Pissed-off Toff reviews a fairly recent film called The Riot Club, in which more-or-less upper-class undergraduates at Oxford are portrayed as being not only beyond the pale in every way, not only hardly members of the human race at all, but also psychopathic murderers …
Having heard that The Riot Club was blatant left-wing propaganda, I had decided not to watch it … until the DVD arrived via Love Film, and there I was at eight o’clock one Saturday night, G&T in hand and nothing much else to do.
Made in 2014, written by Laura Wade and based on an earlier play of hers for the theatre, the film is about a public school dining club at Oxford which (although Wade denies it) is obviously based on the Bullingdon. As every fan of Evelyn Waugh knows, this club made a fictional appearance in Decline and Fall, written in 1928. Much later, when I was at Oxford in the early 1980s, various people I had known at Eton were in the Bullingdon, and this must, I think, have been the club’s Indian summer, the last period when its raucous antics were still just about possible.
Even then, was there a sense that the club was trying, a little too hard, to live up to a reputation that Waugh had created for it? The suspicion was not unreasonable, because the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited had just been broadcast, causing among public school undergraduates a self-conscious revival of everything to do with what we took to be 1920s Oxford. But the 1980s saw the end of hedonism at Oxford, its exit hastened by the appearance of AIDS.
This, perhaps, is the thing that is so odd about Laura Wade’s film; because although it purports to be set in 2014 (the Riot Club boys have modern smartphones and one of them drives a modern Aston Martin), the reality of it is firmly set in the Oxford that I knew thirty years ago, but which now no longer exists – except, perhaps, in the imagination of Wade herself.
Nevertheless, up until about half way through, The Riot Club is a believable portrait of something that I remember from an increasingly distant past. The attitudes, the voices, the clothes … it was a bit embarrassing, perhaps, and some of it a little over-the-top; nor was I sure where Wade was ‘going’ with all this; but it was immediately recognisable.
And then I started to feel uneasy. Because although it is quite fun to see the Buller boys vomiting all over the place in their sumptuous club uniforms, or driving round the streets of Oxford waving half-empty bottles of champagne from an open-topped Aston Martin, or getting hog-whimperingly drunk before proceeding to trash the rooms of newly-elected members … although in a rather awful way this is indeed amusing, you soon start to realise that every public school boy in the film is portrayed as being irredeemably vile. The one exception is a character called Miles (acted by Max Irons, son of Jeremy), whom we know to be OK because he is going out with an honest northern lass acted by the toothsome Holliday Grainger.
So. Toffs are bad and working-class girls are good, especially if they have silky-smooth skin and bags of sex-appeal. But even though Buller boys have always been a tiny minority within a privileged minority which is itself quite small, there are no other public school boys in this film. None at all. From what we are shown, therefore, public school equals Bullingdon and Bullingdon equals public school. Thus by the time we reach the half-way mark, the film has, through highly selective use of almost entirely out-of-date material, planted the idea in the mind of the viewer that privately-educated boys are by definition a hateful lot … although rather good-looking, it has to be said.
So far, so what? Now, however, the film takes a more sinister turn, because in an extended and blood-spattered scene which slowly veers away from reality-based docu-drama and into the field of the most grisly Tarantinoesque fantasy, the members of the Riot Club, all blind drunk and high on coke, first trash the room they have rented in a gastro-pub far from Oxford (it cannot be a coincidence that the pub is called ‘The Bull’ – think Bullingdon) and then beat the landlord to a pulp (no pun on Tarantino intended; though this is indeed fiction).
Still in the realm of fantasy, they get away with it, and although the chief perpetrator is sent down from Oxford, it is made clear that the high-placed former members of the Riot Club will ‘see him good’, and that a prosperous career awaits in corporate finance or some similar nasty public-school-dominated field.
Again, so what, you might say? Does it matter that from a starting-point narrowly based on the mythical deeds of a tiny group of drunken undergraduates, Wade manages to suggest that all public school boys are not only snobbish, arrogant, effete, sexist, racist, homophobic, spoilt, over-privileged, fascist, etc etc etc, but also psychopathic? Does it matter that she suggests that that these people – and, indeed, the upper classes in general – are scum, and that they also rule the country through a secret cabal of high-placed patrons? Does it matter that historically speaking, before you want to eliminate any class of people, you first vilify and dehumanise them (think of the Jacobins and their aristocratic victims; of Lenin and the Russian bourgeoisie; of Hitler and the Jews)? Does all this matter?
Perhaps not. But here’s a thought. If anyone in modern Britain were to make a film that systematically and intentionally dehumanised and denigrated not the upper classes, but the Jews or the Muslims, or gays or blacks, they would very rapidly find themselves in a court of law.
However, as Laura Wade knows, there is one group of people in Britain that you can denigrate, insult and malign to your heart’s content, and that is the upper classes – who, when the entire nation is enslaved in a totalitarian socialist utopia, will be belatedly recognised as one of the most decent, tolerant and civilised groups of people that ever existed.