Fizzy day falls flat with the price tag

August 20, 2004

At Brighton University's awards ceremony, Laurie Taylor finds there is no such thing as a free drink.

Outside the Brighton Dome, the billboards are still singing the wonders of last week's stand-up show by Ross Noble. ("Brilliant. Mesmerising.") It seems rather appropriate. Most of the people now making their way to their seats in the stalls and upper circle for Brighton University's award ceremony look in the mood for some entertainment. There is none of the reverential calm I encountered at a similar ceremony in the Grand Hall at Reading. Parents and guests chatter cheerfully to each other and there's the occasional happy shriek of recognition as a begowned son or daughter is spotted in the reserved central section of the auditorium. "STEVE. Over here. No, over here. STEVE!" Amateur photographers climb on seats or stand in the aisle to rehearse shots. From time to time, there are little outbursts of cheering from groups of students who glimpse the glamorous or eccentric clothes their friends are wearing beneath their gowns. This is, after all, the award ceremony for the schools of architecture, design, arts and communication.

Up on the stage, the hardback chairs are neatly spaced in three rows, looking as though they're waiting to accommodate a big band. There's even a rock show screen at the back of the stage, which at the moment is being used for a silent slide show telling the story of how the university evolved from its humble beginnings in what looks like a modest set of beach huts to its present grand institutional form.

"Could you take your seats, please," A mistress of ceremonies appears at the lectern downstage left. "You may use cameras and camcorders. A celebratory glass of champagne will be served in the bar area after the ceremony. Please stand for the procession." We all stand. Bach is played through the speakers. Nothing happens for two minutes. Has someone misplaced the mace? No, here they come. Down the middle aisle through the stalls and on to the stage. The music is a little mistimed, so the party has to stand still for a full minute staring forward from the stage like an amateur dramatic group freeze-framed between bows. A final baroque flourish and we all take our seats.

First up is the chairman of the board of governors, Sir Michael Checkland, former director-general of the BBC and, more pointedly, former chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. He congratulates everyone in the hall, tells us that we are all honoured by the presence on the platform of the Mayor of Lewes and the Mayor of Brighton, and proceeds to introduce the vice-chancellor, Sir David Watson. Sir David gets a holiday camp cheer from the audience before embarking on an engaging and brave speech about higher education. "This university has nothing in common with Brideshead Revisited ... students here are vocationally oriented... they are in higher education for a purpose... they have to work as well as study... they care about each other and want to make the world a better place... they are not Thatcher's children."

After the dispassionate anonymity of the Reading ceremony, it is refreshing to hear someone speaking about their institution with such passion and conviction. Watson even finds time to thank the secretaries and the lab technicians. "Remember," he says in a final flourish, "a university is not a business although it has to be businesslike. You don't purchase a degree, you earn it." Applause, cheers and a couple of wolf whistles.

Time for the conferral of degrees. Anne Boddington, head of the School of Architecture and Design, begins to call out from her list and graduands come on stage from the wings, proceed to the centre for a handshake from Sir Michael, and then journey downstage right to collect their certificate.

Whereas the Reading set-up seemed to have been designed to make it impossible for parents to take photos of their graduating offspring, here there are a dozen photo opportunities.

Boddington is word perfect: not a single suspect pronunciation. Checkland is also smile and handshake perfect, and the platform party is awake and reasonably responsive. (A cheerful lady in the back row with a mop of tightly curled brown hair vigorously claps every single name as though recognising a succession of personal friends.) There is also some excellent choreography in the auditorium. These Brighton graduates are a frisky, excited bunch, but they are moved in and out of rows with clockwork precision by a bunch of amiable stewards. The sense that there has been a bit of thought is enhanced by a timely break in the name calling for the presentation of an honorary degree to Miss Posy Simmonds. She is introduced by the dean of the faculty of arts and architecture, Bruce Brown. He is obviously a real fan. He's read the books and the strips and is sufficiently conscious of the link between the present proceedings and Simmonds' lifelong satirical objects to warn the audience that she might use the present occasion for her own purposes. "Who are we to argue if she does?" he asks.

Simmonds is delicious. She's funny and relevant and has a nicely worked little allegory about the difficulty of getting going after graduation, based on a David Attenborough film depicting the flying efforts of baby albatrosses. It takes a little time for the audience to recognise that her slightly throwaway style is a product of careful calculation rather than nervousness. "I suppose I'm expected to be inspiring," she says at one point in mock apology for her good humour. "I should say things like 'Be Alert. Britain needs Lerts.'" If only someone had put up a few of Simmonds' cartoons on the big screen. A clumsy omission.

Sustained applause rings out for Simmonds and then it is back to the graduands from the School of Arts and Communications, introduced by head of school, Karen Norquay. She keeps up the high standards set by Boddington and maintains a tolerant face even when confronted by some of the wilder sartorial choices of students of dance, theatre and visual art.

It has been a long afternoon, but the audience vigorously cheers right through to the last candidate and then heads off to the theatre bar for the free glass of champagne. I wish that I could describe this as a delightful charitable gesture by Brighton. But there are two problems. There is the small problem of the "champagne". Bubbly does vary in quality and price, but this particular tipple was a fizzy little number called Codorniu Brut, which retails at a modest £6.35 a bottle. And then there's the bigger problem that this drink has been paid for ten times over by nearly every member of the audience. Each parent in the Dome has been required to cough up £12 for the pleasure of watching their offspring collect their hard-earned degree. I had no idea before today that any university charged for such a ceremony, but it must be a nice little earner.

There is perhaps some small compensation in the low-key selling of mementos and photographs in the buffet area. There are the usual silly graduate teddy bears, key fobs, baseball caps, degree certificate holders, DVDs, desk clocks and umbrellas, but there's not much sign of anyone buying. The gowns for this occasion are provided by J. Wippell and Co Ltd. I ask why at least 20 students appeared on stage without a gown. Had there been a shortage? "Oh no. This is one of those ex-polys that does not insist on gowns."

Photographs by H. Tempest are as expensive as ever, with top place held by a sort of simulated oil portrait. This would cover 50cm by 40cm of your wall and set you back a modest £115. But, again, there are few buyers. Everyone who wanted to take a photograph has had every possible chance during the ceremony.

All in all a good day. The speakers addressed the audience directly and had something useful to say. There were no silly Latinate formulations. Not even a mace. The platform party kept awake and showed real pleasure at their students' triumphs. But there were missed opportunities. Couldn't one of the students on the digital music course have devised something to be played during the processional entrance or exit as an alternative to the canned Bach? Why - it needs saying again - wasn't some of Simmonds' work on the big screen? Why couldn't the same screen have shown some of the students' project work while they were being presented? (There were degrees in fine art, visual art, three-dimensional design and graphic design.) And that £12 charge is a real downer. For another four quid one could have had a mesmerising evening with Ross Noble.

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