Campus, Channel 4 | TV reviews, news & interviews
Campus, Channel 4
Clever, absurd, rude, perhaps even edgy - but is it funny?
Let us begin with the nots. Fashionably weird is not enough. Edgy, whatever that means, is not enough. The repeated use of the word “vagina” is not enough and semi-improvised ensemble acting is not, in itself, quite enough. These were just some of the many not-thoughts which ran through my mind during the opening episode of the much-touted Campus. So what did picky me want? I wanted funny.
Created by Green Wing supremo Vicky Pile and written by six of the same team behind that fondly recalled surreal-com, it was difficult not to make comparisons between Green Wing and Campus simply because it so obviously and repeatedly invited them. Instead of a hospital the setting was Kirke University, an outpost of academic indolence overseen by Vice-Chancellor Jonty de Wolfe, played with a manic, eye-glinting relish by Andy Nyman, but that small shift aside, Campus tilled familiar ground with diminishing returns and zero warmth.
Many of the character types from Green Wing returned here in only slightly altered form. There was Matthew Beer (Joseph Millson), the permanently horny, cosmically bored and perennially indisposed English professor who set his cap – and the rest - at Imogen Moffat (Lisa Jackson), the mousey, repressed Maths-lecturer-turned-author of “shit-lit” bestseller The Year of Zero. A man whose "To Do" list is breathing and has breasts, Beer was only a twist of DNA away from Stephen Mangan’s womanising anaesthetist Guy Secretan. Meanwhile, deranged engineering lecturer Lydia (Dolly Wells) - “We all had nicknames at school: Whitey, Tinkerbell... they called me The Big Shit” – seemed like a pale echo of Michelle Gomez’s marvellously odd Sue White.
At least de Wolfe (pictured right) was cut from a different cloth; what a shame it was another overly familiar one. David Brent reimagined as a nefarious and entirely OTT Shakespearean villain, he gave his staff wedgies in the campus courtyard and tried to persuade a student to kill himself to cover up a massive accountancy cock-up. He wanted, he said, to make Kirke “gleam like a bleached anus in a line-up of durrrrty arses”. Following Moffat’s publishing success he tasked Beer to write his own book to “bring the foreigns in”.
There was no real attempt to eviscerate the world of academia – the campus merely provided a suitable playground (crucially, one with several attractive young women) for absurdity, resentment and lust to run riot. There was the de rigueur pitiless gaze at office-based inanity (stray emails; bored flirtations) involving an enjoyable turn from Sara Pascoe as Nicole, the daffy accommodations officer and the only woman on the planet still saying “wassup”, and accounts manager Jason, played with plausible blankness by Will Adamsdale.
The default setting was heightened mania and rather laboured surrealism. Beer fired plastic arrows at a student with a target painted on his naked chest and at one point de Wolfe, dressed in a green tutu, literally disappeared into thin air and left Beer with a wind-up monkey in his sock. The aspiration seemed to be magical realism with knob gags.
So why wasn’t I laughing? Well, for a start, halfway through I realised that the vogue in TV comedy for near-fatal doses of faux-naturalistic awkwardness is becoming as hackneyed as the laugh track an on old episode of Terry and June. The other problem was that the barely controlled urge to shock – as if comedy were in any way capable of taking such a scalp these days – time and again trumped the necessity to be funny.
Watch a clip from Campus
There was a disabled gag in the first 30 seconds, a bit of near-the-knuckle racism and a rape joke. The childish delight in portraying mild sexual deviancy soon palled, while the entire hour was pebble-dashed with scatological and biological riffs which sounded like cast-offs from Green Wing. Immensely pleased with itself, Campus ultimately suffered from a bad case of that niggling affliction which torpedoes much TV comedy these days: namely the suspicion that the actors are more concerned with their own amusement than ours.
I did laugh, but not very much. I nodded a lot, if that helps, but Campus was so desperate to be clever, dark and – heaven help us – edgy that it forgot what it was actually there for. It was well acted, engaging enough, fashionably absurd. All the right rude words were in all the right rude places (usually either heading towards or about to leave one orifice or other). Just one crucial piece of the jigsaw was missing: it simply wasn’t very funny.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Andrew Graham-Dixon's series offers so much more than the title suggests
Will China's army of young instrumentalists conquer the planet?
On manoeuvres with the world's best-known aerobatics team
Return of enthralling social history series
Twitter votes no but Scotland puts out a cheerful welcome mat
Return of 19th-century industrial saga is dingy, drab and didactic
Beethoven, Berry and Black Sabbath: cracking the rock'n'roll code
More drama than musical in TV adaptation of the inspirational true story
Maritime series washes up on screens at the wrong time of night
Dennis Kelly's tortuous spine-chiller roars back in lethal form
A generic mutation has come back from the grave, and it still sucks
Stories of the tunes the Beeb refused to play