought us a very familiar slice of privileged Oxbridge life – albeit a fossilised collegiate privilege under attack from the modern world – The History Man, Small World and A Very Peculiar Practice reflected the new universities, with their Sixties architecture and attitudes. And perhaps these series cemented a few prejudices of their own in the process.

Did sociology as a subject worthy of serious study survive Howard Kirk, the randy, cant-spouting Marxist anti-hero played by Antony Sher in BBC2's The History Man? And could any lecturer again sport a Zapata moustache without being taken for a pretentious Lothario? The History Man was broadcast in the same year, 1981, as Granada's Brideshead Revisited, as the first savage round of Thatcherite university cuts were being drawn up.

It goes to the nub of literature's much more generous embrace of the university experience that, of the five TV programmes mentioned in the preceding paragraph, four were adaptations of successful novels. Only A Very Peculiar Practice, written by Andrew Davies before he dedicated his career to costume drama, was an original work for television. Set in the health clinic of the fictitious Lowlands University, Davies's satire followed idealistic young GP Stephen Daker (Peter Davison) into a microcosmic bear pit of university politics. This was the finest expression yet of Davison's callow everyman persona, but the other characters made the series so memorable, including Barbara Flynn's radical feminist Rose Marie and (above all) Graham Crowden's uber-cynical and alcoholic head of practice, Jock McCannon.

The two series of A Very Peculiar Practice and it's 1992 coda, A Very Polish Practice marked the zenith of the Eighties cycle of university dramas, since when there has been next to no TV drama about higher education – leaving only the college in Hollyoaks and Oxford University as a backdrop in Inspector Morse. Suddenly, however, there is a spate of home-grown TV shows set at university – including ITV2's fantasy, Trinity, BBC3's nippy sitcom of fresher life, Off the Hook, and a new comedy pilot, Campus.

It's just a cyclical thing, reckons Ash Atalla, who produced The Office and whose TV company, Roughcut, has made Trinity. "Writers are always looking for accessible places to set their shows. Universities, schools, hospitals will always come around," he says. "There haven't been any universities for a while and a few people had the same idea at the same time."

Victoria Pile, whose opener for Channel 4's new Comedy Showcase season, Campus, is essentially Green Wing set in a university, agrees, saying that she was simply looking for a new setting, another "enclosed world" in which to explore off-the-wall behaviour. "There's just something very appealing about people put in those confined spaces," she says.

Pile, whose late father, Sir William Pile, was a permanent under-secretary of state for education, stressed that her overriding concern is to make people laugh, although she noticed a strong sense of disillusionment during her research. "These people have seen ideals thwarted and finance taking over and all things that education should be disappearing," she says.

Campus even includes a priapic lecturer. Was it a coincidence that Pile has called her fictitious seat of learning, Kirk University, or was she nodding to Howard Kirk of The History Man? "It sounds bit strange but The History Man wasn't at the back of our minds," she says. "OK, subconsciously perhaps. And I expect people to compare it to A Very Peculiar Practice. I adored that show when I was younger."

A Very Peculiar Practice wisely examined the state of the university through the microcosm of its health practice, for universities may be contained environments but they are sprawling organisms inhabited by barely-connecting life forms. As Ian Carter put it in his study of the university novel, Ancient Cultures of Conceit, "The only thing holding together the modern university is its central heating unit (or a concern for car parking)."

BBC3's sitcom Off the Hook gets around any lack of focus by concentrating on a group of freshers. "It's never been done: nobody set a sitcom in a university," says its creator, Nick Hamm. "That's strange – especially if you look at the success of Friends."

Universities have traditionally been seen as elitist establishments and there is a class factor involved here. Brideshead Revisited was all well and good, but that was safely in the past – the present is a trickier proposition. But now with the Government campaigning to get 50 per cent of school leavers into higher education – and with it the common perception that "everybody now goes to university" – might this be changing?

"That's spot on," says Hamm. "Thirty years ago, 10 to 15 per cent of school leavers went to university. The recent democratisation of universities has made them much more universal."

'Campus' opens a new season of 'Comedy Showcase' on Channel 4 on 6 November


The History Man (1981)
Howard Kirk, Watermouth University's trendy Marxist sociology lecturer and sexual adventurer, is one of the genre's most memorable characters. Played by Antony Sher in a Zapata moustache (right, with Geraldine James as his wife Barbara), Christopher Hampton's fine script brought Malcolm Bradbury's satirical novel vividly to life.

A Very Peculiar Practice (1986)
Before Andrew Davies became synonymous with adapting literary classics he penned this original gem set in the health clinic of Lowlands University. Peter Davison played a young GP at large amongst radical feminists, amoral Thatcherites and a drunken boss. Followed in 1992 by "A Very Polish Practice".

Small World (1988)
Granada adapted David Lodge's novel about globe-trotting academics with Stephen Moore as Philip Swallow and John Ratzenberger (Cliff from "Cheers") as Morris Zapp, Swallow's American counterpart. Lodge's "Nice Work", starring Haydn Gwynne as as a feminist university lecturer, was adapted by the BBC the following year.

Porterhouse Blue (1987)
Modernity and reform threatens a fossilised Cambridge University college and the forces of reaction are led by Skullion, the recently sacked head porter. David Jason won a Bafta as the irascible college servant in Malcolm Bradbury's adaptation of Tom Sharpe's comic novel.