Oxford University students have been portrayed as many things but snobbish, sexist, cruel and contemptible is an accolade few would seek – even less revel in.

Not so the characters of The Riot Club, a film based on Laura Wade’s celebrated 2010 play Posh. Throughout its sell-out London season it sent a reactive frisson through packed audiences. Outraged or amused – it depended on your tolerance of youthful excess.

From “a position of curiosity”, Sheffield born Laura Wade turned her attention to “this odd little universe that is Oxford”. There she conceived of a privileged group of ten undergraduates, brought together in a dining society The Riot Club, who in later life would “sit behind some pretty big desks”.

Writing the play, Wade claimed it helped being an outsider. “I could imagine my way behind that closed door and take the audience with me,” Wade said.

Loosely based on The Bullingdon Club (not the pub in East Oxford), the Riot Club was not a group you asked to join. To do so showed you were “really not the right sort of chap”. Even if you fancied the Riot Club’s motto: “Do nothing without joy, and everything to excess”, membership was strictly by invitation only. Attending certain schools: Eton, St Paul’s, Westminster or Harrow helped; pots of money was essential.

Yet it wasn’t the shock of the graphic bad behaviour which appalled. Nor was it the excess of drinks, drugs and inflated egos. The film’s violence went too far and, for me, was scarcely credible. but the aspect of The Riot Club which shook me most was the members’ callous disregard for the rest of society. The film took you into the confidence of an elite, which looked outwards – to only a slightly nuanced degree – at a contemptible universe.

The scramble to evade responsibility was a further blow to deserving even a shred of respect.

“I hate poor people,” one of the newest recruits yells from the top of a dining table in a country pub.

It’s the only place the Riot Club can find to entertain them – and they reward the publican’s naivety with dark, injurious deeds. The existence of the Bullingdon Club – a notorious University dining society – was a fact of my day, and probably still exists. It did not impact on the vast majority of students. It kept its exploits to itself – except for a reputation for bad behaviour which was rather like an urban myth – widely circulated and impossible to verify.

Yet the “big desks” were certainly true. Celebrated past members include the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Ed Milliband (Oxford) once asked David Cameron if he’d “wrecked a restaurant lately”. The Prime Minister did not reply. Nick Clegg (Cambridge) probably sat beside him, keeping his own council, as usual. Does a career in public service exonerate youthful indiscretion?

The film makes it clear that elitism compounded by entitlement still holds fast in British society. Don’t be seduced by the £3,500 frock coat; it doesn’t necessarily denote a gentleman – but it’s a two way process.

We, as voters, don’t have to accept that it’s right or fair or good to be able to be so well financed and so embedded in the upper echelons of British society that such behaviour is an acceptable price to pay in the formation and education of our ruling class.

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