Here’s the trailer for The Riot Club, a film that’s just been released this week. Look at the beautiful Oxford buildings. Look at the handsome but psychotic boys in white tie. Look at the girl with the (dodgy) northern accent. Oh, they are all members of some sort of evil dining society. If you want a synopsis of the Riot Club, think Oxford Blood without the vampires. Basically, I like to sit back and pretend this is a trailer for the film adaptation of my books. That’s not so wrong, is it? (Seriously, watch and allocate characters to actors. It’s quite astonishing how well they map together- check out Harriet at 0.17 and Augustine at 0.43, for a start!)
I haven’t yet seen the film (it’s so on this weekend’s to do list), but the plot isn’t new to me, and not just because it’s eerily similar to the sorts of plot that tend to flow out of my brain. Before it was a film called the Riot Club, it was a play called Posh. And let me tell you, when I see adverts for a play about an Oxford dining society featuring attractive young actors, nothing and no one is capable of keeping me away from the box office. I went to see this in 2012, when I was busy finalising Book One. As I sort of knew what was coming, just for fun, I dragged Freddie along, we wore black tie, and he walked round in the interval drinking champagne and drawling, like an extra or a piece of interactive performance art.
In between deliberately trying to provoke the rest of the audience, I had mixed feelings about the play, and from what I’ve seen and read so far, I imagine my reaction to the film will be broadly similar. On the positive side, there were the aforementioned formally dressed men. On a less shallow note, the writer had also clearly researched certain aspects of Oxford life rather well, and there were some very clever lines and some very funny comments. On the negative side, it’s probably some of the least subtle satire I’ve come across, and it relies far too much on the idea that posh=bad, and membership of a dining society=outright evil. I also got the distinct impression that 90% of the point of the play was to create a stick to beat the ex-Bullingdon Tories with.
It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which so many people are absolutely fascinated with class, and have such a love-hate relationship with aristocratic trappings. Dining clubs are admittedly a bit of an odd phenomenon, and when I started writing the Cavaliers, I was very much playing up to the media controversy around the Prime Minister, the Mayor and the Chancellor all having been part of the same club (for anyone not familiar with the concept, see my article here – weirdly, it’s consistently one of my most visited web pages).
But do I really think there’s a conspiracy? No. Do I really think that the Bullingdon (or indeed the Piers Gaveston or the Stoics or anything else) is the route of all inequality in our society? No I do not. Yes, it’s a little disturbing that the Government is currently dominated by both a certain type of person and, perhaps more oddly, by what sometimes appears to be a group of old friends and rivals. But unlike in the Cavaliers, in real life, a dining society isn’t a gateway from obscurity into power. Rather, the only people asked to join the big societies are those who are already rich and well-connected. They’d have got on just fine without the club – they really are a symptom, not a cause of the old boys’ network.
In my experience, most dining societies are borne neither from a desire to rule the world nor an urge to smash things up and humiliate “poor people.” Rather, just like football fans, sports teams or political gatherings, they are about two things – getting drunk with likeminded people, and a sort of tribalism that divides the world, at least for one night, into a safe categorisation of them and us. And in the case of dining societies, there’s some extra fun to be had from dressing up and showing off. To the best of my knowledge (based on both personal experience and extensive book-planning research) the smashing places up, while true and abhorrent, is also very rare – a few isolated incidents over decades, not a systematic campaign of violence. The murdering, which we get in both the Riot Club and the Cavaliers (and in it’s American incarnation, in Donna Tartt’s the Secret History) has no basis in fact whatsoever.
When I created my imaginary dining society, I made the members vampires. As a consequence, I made most of them be awful human beings most of the time- I cannot abide overly friendly vampires. My books are paranormal romance/urban fantasy first and foremost, but they also contain a hint of satire – and hopefully, it’s all so exaggerated that everyone can see it’s not a genuine attack on Cameron and Boris and Osborne. In keeping her characters as broadly realistic humans while still having them do and say terrible things, the Riot Club’s writer ultimately sacrifices the clever social commentary of the premise and the opening, for cheap, overblown attacks which hint at a genuine belief that the Prime Minister once entertained himself by beating pub landlords to death.
In conclusion, dining clubs are a bit ridiculous, but not actively evil or a direct cause of any of societies problems. And based on my experience with Posh, the Riot Club is probably worth a watch for the scenery and the eye candy and the wonderful Oxfordyness, but pretty heavy-handed. And most importantly, it would have been much better with vampires.