What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism pt 7: Higher education and class

In this series of posts, I have already looked at issues of police racism, unemployment, capitalism, left-wing activism and women in the television show The Young Ones, but one of the major themes I have overlooked so far is the topic of higher education and class in the 1980s. The Young Ones was essentially about four university students living in a share house in London, amidst the class warfare from the neo-liberals under Thatcher.

Higher education in Britain had exploded between the 1960s and the 1980s and due to the post-war baby boom and the expansion of the welfare state into the realm of tertiary education, many more young people were attending universities or polytechnics. The radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s is synonymous in the public’s memory with the student revolution inside the universities, whose numbers had swelled dramatically. As Robert O. Paxton wrote, traditionally universities had been a training ground for the elite tier of British society, with very few lower middle class or working class people being able to enter the higher education system. But with the system being opened up in the 1950s and 1960s, more lower middle class and working class youth entered the world of higher education and for most, this was the first generation to have a university education.

This is reflected in The Young Ones. We see that Vyvyan is able to attend medical school despite his mother being a shoplifter (and later a bartender). Rik talks about his family being working class Tory voters. Only Neil seems to come from a more privileged background. In the episode ‘Sick’, we see Neil’s parents visit, who complain about the living conditions of the students and their crassness (comparing them unfavourably with the middle class humour of The Good Life). Neil’s mother deplores:

You have brought shame on your family, Neil. I daren’t show my face at Lady Fanshaw’s bridge evenings, now that you’ve taken up with these television people. I mean, what kind of monsters are you?! I mean, The Young Ones. Well, it all sounds very good, doesn’t it? But just look around you. There’s trash!

[smashes a chair to splinters]

I mean, even, even Triangle has better furniture than you do!

To which Vyvyan replies:

NO!! No! We’re not watching the bloody Good Life!! Bloody bloody bloody!! I hate it!! It’s so bloody nice! Felicity ‘Treacle’ Kendall and Richard ‘Sugar-Flavored-Snot’ Briars!! What do they do now?! Chocolate bloody Button ads, that’s what!! They’re just a couple of reactionary stereotypes, confirming the myth that everyone in Britain is a lovable, middle-class eccentric – and I – HATE – THEM!!

So the show reflects the opening up of the higher education system to a wider degree of socio-economic backgrounds and the more typical university student in the 1980s.

But the show also reminded viewers that the odds were still stacked against university students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, with the elite, predominantly with an Oxbridge education, still coming out on top in the higher education system. In this paper by Jo Blanden and Stephen Machin, they showed that in 1981, ‘20 percent of children from the top income quintile had a degree by age 23, whereas the comparable number was only 6 percent in the bottom quintile’ (p. 11). Degree acquisition was important as ‘it is well documented that graduates earn more than non-graudates and that this wage differential has widened in the recent past, especially in the 1980s’ (p. 20). Blanden and Machin conclude that ‘HE expansion has not been equally distributed across people from richer and poorer backgrounds. Rather, it has disproportionately benefited children from relatively rich families’ (p. 22).

In the episode ‘Bambi’, Alexei Sayle, as a train driver held up by Mexican bandits, jokes about this inequality in degree acquisition and job prospects:

I never really wanted to be a train driver, you know. I mean, they told me while at school, if I got two CSEs, when I left school I’d be head of British Steel. That’s a lot of nonsense, innit? I mean, you look at statistics, right. 83% of top British management have been to a public school and Oxbridge, right? 93% of the BBC have been to a public school and Oxbridge, right? 98% of the KGB have been to a public school and Oxbridge.

All you get from a public school, right — one, you get a top job, right, and two, you get an interest in perverse sexual practices. I mean, that’s why British management’s so inefficient. As soon as they get in the boardroom, they’re all shutting each others’ dicks in the door! “Go on, give it another slam, Sir Michael!” BAM! OW OW OW! “Come on, Sir Geoffrey, let’s play the Panzer commander and the millkmaid, EW EW EW EW! YOO HOO!”

The same episode involves the four housemates taking on the Cambridge Footlights on University Challenge, highlighting the difference between the elites that attended one of the Oxbridge universities and the rest. The Footlights team was played by real Footlights alumni, with Stephen Fry as Lord Snot, Hugh Laurie as Lord Monty and Emma Thompson as Miss Money-Sterling (only Ben Elton, who played Kendal Mintcake, didn’t go to Oxbridge – like Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, he had attended the University of Manchester). The Footlights team indulged in many of the stereotypes of the ruling class (similar myths abound about the Bullingdon Club and Britain’s current ruling elite), such as nepotism to obtain positions of influence (and answers to University Challenge), buying off influence (and answers to University Challenge) and extreme confidence in their elite position. While Bamber ‘Bambi’ Gascoigne (played by Griff Rhys Jones here) declares to Scumbag College that ‘the posh kids always win’, the episode ended with Rik and Neil answering all the questions (despite Rik tampering with the cards) and Vyvyan blowing up the Footlights team with a WWI hand grenade, all before being squashed by a giant cream bun.

According to Stephen Fry’s interview with Richard Herring as part of Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast series, Rik Mayall was very enthusiastic about this episode, with the Footlights team getting their come-uppance at the hands of the ‘ordinary’ university students. But Alexei Sayle, writing in The Guardian earlier this year, disagreed:

What I didn’t understand, despite all my years of Marxist study groups, was that every revolution contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, and ours soon began to mutate in ways I could never have predicted. For me, the turning point, the moment resembling Oliver Cromwell’s suppression of the Levellers, was the making of the Bambi episode for the second series of The Young Ones, broadcast in 1984.

I turned up for the recording to find several generations of Cambridge Footlights were in the show. “I thought these people were the enemy!” I railed at the writers. “The whole point of what we were doing was surely to challenge the smug hegemony of the Oxford, Cambridge, public-schoolboy comedy network, as well as destroying the old-school working men’s club racists!”

“No, that was just you,” the writers replied. “We never subscribed to your demented class-war ravings. We think all these people are lovely. Stephen Fry’s made us lardy cake, Hugh Laurie’s been playing boogie-woogie piano all morning, Mel Smith’s going to take us for a ride in his gold Rolls-Royce, and Griff Rhys-Jones has been screaming abuse at minions to make us laugh.”

I realised that what had begun – in my mind – as a radical experiment was slowly moving towards the centre, and I had ceased to be its leader. Not that I should paint myself as some sort of exemplar, a Bill Hicks-like saint who held himself above the seductive lures of success. I craved the money, the big audiences and the fame that all the others craved: I just wanted to do it without getting my hands dirty by making what I thought of as compromises – or by being best friends with Stephen Fry. Also, it took me years to accept that not everybody wanted to spend a rare night out being shouted at by a rabid, opinionated, fat man. 

In the episode ‘Sick’, Sayle, as the ‘dangerous madman’ Brian Damage, further satirises university students and the job prospects available. Talking to Neil’s father, Damage claims that he is currently doing a PhD in astrophysics, but had recently completed a degree in art history, ‘but it was no use for a job’. Although the joke continues with Damage and Neil’s father talking about ‘doing a bank job’, the exchange can be seen as a reflection of encroaching values of Thatcherism upon the lower middle and working classes and those attending university – that a university education was not as useful as getting a job in the banking sector.

Lastly, one of the interesting things about The Young Ones is its quintessential portrayal of student life, showing the relative poverty of the undergraduate university student – eating lentils, sharing baths, having nothing to use for heating, etc. But the paper by Blanden and Machin actually show that during the years that the show was produced (1982-1984), ‘UK university students experienced the highest levels of state support ever’, with a ‘means-tested maintenance grant to cover living costs’, fees paid by the local education authority and access to housing and unemployment benefits (p. 5). It was only in 1984, and then fairly rapidly throughout the rest of the 1980s, that the financial support for university students was cut by the Conservatives. While the students of the early 1980s might have been ‘better off’ than the students that followed them in the mid-to-late 1980s and certainly in the 1990s, I would reckon that the popular memory of their time at university and their living conditions would in some way more reflect the portrayal of student life evident in The Young Ones.

That is the end of the series (so far). I am going to try to turn these posts into a journal article in the near future. As usual, any feedback, via the blog or email, would be greatly welcomed.

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