Spoiler alert: the first five minutes of The Riot Club are so dreadful that you’ll wish you hadn’t gone. It is, as you probably know, the film version of Laura Wade’s hit play about dodgy goings-on at an exclusive Oxford club fairly obviously based on the Bullingdon. And it is — at least during those early scenes — about as authentically Oxford as a proudly sported college scarf, or one of those navy blue sweatshirts with Dominus Illuminatio Mea on it, or a particularly dreadful episode of Inspector Morse where the Jag goes under Hertford Bridge and emerges, seconds later, in Oriel Square…
We meet a bunch of undergraduates in periwigs. The Bullingdon — sorry, the Riot Club — was apparently descended from the Hellfire Club. Cue much smashing of vintage glass, a bit of light stabbing, some Les Liaisons Dangereuses-style pork-sword play, and various outbreaks of exceedingly unconvincing 18th-century English. Thence we flash forward to a modern Oxford hardly less clichéd or more plausible than the Georgian one.
Here’s a typically crap scene: the snooty parents of a fresher undergraduate are arguing with a bowler-hatted college porter. The rooms the young sir has been allocated just aren’t good enough: why can’t he have a proper, oak-panelled set like his elder brother did?
Well — dur! — because it’s his first year and, unless perhaps you’re a scholar, you don’t get decent rooms in college until your second year. And it wouldn’t be a matter for debate because that’s not how things work at Oxford: room allocation is no respecter of money or title. Nor would you have your pushy parents with you trying to interfere. Oxford isn’t school. Your folks don’t come up for cosy chats with the Dean, like they did with your housemaster. At Oxford — at university generally — parents don’t get a look-in.
Laura Wade really should have known this. She did, after all, go to Bristol, where she must have been surrounded by Oxbridge rejects capable of filling her in with every last detail about what Oxford is really like. And if not her, then surely her man Sam West (who appears in the film as a history don) could have helped. He was at Oxford in the mid-1980s at the same time as me. And as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and David Cameron…
Look, I do apologise for the grotesque snobbery in the preceding paragraphs but I’m afraid memories of Oxford tend to bring out the very worst in me. As they probably do in so many of us who were there. You’re an impetuous nobody suddenly parachuted into all that medieval stone and tradition and grandeur, and you feel somehow honour-bound to play up to your surroundings. You do stupid things because you think it’s the Done Thing. Behaving appallingly in all-male drinking clubs, for example.
As I may once possibly have mentioned, I never made it into the Buller itself. But I do have lots of friends who did and in my time I’ve done more than enough licking sorbet out of belly buttons, urinating down ancient stairwells, and breaking windows with my bare knuckles to understand the basic drinking club etiquette: you dress up; get rat-arsed; perform grotesque rituals; vomit; drink some more; and, above all, make damn sure you never let slip to any of your comrades what a thoroughly awful time you’re having.
That last detail is the one no one ever admits about drinking societies. ‘Am I having fun yet?’ you keep asking yourself. And the answer is always no. You keep pressing on with the carnage and excess for much the same reasons as a young subaltern continues to lead his men towards the enemy trenches. Not because you want to but because it’s your duty. Otherwise you’d be letting the other chaps down.
This is one of the many things that the film gets exactly right. There’s a heartrending scene — spoiler alert two — where Lauren, the lower-middle-class girlfriend of Miles (a very likeable Max Irons) turns up to the private room where the Riot Club are in mid-debauch and offers to drive him home early. It’s what Miles would clearly prefer: the boys are behaving like animals; this girl loves him as he loves her. But he just can’t. Partly, it’s a case of ‘bros before hos’. Partly it’s that class thing, which, despite being a generally decent, unarrogant, well-meaning chap who went to West-minster (has Laura Wade ever met anyone who went to Westminster?), he finds himself unable to escape.
There’s lots of other good stuff too: the banter; the ensemble playing; the nicely observed class details like the way the club’s token rich foreigner is suddenly made to realise that despite having been to Eton he’ll never get to make Riot Club president because, unforgivably, he’s Greek; the wince-inducing contrast between the spoiled brats braying in the back room and the decent middle-class regulars trying to enjoy their gastropub dinner.
None of this quite makes up, though, for the film’s — and play’s — flawed premise. It asks us to believe that these Rioters are more than just a bunch of rich, silly boys with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement: that they’re actually capable of vicious class hatred, poisonous cruelty and ruthless violence. I’m just not buying it.
And it’s not because I want to defend the David Cameron/George Osborne set as paragons of niceness. It’s simply because it isn’t how these tossers roll. They might trash a restaurant — or, as the Buller has done on two occasions, smash every pane of glass in Christ Church (my own college: 1984–1987) — but they wouldn’t assault a member of the lower orders. Why would they, when they all have at least three much more effective tools at their disposal: money, connections, and the amazing weapons-grade charm which comes from having spent your whole life knowing that you’re the best and that only vulgar losers would stoop so low as trying to prove it.
The Riot Club is in cinemas from 19 September.