Why I... recommend letting the television cameras in

September 6, 2002

Seeing life in an Oxford college on television normally means viewing it in fictional form, but from 9pm on Sunday, viewers will be able to see the real thing for the first time on Channel 4. College Girls is a series of six one-hour programmes shot in St Hilda's College, Oxford, between 1998 and 2001.

The series' producer originally approached me as I was her former tutor. After much discussion, preliminary approaches to the college and several drafts of her company Chameleon's proposal, I agreed to put the proposition to the college's governing body, which includes students and tutors.

Many members were enthusiastic about the project's originality and the chance it offered to dispel some pervasive Oxford myths and to enhance St Hilda's profile. Others had doubts and suspicions: this was the era of the fly-on-the-wall documentary, and members of both St Hilda's and the wider university warned against the dangers of Chameleon doing an Opera House on the college.

However, the majority of the governing body was convinced that the project - which aimed to show how going to university, and specifically to Oxford, could change students' lives intellectually, socially, politically and emotionally for both the better and, at times, worse - had more in its favour than against it. It was accepted, subject to a set of protocols and checks and balances. The television crew was permitted a total of 40 days filming a year; some aspects of college life were off-limits, especially any forums in which confidential matters of student welfare were discussed; anyone not wishing to take part did not feature; and those taking a large part were able to review their participation regularly. The crew updated the college regularly about what they proposed to film, and the college appointed a succession of liaison officers, normally former students, to accompany the crew during filming.

The college had no editorial veto, but it did have the right to see the rushes during film-making and to view, comment on and correct inaccuracies in the edited films. Over the three years, many of us got used to sitting in tutorials with a radiomike down the backs of our trousers and a fluffy orange boom hovering over our heads. Cynics would say that film crews trade on this perverse familiarity, garnering their best material when their subjects are off-guard. But you could also argue that familiarity encourages one to perform less and behave more naturally.

The three-year period also enabled trust to develop. A lot of the depth that the series has comes from the fact that a growing number of aspects of college and university life were filmed as the three years went on, including the college's admissions interviewing process. More important, Chameleon appreciated the need for sensitivity to the students and kept in close contact with their tutors. In some cases they backed off, but the students themselves proved remarkably resilient.

The fact that St Hilda's is Oxford's only women's college interested Chameleon, but it was not the raison d'être for the series. In 1996, tutors voted narrowly against going mixed and Chameleon may have hoped that another vote would be taken during the three years. It didn't happen, but undergraduate students held a referendum on the subject, which produced one of the most memorable sequences in the series. The films concentrate on a diverse range of students, six of whose careers are followed from when they come up to when they graduate. One of the strengths of the films is that the students are honest about the fact that life at an Oxford college can be tough. But the sense of achievement when they succeed proves that the flipside is just as important. The films show that St Hilda's and Oxford demand a lot from these students - and that they demand just as much from themselves, which is what got them there in the first place.

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