Fans of screwy hospital ensemble comedy Green Wing rejoice! From the same creators comes channel 4’s Campus, with its own collection of oddballs, surreal interludes, fast-talking flights of fancy and offensive jokes.
Set against the backdrop of fictional Kirke University, Campus’ sense of humour romps merrily through the boundaries of taste and decency, demonstrating a level of enjoyment in rude words usually reserved to seven year olds who’ve just learnt the word ‘cock’. It’s a bit weird, a bit smart and more than a bit funny, which is to say that lots of people probably aren’t going to like it. Well, more fool them.
Presiding over the university is megalomaniacal sociopath and vice chancellor, Jonty de Wolfe, played by Andy Nyman. De Wolfe is on a mission to keep Kirke afloat by any means possible, and he means any means. This opening episode sees him bullying, insulting and attacking his staff in an attempt to squeeze them so hard that lucrative, headline-grabbing publications pop out.
First on de Wolfe’s hit list is Kirke’s ‘laziest shit’, student-shagging English Professor Matt Beer (Joseph Millson). A fast-talking, floppy haired caddish cartoon, Beer toys with publishing a book on famous literary norks before jizzing out a proposal about how all women are lesbians. His mission in this episode is to rile squirrelly Maths lecturer Imogen Moffat (Lisa Jackson), writer of a debut bestseller but now suffering from a bad case of second book syndrome. It’s a task he accomplishes with ease, sending Moffat into an episode-long flap, and surely paving the way for a redemptive love interest story between the two.
Other weirdos on the Kirke payroll include Mechanical Engineering lecturer Lydia Tennant (Dolly Wells). Tennant disregards social niceties such as conversation that doesn’t include mention of fannies, her stool or being raped by pigs. There’s also a loopy accommodation officer, an uptight accountant, a dumb but pretty sports studies post grad and three secretaries called Grace, one of whom has a little more Y than X in the chromosome department.
As a nation, our attention span for comedies doesn’t usually extend further than the usual 22 minute bursts, so this 50-minute-an-episode extravaganza will seem overlong to some. Campus’ erratic style and sketch-show content suits a little breathing space however. Just like Green Wing (you can’t not draw comparisons), the main storyline of each episode is interspersed with non-sequitur encounters and wilfully strange visual gags which come at such a pace that if one falls flat – as some inevitably do – another is along in a minute.
There’s a splash of satire in the mix, too, as Kirke University is faced with an accountancy cock-up forcing it to raise its profile and attract overseas funding units, or ‘international students’ as some still insist on calling them. Episode two, The Culling Fields, is likely to touch a few nerves in Higher Education with its depiction of massive staff redundancies and a funding crisis. Depressingly, now couldn’t be a more apt time to air the series. Still, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?
It’s easy to tear down new comedy, which must be why so many people do it. Since airing its pilot in 2009 as part of Channel Four’s Comedy Showcase before being commissioned for this six part series, some have already dismissed Campus a try-hard car crash of a show populated by implausible, charmless characters.It’s true that De Wolfe is a charmless fellow. He’s got the sensibilities of Frankie Boyle and the devious, egocentric, split personality of a dodgy cult leader. The role is basically a showcase for dynamo Nyman and his range of racist accents – he slips between Rastamouse patois, head wobbling Hindi and violent Scot with ease. He’ll divide opinion but is a key player in some great gags, the best of which are refreshingly nonsensical.
Partly improvised, de Wolfe’s un-PC tirades, along with the prominence of vagina-related gags in the rest of the script, have been read as the show trying too hard to be edgy. Perhaps it’s a justifiable complaint, but faced with the choice between a show that tries too hard for something, occasionally missing its mark, and one that doesn’t try at all, I know what I’d rather watch.
The complaint about implausibility in comedy always baffles me. No, you wouldn’t meet people like these in real life. Yes, they are unrealistic. We are all talking about sitcom aren’t we? Jonty, Matt, Lydia et al are comic creations, little grains of truth worked up into misshaped pearls of comedy weirdness. It might help to place it on the family tree of Kids in the Hall, Big Train or (at a fairly hefty push) Monty Python, rather than as having descended from the much more straightforward worlds of The Royle Family or The Office.
Funny, silly, rude, inventive, and a pleasure to have on my telly, what more can I say? I’m a fan. Bring on next week.
Campus airs on Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 4.
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