Comedy based on a university campus seems to enjoy a revival every decade or so. I remember 'A Very Peculiar Practice' (1986-8) which ran while I was studying at the University of Warwick and was apparently based on occurrences that had happened there as the author, Andrew Davis, had studied there. In particular the American vice chancellor and the incompetent doctor who served the university's medical centre and was still doing so while I was a student, were referenced. Previously there had been 'The History Man' (novel 1975; television 1981) by my old friend Malcolm Bradbury, set at the fictional university of Watermouth apparently modelled on Brighton, though Lancaster University, the University of Sussex and the University of East Anglia where Bradbury taught have also been cited. That story was as much about the sexual and political mores of males in the 1970s as about university life. Also worth mentioning is 'The Comic Strip Presents - The Summer School' (1983) shot at the University of East Anglia.
I saw the other day that David Lodge's 'campus trilogy': 'Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses' (1975), 'Small World: An Academic Romance' (novel 1984; television series 1988) and 'Nice Work' (novel 1988; television series 1989) has been re-released. Like Bradbury, Lodge has long worked in universities. A lot of this fiction pokes gentle fun at places which most of the population never went close to. With the rise in the level of eighteen-year olds attending university from 6% at the time 'A Very Peculiar Practice' was showing to 42% today it is probably to be expected that with them coming more into the experience of young people and their 'helicopter' parents that a university would be the basis for more situation comedies in particular.
Last year actually saw two university situation comedies. The first was 'Campus' which had been piloted in 2009. It attained very low viewing figures and it was easy to see why. Rather than using the university setting as a microcosm to reflect on wider society as these other stories had done, it was specifically about the interaction between academics and their very particular concerns such as research profile, issues that mean nothing to students let alone the large mass of the population. It was as engaging as a comedy about the teaching staff of Eton would have been. In addition it was simply not funny, despite being produced by the same team as the far more successful 'Green Wing' (2004-7) hospital situation comedy; it certainly lacked the wit of Bradbury or Lodge. Interestingly the biggest impact (if true) is that I have been told that Brunel University (located in West London rather than Bristol as you might have expected) removed a sculpture of the word 'Brunel' made of free-standing red plastic letters as in 'Campus' the university featured, Kirke University, had something identical.
The second university situation comedy of 2011 was 'Fresh Meat', also shown on Channel 4, but to a much warmer response. One reason for this is that it came from the perspective of six students sharing a house. Unlike many portrayals of universities on television, this was up-to-date given all the news about first-year students being unable to be accommodated in student halls and being farmed out into houses. It seems to be set at Manchester Metropolitan University. It features a cross-section of students studying geology, dentistry and English literature including the rather rebellious Vod (Zawe Ashton) who looks like a classic lesbian but is straight and geek Howard (Greg McHugh); more mainstream sometimes almost couple Josie (Kimberley Nixon) and Kingsley (Joe Thomas) as well as the upper middle class 'Oregon' (real name Melissa, played by Charlotte Ritchie) and upper class J.P. played by stand-up comedian Jack Whitehall who makes much play of his social class in his comedy. There were criticisms about the fact that sex featured so highly in the series. However, I feel that this reflects reality. Back in the 1980s 40% of students graduated as virgins but we live in different times and with 34% of UK boys and 38% of UK girls having sex before 16 in 2008, this is not surprising. In my day even when people were not having sex they were still angsting about it and I doubt that has died out.
The show is contemporary in approach in most things. The classes it shows are far too small for the size that is actually the case certainly over the past decade. However, at least it moves a few increments on from most drama series which show all universities, no matter how modern as having a kind of Oxbridge supervisory system that even Oxbridge no longer has.
There is of course the staff-student relationship between 'Oregon' and Professor Tony Shales, something which seems to be compulsory for any story featuring universities to include. Whilst I may be tired of that kind of relationship being portrayed I have to confess I have worked with two women who have married their lecturers and whilst in and around universities knew at least three male academic staff who had married or had long-term relationships with particular students. The one aspect that all television dramas about universities seem to miss that these days with more mature students (officially defined as students over 25 in UK or 26 in continental Europe), though with fees their numbers are dropping away, it is more than likely that an academic will encounter single or divorced students their own age which seems far more likely to spark a relationship than them chasing 18 year olds. However, I have never seen such a relationship shown in the media. The closest is 'Educating Rita' (play 1980; movie 1983) and in that case the sexual relationship was ruled out primarily on social class grounds
'Fresh Meat' does address concerns of contemporart students, showing the revival of student radicalism in these 'Occupy' times but this sitting alongside the usual worries about grades and relationships. The fact that most of the characters come from comfortable middle class families if not upper class ones accurately reflects the UK university system which has seen a stagnation in working class recruitment since 2002. The real growth in attendance in universities has been among the less capable siblings of middle class people who would normally have gone anyway. The characters of 'Oregon' and J.P. are reflective of those who go to university but Vod, Josie and Kingsley do not come from impoverished backgrounds either. 'Oregon''s attempts to appear more ordinary than she is, much to Vod's changrin is again spot on target.
It is not a laugh out loud series, more one in which you go 'yes, that is so true', things like the friends you try to get rid of and the boy/girlfriends from home who cling on to students yet believing they are more 'real' than anyone studying at university. The issues around parties remain pretty much the same as they always have been. In some ways the series is a more grounded version of 'The Young Ones' (1981) but in my view is both entertaining and engaging. Channel 4 has sensibly decided to keep 'Fresh Meat' live on its 4OD service and I recommend you go and watch it there: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/fresh-meat/4od