The Illusion of a cinematic Oxford

Culture Entertainment

Image Description: Inside Divinity Schools, Oxford

Many of us applied to Oxford with a secret ambition to live our best lives, Brideshead Revisited style. The mental image of spending days punting down the Isis, poring over slab-like books in quirky little pubs and dining in vast, Harry Potter-esque halls seemed all too tempting, thanks to the image of Oxford we see on the big and small screen.

Oxford is, without a doubt, a wonderfully filmable city. Instantly recognisable, shrouded in history and mythos, the “dreaming spires” have served as the backdrop for many a film and many an ITV4 drama. Its prestige and rich history have rendered it an ideal setting for all sorts of films – and a massive inconvenience for all of us who have accidentally stumbled upon the Endeavour crew on the way to the library, ruining a take in doing so.

Oxford is, without a doubt, a wonderfully filmable city. Instantly recognisable, shrouded in history and mythos, the “dreaming spires” have served as the backdrop for many a film and many an ITV4 drama.

The illusion has been shattered for those of us who have come to know, love – and occasionally hate – this city. Many students have spent countless tearful all-nighters in a library that featured in a couple of scenes in The Riot Club. That fake pub by the Bridge of Sighs in X-Men: First Class is where you had an excruciating encounter with that poorly judged Tinder match. You once threw up on a college quad that served as a murder scene on an episode of Morse after a particularly messy night at Plush. And as much as I hate to admit it, watching anything set in Oxford has reduced me to an insufferable pedant.

Seeing Rob Lowe have the gall to drive across Radcliffe Square (!) in Oxford Blues is enough to make me wince, and I would like to remind everyone that New College didn’t admit women until 1979, so there’s no way that Mamma Mia’s Donna Sheridan could have graduated that same year. I’ve tried so hard to stop being an Oxford student taking over my entire personality – but if I’m in the room while my parents are watching Lewis, I can’t help but scoff if a scene appears to be set in both Merton and Magdalen at the same time.

Seeing Rob Lowe have the gall to drive across Radcliffe Square (!) in Oxford Blues is enough to make me wince, and I would like to remind everyone that New College didn’t admit women until 1979, so there’s no way that Mamma Mia’s Donna Sheridan could have graduated that same year.

However, one thing that dominates the depiction of Oxford on screen is this fixation on its antiquity and reputation as a breeding ground for entitled, filthy rich young men. A fairly recent example of “a film about Oxford” – The Riot Club – does the university’s reputation no favours, presenting it as little more than a playground for the young and wealthy, to be used as a springboard to success. The same can be said about Brideshead Revisited, putting forth a beautiful yet incredibly dated image of the city which many still use as a go-to point of cultural reference.

One thing that dominates the depiction of Oxford on screen is this fixation on its antiquity and reputation as a breeding ground for entitled, filthy rich young men

All this being said, the depiction of Oxford life on film isn’t quite what I would call realistic – at least, for the average student. The Bullingdon Club is a thing of mystery to me, many of us would take a fairly tame crewdate at Jamal’s over trashing a country pub any day, and the vast majority of people I’ve met here are – for lack of a better word – normal. I certainly can’t recall any on-screen essay crises or Bridge Thursdays. This is not to say that a film depicting a realistic Oxford student experience would be especially interesting, nor would it attract throngs of tourists to the city in the way Harry Potter or His Dark Materials have. It is still hugely important to divorce our expectations of the university and the city from how it appears in films.

It’s still hugely important to divorce our expectations of the university and the city from how it appears in films.

It must be said – the pain of spending extended periods away from Oxford is only exacerbated by seeing the city in all its beauty on screen, dressed up as it may be. In spite of the hours I’ve spent on a laptop in lockdown, I’ve had to avoid Oxford-themed films and programmes for my own sake. I’ve accepted the fact that the city and university are airbrushed and glamorised to excess, but even a fleeting shot of the Rad Cam is enough to make my eyes misty, a reminder of the fact that in “Vir-trinity” I’m not even surrounded by pretty buildings to distract me from the crippling stress and exhaustion that an Oxford degree entails. Nevertheless, my appreciation for the city has only grown stronger over the past months. I now know that once we return, I’ll no longer take Oxford for granted, commit to living my life in a way that would make Bridehead’s Sebastian Flyte proud – and, inevitably, complain about the number of Harry Potter-themed souvenir shops.

Image credit: Diliff

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