Fingers on buzzers

December 1, 2006

Starter For Ten Cinemas nationwide

For me, the most improbable detail in Starter for Ten is the fact that the hero's tutor appears in the audience at the recording of University Challenge . In my day, UC was generally regarded by dons as some kind of amusing distraction from the real business of academe. It was treated as something on the level of amateur dramatics and as a far less serious part of university life than captaining the rugby team or earning a blue for tiddlywinks. Certainly not the kind of thing your tutor would come and see you do. If Brian, the central character, really had been reading English at Bristol University in 1985, he would have learnt, as Dr Leavis taught us, that "mind" was a faculty utterly divorced from the possession of Gradgrindian "facts". So, lucky Brian to have such support.

But then, Starter for Ten is in essence a student love story loosely spun around Brian's desire to prove that he knows and loves facts. University Challenge is what he first aspires to. Then he discovers romantic love, and the ups and downs of love, and he finally gets lucky in that too. You know that Rebecca is the right kind of girl for him when she tells him that she never wants to be forced to read his adolescent poems.

Knowing Brian, as we get to during the film, we can only hope that the university education and the perceptive girlfriend, to which and to whom he returns at the end of the film, help him ditch the poetry. Being a benign comedy, Starter for Ten persuades us that our hero has not become the wanker that his erstwhile Southend friend Spencer insists is what university makes of such boys.

This is an enchanting period piece, as the music and the disparaging mentions of Margaret Thatcher remind us. Bristol University should be pleased with how it represents both the old vibrancy and the inherent untidiness of student life. This is not the Scumbag College so memorably pitted against the toffs of Oxbridge in The Young Ones (though Bristol's Cambridge opponents in the film uncannily take on many upper-class twit characteristics). Bristol may provide the setting for Brian's seedy digs, but would it be too trivial to mention that he is both interviewed and taught at University College London, while he wanders through the grand baroque academic groves at the erstwhile Royal Naval College at Greenwich? Was Bristol University's architecture not up to such exposure, or did some publicity-conscious administrator put her or his foot down?

I am sure I will not be alone in welcoming Bamber Gascoigne back to the screen (well, Mark Gattis as a plausible look and soundalike). He is, however, nonplussed by Brian's climactic intellectual faux pas. The real Bamber was always unfailingly polite and he always seemed to have asked questions from a position of being genuinely informed. If challenged, he was open to the possibility of an error and he never raised a disapprovingly tetchy eyebrow. Brian's team doesn't qualify, but I was left wondering, if they had, would that uncommonly supportive tutor have appeared in one of the creaky old Christmas specials when the academics meet the victorious students? Alas, my college dons turned down flat the chance of brief television fame. Would they now?

Andrew Sanders is emeritus professor of English at Durham University. He was captain of the Sidney Sussex College team that won University Challenge in 1971.

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