You have to thesis movie: A history of film in Oxford


When strolling around sunny Oxford, it’s not wholly unusual to spot a camera crew or two. Ordinarily it’s safe to assume that this would be the latest episode of Lewis in the making, or perhaps a particularly dedicated group of tourists, but Oxford has also played host to many feature-length films, and production companies from across the globe have selected Oxford’s dreaming spires as their location of choice.

Of course, Christ Church, with its grand hall, and its famous cloisters and quadrangles, is well known as a prime location for the Harry Potter franchise, but the history of film in Oxford is more than just a walking tour of Daniel Radcliffe’s favourite hang-out spots.

2011’s X-Men First Class, for example, taught us that Professor Xavier himself graduated alongside Magneto from this very establishment, having written his thesis on mutations. Filming for this prequel to the popular Marvel series took place in Hertford College, and captured the spirit of Oxford through shots of the Sheldonian theatre and the Bridge of Sighs which joins two parts of Hertford together.

What with J. R. R Tolkien and C. S Lewis, both Oxonians, having their fantasy odysseys turned into monolithic film franchises, it seems fitting that Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials were adapted for the big screen. Lyra, in The Golden Compass, grows up in Jordan College, modelled on Exeter in Turl Street, Pullman’s old alma mater. This film features such top spots as Christ Church meadow and Radcliffe square. It’s reasonable to say that, just as the Pitt Rivers museum is rumoured to have been J.K Rowling’s inspiration for the shops of Diagon alley, Exeter College and the surrounding environment proved a great inspiration for Pullman, and the team behind the film adaptation.  

Other films have focussed more explicitly on the University, like The History Boys and the critically acclaimed An Education, which starred Rosemund Pike, an English Literature graduate of Wadham College. The Oxford Murders saw Elijah Wood and John Hurt grappling with a who-dunnit whilst discussing the plausibility of absolute truth, and if anyone remembers having The Young Sherlock Holmes in their VHS collection, that was also filmed in Oxford.

Not only have a multitude of films been shot in Oxford, but the city has also proved a wellspring of talent, producing some of the film-industry’s most creative minds and familiar faces. Richard Curtis, an English Language and Literature student at Christ Church, is the man behind such beloved Brit-flicks as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, both of which star fellow Oxford graduate, Hugh Grant. 

Film-maker Ken Loach attended St. Peters. His characteristic social realism and almost Orwellian depictions of poverty earned him critical acclaim, and he won a Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. He returned to Cannes again a few days ago under the banner of his latest film, The Angels’ Share.

Another Palme D’or winner and social commentator, is Lindsay Anderson, director of 1968’s if…, a satire which climaxed in an armed insurrection at an English public school. Anderson studied Classics at Wadham, and later English Literature at Magdalen.

Of course, this is just a sample of what Oxford has seen in terms of film-making talent, but it gives a sense of just how rich the city’s film history has been. It’s a strange thought when you realize you have tutes in the same college Professor Xavier did.   

Francis Blagburn         


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