‘The Riot Club’ and a tired, exaggerated caricature of Oxford
There is a curious quaintness to The Riot Club. The Bullingdon Club and company have an incredible power over the media, somewhat understandably. In the middle of austerity, it’s bloody funny to imagine that some of the best-loved politicians in the country once spent their student days getting uproariously drunk and smashing up some poor unsuspecting restaurant. Recent scandals over drinking societies add to the allure of the whole matter, no doubt.
At its heart, though, The Riot Club appears to be the old joke at the expense of straw-man Oxford toffs, caricaturing a small subsection of the student populace before revelling in their self-destructive hedonism. It is hardly pioneering work: a group of jumped-up lads, presumably with double-barrelled surnames and titles to boot, get drunk and violent. Remove the tuxedos and the pseudo-edgy political overtones, and it’s Skins. Or a Saturday night out in Chelmsford.
I don’t want to be an apologist for the arrogance of drinking societies like the Bullingdon Club, but the supposedly moral drive of the film is flimsy at best. The members of the Riot Club do look unabashedly unpleasant by and large, but I can’t shake the feeling that even as the film prods us, saying “Go on, look at those nasty wealthy buggers! God, how I hate them!”, it’s also secretly fantasising over owning a golden hip-flask and fencing with the people who own half of Scotland. This isn’t a hard-talking documentary – it’s not even an outright condemnation of the lifestyle some members of Oxford lead. The Riot Club is set to be painfully formulaic with a veneer of tutting social condemnation – an orgy of sex, drugs and violence in sub fusc, if you will.
The fear that it will put students from lower-income backgrounds off applying is quite understandable, especially if the film does really spend the whole time focussed in on the ten members of the Riot Club. Realistically, however, there are bigger issues in the real-world which have cast shadows over Oxford – the I, too, am Oxford/ We all are Oxford clash; the fiasco over the Pembroke rugby club; the continuing ruckus in the Union. These are far more interesting issues than the corny stereotype of alcoholic Hoorah Henrys– they are far more important too. In comparison, the Bullingdon club is as distant to the majority of Oxford students as it is to the rest of the UK (bar Boris and friends, perhaps).
At any rate, I’m dubious as to whether potential applicants will be put off by one film if the years of cultural sediment which portray all of us as port-swilling aristocrats with a taste for peasant-and-pheasant hunting haven’t done so already. The day that admissions tutors should be scared about a lack of applicants is when my film ‘The Gladstone Clink’ comes out, and prospective students get to watch Oxonians rapidly wilting in an underground Doctor Who set without natural light, and finally deciding that being squashed between those rolling shelves is the only way out. You have been warned.