If only quality assurance were this sexy

December 21, 2001

From Indiana Jones and his whip to Kate Winslet's revealing portrayal of Iris Murdoch, academia on the screen seems more about libido than lecturing. Adrian Mourby lists his top ten lusty dons.

Most professions find the disparity between the public perception of what they do and the day-to-day drudgery of reality a little disconcerting. Nothing brings home this dichotomy more sharply than a trip to the cinema or a night in front of the TV. Take a look at the average Ken Russell film and you would be forgiven for thinking that composing is all about sexual technique. As for academics, what we all know is that they are to a man (and the occasional woman) argumentative, highly opinionated and highly sexed egomaniacs. The forthcoming film Iris - out in the United Kingdom in January - with its casting of Kate Winslet as the young Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench is the older version), is likely to do very little to shift the public perception of academia as a place of zero paperwork and maximum sexual gratification, a place which bears little or no resemblance to the world of ideas, innovation and quality assurance to which you have pledged your life.

Quite where this idea originated it is difficult to say, but many people would point the finger at Kingsley Amis, who in Lucky Jim turned an irreverent eye on his employers, Swansea University. Before Amis, films such as A Yank At Oxford were altogether more respectful. Shot in 1938, this cozy drama film featured the benign Edmund Gwenn as long-suffering Dean of Cardinal College, the ancient C. V. France, a delightfully forgetful old don, and Walter Kingsford as the benevolent tutor who does his best to cope with the yank in question, the impetuous Robert Taylor. Twenty years later, during Britain's "angry young man" era, Amis and co perceived authority figures in a much more jaundiced hue. Although the Boulting Brothers turned Lucky Jim into something of an Ian Carmichael vehicle, the academic establishment was never quite as respectable again. Hugh Griffith proved vain and decrepit as Professor "Neddy" Welch, while John Welsh was aloof and unlikeable as the principal, and neither Ronald Cardew's registrar nor Henry B. Longhurst's Professor Hutchinson fared much better.

But it was left to the 1960s for the media image of academia to change beyond recognition. The rapid expansion of universities - which were themselves fast becoming bywords for sexual abandon and substance abuse - brought forth a fast new generation of academic, vampiric figures preying on youthful licence. The don was both Giovanni and Dracula, keeping himself forever young by espousing the latest causes and bedding the latest intake of students.

It was probably Malcolm Bradbury's book The History Man that captured the new and dubious status of the academic, particularly when the character of Howard Kirk was brought to the small screen by Anthony Sher. Nothing that we have seen since, not even William H. Macy defending himself impotently against an accusation of sexual harassment in Oleanna , can shift the image of the academic as libido cum laude .


1. Lucky Jim (1957) - Ian Carmichael as a not entirely lusty version of Jim Dixon (Boulting Brothers).

Dixon is a decent member of the postwar meritocracy who finds that life at a provincial university in the mid-1950s is far from meritocratic. Professor Welch (Hugh Griffith) runs the history department as a personal fiefdom, and Welch's unctuous, posturing son Bertram (Terry-Thomas) seems to have all the opportunities - and girls - so lacking in Jim's life. The Boulting Brothers softened Amis's vision to make Dixon compatible with Carmichael's screen persona, but the plot remains mostly intact, including Jim's infamously drunk lecture on "Merrie England". What sex existed in the book (between Dixon and the neurotic Margaret Peel) is toned down, but our hero still manages to run off with Bertram's girlfriend in the end.

2. The History Man (1981) - Anthony Sher as lusty leftwinger Howard Kirk (BBC2).

Kirk is a sociology lecturer at the University of Watermouth during the turbulent 1970s. His claim to be a "history" man arises from his belief that he is on the side of history (ie. the inescapable triumph of the proletariat). To this end, Howard sports a Zapata moustache and a fist emblem on his T-shirt. He also fights on behalf of the Claimants Union and beds every student who swims into his odious orbit. When Kirk comes up against nerdy student George Carmody, a battle ensues in which each man tries to get the other sacked. Charged with "Gross Moral Turpitude" (for obvious reasons), Howard is saved by his students who organise a "Work For Kirk" campaign, while Carmody is sent down. The crowning moment of Kirk's triumph comes when he manages to bed "19th-C Liberal" Annie Callender who has resisted him for the entire series. In a final caption, Malcolm Bradbury, who adapted his book for BBC2, added the postscript that in 1979 the unstoppable Howard Kirk voted for Margaret Thatcher.

3. The Glittering Prizes (1976) - Dinsdale Landen as lusty rightwinger Gavin Pope (BBC2).

Frederick Raphael was very much talking about his generation when he penned this witty story of Cambridge graduates making their way through adult life and safely into middle age. Pope is first introduced to us as a lone rightwing voice debating at the Cambridge union, but we catch up with him again in the 1970s when his nice but dull contemporary Bill Bourne takes up the chair of interdisciplinary studies at Staunton University. Here he finds that Pope has washed up as a heavy-drinking argumentative sociology lecturer who comes out with such dinner-table bons mots as: "Your first professorship is like your first shag: with a bit of luck you move on smartly to better things", and, when a guest claims to be impressed by the students of Staunton: "No one denies that some of them have eminently reputable knockers." Eventually, having made a series of alcohol-fuelled overtures to Bourne's Afro-American wife, Pope succeeds, somewhat surprisingly, in persuading her to leave the professor, although he insists that it is his rule never to go to bed with extramarital conquests. "I'm quite good at other things," he tells her breezily.

"I suppose it won't matter," she reassures herself.

"It won't," he replies. "I promise you it's purely academic."

4. A Very Peculiar Practice (1986-88) - Barbara Flyn as lusty lesbian Dr Rose Marie (BBC2).

Based, according to Andrew Davies, "on all the women who have terrified me", Marie is one of the medics at that well-known 1980s dump, the University of Lowlands. Dressed in a provocatively tight white tunic and speaking in a soft, deep voice worthy of the boudoir, she tells female patients: "What we call illness is one of the things that men do to women." Marie terrifies poor Stephen Daker (Peter Davison) as she continually crosses her legs and talks about the book she is writing for Virago, Massive Insults to the Vagina . Soon after arriving at the university, poor Daker makes an enemy of the ferocious Professor Furie (Timothy West) who is convinced that he is having an affair with his wife. In the event, it turns out that it is Marie who is the malefactor, but not before Daker has been physically threatened by Furie in the union bar.

5. Nice Work (1989) - Hadyn Gwynne as lusty heterosexual Dr Robyn Penrose (ITV).

Who can forget the sight of poor Vic Wilcox (Warren Clarke) naked and very much in love with the temporary English lecturer from David Lodge's Rummidge University? Back in the 1980s, Penrose finds herself assigned to shadow Wilcox in some Thatcherite scheme to make academia of use to industry. Wilcox, as MD of Pringle's Engineering, is soon out of his depth, believing that, because he and Penrose shared a quick night of passion on a sales conference in Germany, they are now lovers. Cruelly rejected by Penrose on the point of leaving his wife, Wilcox soon finds himself out of a job when Pringle's is unexpectedly sold off. But the story has a happy ending. David Lodge's original novel cleverly parallels the 19th-century narrative device of resolving all ills with a sudden unexpected inheritance. When Penrose inherits a six-figure sum from a hitherto unknown - but happily deceased - uncle, she invests £100,000 of it in an enterprise that allows Wilcox to be his own master at last - and her to remain an academic.

6. Oleanna (1994) - William H. Macy as John, the academic accused of being lusty in Mamet's campus conflict (Samuel Goldwyn).

A simple paternalistic chat with a failing student turns nightmarish for Professor John, who finds that Carol reports his offer to meet privately in order to raise her grades as an act of sexual harassment. Poor John is only a signature away from tenure and Carol (Deborah Eisenstadt) is therefore able to wreck his dream of security by denouncing him to the tenure committee as racist, sexist and classist. When John meets her a second time to ask that she withdraw her complaint, he ends up on a rape charge. Mamet skilfully creates a Kafka-esque nightmare out of a political correctness that is seen as setting traps that men of John's generation cannot spot. In the end, Carol offers to withdraw her complaint, provided John agrees to the banning of his own book from campus, but by this time outright war has been declared between the sexes. How would Howard Kirk have got out of that one?

7. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) - Richard Burton as a raddled old academic with a lusty wife (Warner).

In an ivy-clad (but far from Ivy League) college somewhere in New England, George (Richard Burton) is both lecturer in history and son-in-law to the college president. George and his wife, Martha, have invited Nick and Honey to dinner because Nick is the college's newly arrived biologist. The evening turns out to be a booze-strewn opportunity for George and Martha to re-stage some of their old domestic battles in front of the bewildered newcomers. "Musical beds is the faculty sport around here," George informs Nick and, sure enough, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) is not slow in trying to seduce Nick in the kitchen. "Humiliate The Host" and "Hump The Hostess" are only preliminaries in a decadent series of games that culminate in "Get The Guests" after Nick has failed to satisfy Martha. Written in the early 1960s when campus life was still considered respectable in America, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shocked the United States with its displays of sexual licence and alcohol-fuelled bile. Albee has admitted that he saw Nick the scientist as representing the challenge of the new to George, the crusty old historian, but that was in the days before historians became TV's sex sirens. Played in a cardigan and glasses by Burton, George has the crumbling ferocity of a man who knows that he has failed as academic, husband and would-be novelist. In the end, he gains some dignity by puncturing the illusion, long-maintained, that he and Martha have children. This he does in front of Nick and Honey, who depart in confusion, leaving their contentious hosts stripped of all illusion and entombed in an increasingly bleak marriage.

8. Michael Douglas limping and lusty in Wonder Boys (Paramount/BBC, 1999).

Like Burton, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Michael Douglas grew his hair and put on glasses to play Grady Tripp. He also donned a pink bathrobe in which the middle-aged professor tries vainly to type his woefully overdue second novel. Plagued by his desperate editor (Robert Downey Jnr) and the college chancellor, Sarah Gaskell, whom he has impregnated, Tripp finds life falling apart when he befriends a brilliant but seriously weird creative writing student called James Leer (Tobey Maguire). It does not help matters that the chancellor's husband's dog bites Tripp on the leg or that James Leer then shoots the dog or even that Tripp latest wife has just left him. Eventually Tripp's crazy weekend limps to a happy ending, but not before his manuscript is lost forever and his editor runs off with Leer (and Leer's brilliant new novel).

9. Harrison Ford as Dr Jones in the Indiana Jones trilogy (Paramount, 1981 onwards).

If you found it hard to believe Michael Douglas as a college professor, what about "Dr" Harrison Ford, who teaches only twice during the entire Indie saga? "Archaeology is about facts," Jones tells his class. "Not truth. If it's truth you're interested in, Dr Tyree's philosophy class is down the hall." Like Burton and Douglas, Ford sports glasses on campus yet never seems to need them to read inscriptions in poorly lit tombs, nor to flick his whip long distances with phenomenal accuracy. If this is an accurate depiction of an American academic from the 1930s, then not only am I Mickey Mouse but Steamboat Willy is an accurate depiction of life among the rodent population. Nevertheless, Dr Jones does have one qualification for our series: he invariably gets the girl. Unlike most dons Giovanni, Indie neither talks nor charms his way into bed. "Come here, doll" is his usual chat-up line. Maybe that went down well on American campuses during the interwar period, but somehow it is very difficult imagining J. K. Galbraith getting away with it at Princeton.

10. Kate Winslet as the young Iris Murdoch in Iris (2002).

Although not yet out in the UK, the major focus of the film, based on the memoirs of Iris's husband, John Bayley, is on the writer's later years when she developed Alzheimer's. The film's director, Sir Richard Eyre, says its subtitle could be "Enduring Love", with the early years depicting the flowering of the couple's romance. However, it is rated R for nudity, sexuality and some bad language. Cinema-goers in the UK will have to wait to find out whether the more salacious aspects of Dame Iris's youth have been dramatised or whether, for once, film-makers have decided the public does not need another lusty don.

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