Artillery Row

Abnormal People

The TV adaptation that reflects the falsity of campus novels

Like millions of others, I watched the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People over the past few days. My feelings were divided between admiration at the excellent performances and assured direction, faint irritation at the glacial pace and gnomic dialogue and incredulity at the frequency and athleticism of the sex scenes, which the press revealed required the recruitment of an ‘intimacy coordinator’. I agree with the journalist Hugo Rifkind, who wrote in his review that ‘fast-forward through the sex, and you could watch the whole series in 45 minutes.’ 

Rooney’s bestselling book was much praised upon publication, but there is something about the adaptation that makes its qualities seem unnatural, even artificial. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its depiction of contemporary university life, in this case that of Trinity College Dublin. The lead characters, withdrawn and wealthy Marianne and working-class but brilliant Connell, are beautifully interpreted by the actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, but feel less like relatable university students and more akin to a couple of literary creations dragged out of the pages of a book and into a realistic milieu. There are too many unlikely moments to list, but I never met any students who inhabited so grand a Georgian house as Marianne lives in, nor does it seem entirely credible that there would be an emotional scene between the two of them, while still at school, in which she, heartfully and successfully, persuades him of the value of studying English literature at university. As, it should be noted, Rooney did herself. 

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Normal People, it is the latest high-profile example of the sub-genre of the campus saga, which flourishes in film, television and literature. It has encompassed anything from Eighties comedy The Young Ones to Max Beerbohm’s Edwardian comic novel Zuleika Dobson, via everything from Brideshead Revisited and Lucky Jim to Fresh Meat. David Lodge made his name through his satirical portrayals of academia at the fictional ‘Rummidge’ university, a stand-in for Birmingham, and Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, was a memorably vicious account of a group of wealthy and privileged classics students becoming involved in murder. Stories set in universities have encompassed anything from broad farce to social satire to violent crime, with a generous helping of lecherous lecturers along the way. But what is the secret to their continued appeal? 

Part of the reason for people wanting to see, or read, stories set within universities is that they tap into something fundamental in our experience. Their account of young people coming of age, and finding their intellectual, social and sexual niches, have something of the bildungsroman about them, but in a fashion that can either be played for inspirational drama or riotous comedy. University offers the opportunity for finding oneself or inventing a persona entirely, although few might go as far as Charlotte Ritchie’s character in Fresh Meat, Melissa Shawcross, who adopts the apparently random nickname of ‘Oregon’ in an unsuccessful attempt to hide her privately educated and upper-middle-class background. Inevitably, she ends up having an affair with her English literature professor. 

Now that the reforms of various governments have set a target of half the school leavers in this country going on to higher education, it has ceased to be the preserve of the brilliant elite, but instead is an educational opportunity open to anyone, within reason. This has meant that the narratives set within universities have altered over the past century. A large part of the aesthetic pleasure of Brideshead Revisited and, to a lesser extent, Zuleika Dobson is their evocation of a privileged and exclusive world into which an onlooker – and, by association, the reader – is briefly allowed access. Just as, to this day, Oxbridge have various fellows’ and masters’ gardens that nobody but a very few are ever permitted to disturb, so the pre-lapsarian world depicted in these books was one largely untroubled by the average 18-year old – ‘normal people’, if you will – being allowed to enter it. 

This largely changed as a result of the Second World War, and the subsequent rise of the red brick and polytechnic institutions. For a taste of what Oxford was actually like during WWII, Philip Larkin’s first novel Jill comes highly recommended. It evokes a city where nothing is quite right and where the ever-present threat of mass annihilation from the sky puts the personal travails of its characters in perspective. Its depiction of John Kemp, a shy working-class boy utterly adrift in a world of braying public-school types and seeking refuge in erotic fantasy was at least three-quarters autobiographical, something acknowledged by Larkin when he wrote to Kingsley Amis that ‘Kemp is growing rather clever, but that’s because he is growing like me, a tendency I shall sternly redress in the third draft’. 

Amis, meanwhile, was beginning to think about his own debut novel Lucky Jim, which would move away from the Oxford milieu in which both he and Larkin had been educated and would portray the hapless antics of Jim Dixon, a reluctant history lecturer at a provincial university not a million miles away from Leicester, where Larkin was then librarian. It is justly famous for literature’s greatest depiction of the hangover and for the hilarious set-piece at the end in which Dixon, over-excited and drunk, delivers an increasingly unhinged lecture on the subject of ‘Merrie England’, at the close of which he commits professional suicide by denouncing the vacuousness of what he has been expected to do. Amis’s novel was published at the beginning of the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement, in which traditional expectations of what intelligent, state-educated men ‘should’ do were being rapidly overturned as the approach of Harold Wilson’s classless Britain rapidly arrived. 

If Amis’s view of academics as drunken class warriors was incendiary, so David Lodge’s presentation of them, in Changing Places, Nice Work and many of his other books, as sex-obsessed and workshy undoubtedly led to many who would otherwise have embraced other professions to decide that this lifestyle was worth aspiring to, and, in the good old days of free tuition and student grants, settle into the undemanding embrace of long-term academia. Yet Lodge, who was himself a professor at the University of Birmingham, was no cosy defender of the status quo. He invented a literary parlour game in Changing Places called ‘Humiliation’, in which participants at dinner parties have to name the most famous book that they have never read, and in which one character’s fate is sealed when it transpires that they remain ignorant of Hamlet. Rumour has it that the game is still played in many of the smartest academic circles in the country to this day, although no doubt one could swiftly recover from any potential embarrassment by denouncing the unread book as patriarchal, colonialist or sexist; plain bad is unlikely to be sufficient. 

The protagonists of The Young Ones, studying at Scumbag College, would almost certainly have denounced ‘Humiliation’ as a right-wing stitch-up, but although Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer’s sitcom was more anarchic revue than social satire, its emergence in the early years of Thatcherism nevertheless struck a timely chord. At a time when market forces and the expansion of higher education coincided, and the rise of the polytechnic saw ever-more unlikely subjects being offered to students considerably more diligent than those played by Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer et al, it showed viewers that university could be considerably less elevated than the hugely successful 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited had suggested. 

In one episode, the students find themselves on University Challenge, up against Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, representing ‘Footlights College’. For many students, the quiz programme is synonymous with a certain kind of bookish, fiercely intelligent and socially backward young man or woman, achieving glory through leading their team to victory. Easily the best fictional presentation of its charms is the book Starter for Ten, and subsequent film adaptation, both of which were written by David Nicholls. 

It’s both very amusing about the strange appeal that the quiz show has for its adherents (not least Benedict Cumberbatch in an early and very funny role as the obsessive team captain Patrick) and a beautifully observed presentation of the earnest progressiveness of students who think that they have all the answers, on and off the show, and are quickly disabused by life’s rather harsher lessons. It remains perennially underrated, overshadowed by Nicholls’ greater success with One Day, but is as wise, sad and witty an account of university life as has appeared in the last two decades. Personally I’d take it over Normal People in a heartbeat in either of its incarnations.

What Rooney’s story does, however, do exceptionally well is to convey, however intentionally, the fragility of intellectual and romantic life when one is young. For many, their university years are the most important that they will ever have, either for good or ill. For everyone who emerges from their ivory (or plate glass) tower fired up, fulfilled and eager to make a success of their lives, there will be someone else weighed down with regret and sorrow at academic or personal choices that they realise are the wrong ones, just as there will be tutors and lecturers paralysed with their own disappointments. For all the humour and pathos of its fictional presentation, it remains true for many that university is a uniquely complex and challenging time, which is why it has captured so many writers’ and filmmakers’ imagination, with or without the most explicit of sex scenes.

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