Can soaps help universities slip their posh-kid image?

12th September 2008 at 01:00

I couldn't be more pleased. Cambridge University has come right out and written to soap opera producers, encouraging them to include the university in storylines and dent the posh-kid private-school image that dogs both Oxford and Cambridge. It is also trying to get Dr Who to film in a college (after all, Christ Church Oxford got Harry Potter, and to this day tourists stand adoringly on the Hogwarts stairway off Tom Quad) and even has a cunning plan to lure in Top Gear. Whoa, steady, tiger!

Given the Sutton Trust's dismaying discovery that many teachers actively dissuade children from thinking of Oxbridge, it certainly might help to get the soaps on-message, pointing out that there are bursaries and help with accommodation, and that top universities want only top brains, not blue blood and teddy bears.

Obviously, there are pitfalls in the strategy. Two EastEnders teens are currently considering Cambridge, but given the general lugubriousness of that soap, one suspects that they will come to no good - probably get stabbed on the train back from interview, or pushed into a particle- physics accelerator by their no-good auntie's drug dealer.

And, of course, Coronation Street has already had a brave try. Remember? In 2002, Todd, son of Eileen, the big rough taxi-dispatcher, was regarded as a cert for Oxford. The script spoke of Excellence in Cities grants and the fact that, even if he won, the appalling Sarah Louise Platt would be offered married quarters in Oxford for her and her child, and she could find work.

I held my breath in hope: but it was not to be. Todd opted instead to drop out of school, get Sarah Lou pregnant and promptly kiss a nurse, come out as gay and move to London to work in a bar. But that's how it is with soaps: they are dramas, they have an irresistible pull to disappointment and broken dreams. (As a soap character you are 10 times more likely to be robbed, divorced, assaulted, murdered, bankrupted or stricken with amnesia than if you were in the real world.)

When a soap writer starts playing with Oxford or Cambridge ideas, you know it will end in rejection, with consequent spiral into drink and drugs, or at best the cliche of the returning student being cut off forever from the warm, vivid, unexamined lives of t'real folk.

Poor old Ken Barlow lately had a fabulous storyline in which he went back to his Stan Barstow-style novel about a gritty northern lad struggling to escape through education. And what happened? His mother-in-law found the manuscript, decided it was smutty and showed it to Deirdre, who yowled insultedly about the dim wife in the book. So Ken binned it and went back to work in the caff. He had to - he can't get published and go to literary festivals and mix it with Michael Holroyd: the irresistible downward pull of Soapland forbids it. In the same way, no Archers kid is ever going to any educational institution more rarefied than Borchester Tech or, if posh, Harper Adams.

No, I fear poor old Cambridge is setting itself up for disappointment. But it's a good try. Keep pegging away. One day this dreadful invertedly- snobbish country will accept academic elitism - the good sort - in the same relaxed way that it is learning to accept sporting, dramatic and entrepreneurial brilliance. One day .

Libby Purves, Author and presenter of ' The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4.

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