Bunhill: Virgin? I'm only asking ...

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MANY years ago there was a television advertisement I admired greatly for its observational qualities and ability to catch the nuances of everyday conversation. "Head and Shoulders?" it ran. "I didn't know you had dandruff." Cue payoff line from self-satisfied shampoo user: "I don't."

Naturally this touched a chord, because who hasn't at some time felt moved to indulge in animated discussion about household products? Can you honestly say you have never had conversations along the lines of the following:

"Cat food? I didn't know you had cats?"

"I don't."

"Toilet paper? I didn't know you used the lavatory."

"I don't."

"Jeffrey Archer? I didn't know you read books."

"I don't."

Now we can relive those glorious days of realistic advertising thanks to Richard Branson's new cosmetics business, Virgin Vie. The company makes great play of its range, extolling its "cool and sophisticated colour. It's French for life. It's for living. It's for your bath. It's for your bathroom ... It rhymes with glee." Unlikely to promote glee as presents to your loved one, however, are two of Virgin Vie's core products: "Confused and Superficially Dehydrated" and "Environmentally Challenged". Try this on for size:

"Environmentally challenged? "I didn't know you oozed factory and that your face looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb."

"F@!**@!!"

"I was only asking."

Learning about class

LAST week the Government ushered Britain into the modern age with the launch of Panel 2000, an eclectic collection of individuals from industry, the media, fashion, sport, the charity sector and politics who will tell the world that we are now a dynamic and forward-looking nation where creative genius can flourish. "The picture many have of us is out of date," said Foreign Secretary Robin Cook as he unveiled the initiative.

Mr Cook was anxious to deny that this was a superficial "rebranding" exercise because that would imply an "invented, fabricated" image and undermine the reality of modern Britain.

But if a classless, meritocratic society powered by new ideas is the order of the day, has anyone told our boardrooms? A survey of 15,000 company directors by Hemmington Scott at the end of last year revealed that of those educated at Britain's 10 most popular universities, 28 per cent went to Cambridge and 25 per cent to Oxford. Meanwhile, half the directors surveyed were educated at public school, and the preferred venues for making business contacts remain such hotbeds of revolutionary fervour as the RAC Club in Pall Mall, White's and the MCC. In other words, a self- perpetuating ruling class.

So when Mr Cook talked about exploding the myth of "a tired Britain", was he thinking of an organisation that was launched the day after Panel 2000? This is Oxford Business Alumni, an old boys' network in its most literal sense because its objective is to forge links between former Oxford students who have made it in business and undergraduates at the university's Said Business School, which provides management courses at both MBA and undergraduate level.

Susan Nettle at the OBA explains that the organisation is "a way of linking people up". For example, human resources executives who graduated from Oxford could come back and provide contacts in business.

But if ever there was a solution in need of a problem then this seems to be it. As the OBA itself proclaims: "Former students from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge lead more FT-SE 100 companies than graduates from any other UK university." Meanwhile, Ms Nettle says: "Our students are exceptionally talented and have got into incredibly good companies like Bankers Trust, Citibank and McKinsey. Within three months of graduating from Oxford, only 5 per cent of students don't have jobs."

Ms Nettle adds that these are exceptionally talented people who make it on merit because they have to satisfy rigorous selection criteria to get a place on a management course. So why do they need any more help to make it in the world of business?

It may be, however, that the problem lies not with the students but the university. Ms Nettle says that the business school needs to promote itself to attract a wider range of students. "Oxford has an in-built disadvantage," she explains, "in that people don't apply because they don't think they will get in." And given the educational background of many of its alumni, and the fact that you don't have to be privileged to get there but it helps, you can see why.

So let's tell the world that the dreaming spires is now an equal opportunities establishment. It's out with the mortar boards and in with Doctor Martens, out with Inspector Morse and in with The Sweeney, out with Latin and in with Estuary English. The time has come to rebrand Oxford.

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