Fury of a TV producer scorned

28th September 2001 at 01:00
The University of St Andrews was turned over, good and proper, the other week in a film called Wills' World. I watched with interest, because my father and all his siblings went there in the days when "poverty walked in a scarlet cloak" and you took your own oatmeal. My cousin still owns, and wore in his own time there, the red cloak that my aunt had in 1928. Both my children have this ancient university on their UCAS lists. I have been there lately and found it a friendly, scholarly, pleasant place.

However, there is another side to any institution, and Channel 4 homed in on the undeniable circumstance that St Andrews is also fashionable among the English rich-but-dim. Having been refused permission to make an insider documentary , they got several students to make "video diaries" and then edited them, with mischief bordering on spite.

Not, I suspect, that it took much editing. Video cameras all too readily bring out the inner prat, and nothing is so prattish as a high-spirited, sociable, only medium-bright child of the privileged classes who still feels adored.

The film majored on Hoorays, airhead Sloanes and the clumpingly public-school Kate Kennedy men's club. It was an act of vengeance, for nothing in nature is more savage than a TV producer denied entry. So they gave us a braying nincompoop with neither chin nor forehead who didn't even manage to make it to his art history exam, but subsequently spent "a very successful summer on the European poker circuit". There was a clever, but somewhat emotionally retarded young Scot, who tittered coyly over his love life and preened through a production of Grease. There was a pair of teenage kittens who shrieked, flicked their hair and explained how stressful it was "doing coffee" all day long . All bragged that they had essays due but not even started, and how it was "like, impossible" to stay in and revise. In stark contrast there was a girl from Newcastle - broke, first-generation university with proud, proud parents - who worked her socks off. She was shown looking sadly out of the window at a procession of rich boys in fancy drag and saying "This is the kind of s**t you have to put up with, all the time..."

There was footage inside a debate, but it was brief, which leads one to suspect that the debate got serious. Permission having not been granted, there was no view inside libraries, tutorials, lectures, seminars or chapel. The result was a travesty.

It dramatises yet again the near-impossible problem of how an educational institution should respond to a request from a documentary film crew. Summerhill, the free-school in Suffolk, let the cameras in a few years ago and was grievously traduced. Rugby once got filmed during an experimental exchange with a northern comprehensive, and I have never been able to hear its name since without sniggering. HMS Brilliant - with footage of the Sods' Opera and harassment of the women - did massive damage to the image of the Navy. And so on. What do you do?

If you are a school, at least you have the power of exclusion, bolstered by the rules on consent for the filming of minors. But universities are in a cleft stick. If you let them in they can trash you in the editing. I could make a damning film about any university in the country just by pointing the cameras at a small cadre of exhibitionists, boozers, sex addicts and skivers, and intercutting them with tutorials and lectures to make ironic points. Here is your philosophy student, scribbling notes about the concept of Good, and whoops! here he is again, drunk as a skunk, falling over the turntables in a nightclub while lunging for the bosom of a sweet young thing last seen pedalling along in a Batman scholars' gown. And here is a shot of a door marked Student Counselling - cut to some disaffected teenage grump complaining about how his tutor made him feel like a fool for not reading any of the set books.

And here is a student actually working, but the camera pans round to the filthy mugs and spilt baked-bean plates, artfully arranged by the producer, and the half-naked girl on the bed (who is, if truth be told, sleeping off an all-night session with an essay on Zola).

That's if you co-operate. If you don't.... look at what happened to St Andrews. You can threaten to chuck your students out if they film Prince William, but you can't stop legal adults making video tits of themselves. Nope: basically, there's nothing you can do.

Unless you offer the film department students a prize for the best expose of the daily lives of Channel 4 executives, with bits of their own programmes intercut ironically with dinner-party braying and quotes from their mission statement. That might be good. Perhaps Jeremy Isaacs, founding father of C4, might help out.

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