There’s a fine line between the comedy of the absurd and the just plain absurd. Based on the first episode of their new series, Campus, the makers of cult comedy hits Green Wing and Smack the Pony have gone and leapt right over it. Set in the ostentatiously branded concrete hive of the fictional Kirke University, Campus doesn’t so much satirise the management culture of British Universities as draw inspiration from it for an array of grotesque characters and tableaux.
Chief among these is the University’s monstrously unstable Vice-Chancellor, Jonty de Wolfe, played by Andy Nyman. Whether you love the show, find it uncomfortably close to the bone or just think it’s unbearable will depend on how you respond to this lewd, amoral, manipulative bigot of a senior manager. While his facial hair and tendency to address himself directly to the camera suggest a shared ancestry with David Brent of The Office, de Wolfe has none of Brent’s warmth or vulnerability. Neither does his constant monologuing seem a convention of mockumentary form. De Wolfe is such a megalomaniac that he doesn’t need the excuse of a camera to deliver self-aggrandising speeches. He rages at the feckless academics under his charge, fondles the successful ones, and spews a torrent of racist and sexist abuse like Bernard Manning suffering a fit of Tourette syndrome. He encourages one student to commit suicide and blackmails another with a fabricated prostitution charge. Despite the humour mixed in with this slurry of abuse, why anyone in the audience might want to suffer through de Wolfe’s company to hear them is a mystery.
For the inhumanly persistent, or the Green Wing cultists, who are willing to endure de Wolfe, the rest of the show holds up tolerably well. A milder, and much more amusing, version of de Wolfe’s psychosis seems to afflict Lydia Tennant (Dolly Wells), an Engineering lecturer, and further surreality duties are performed by administrative staffers Nicole Huggins (Sarah Pascoe) and Jason Armitage (Will Adamsdale), and Flatpack (Jonathan Bailey), a lay-about graduate student on a sports bursary.
As the feckless, sex-obsessed English lecturer Matt Beer, Joseph Millson is partly the kind of academic lothario you might meet in a Kingsley Amis or David Lodge novel, but inflected by the brand of stream-of-consciousness filth made de rigueur by Peep Show. In the first episode, he tries to save his career by leeching off of the success of maths lecturer Imogen (Lisa Jackson). At the same time, Jason tries to mop up a payroll error he committed when showing off for Nicole, and de Wolfe, Lydia, and Flatpack circle the action, offering occasional comment and farcical set pieces.
As these plots suggest, most of the characters have one joke and two dimensions at their best: we have the horny one, the uptight one, the fool, the ditz, and the desperate underachiever, each boringly predictable, especially for those familiar with the general field of British comedy of embarrassment. Those who add a bit of unpredictably, like DeWolfe, do so almost at random, puncturing the already thin veil of plausibility that might make the show function as satire. And in this Campus misses an opportunity. With American comedies like Greek and Glory Daze portraying university life through students’ drunken, nostalgic haze, a genuine satire, from the staff’s point of view, could have had real potential.
For all its failings, however, it’s hard to imagine that Campus this won’t find an audience. Channel 4 figured out long ago that a sizeable proportion of the audience will laugh at phrases like “I can see your crack through the slit in the door” and “Oddly shaped anal cavity,” no matter the context. (Indeed, the columnist Charlie Brooker made his reputation and subsequent leap from print to television based on precisely that insight.) It doesn’t make for good comedy, but don’t be surprised if it makes for good ratings.