Sally Williams / The Telegraph
Laura Wade’s play Posh, satirising the excesses of Oxford’s elite Bullingdon Club, caused a stir when it opened before the last general election. Four years on it has become a film, starring Sam Claflin and Max Irons. Sally Williams reports.
Ten young men barely out of their teens sit facing each other across a table in the private dining room of a country pub in Oxfordshire. They are dressed in white tie and tails, and speak with effortless superiority. It is 2013 and these are the leaders of tomorrow.
A hush descends. They stand, drink a toast, sing God Save the Queen, and amid cheers and claps set about the proper business of the evening: to ‘carpe some f***ing diem’ and get ‘chateaued beyond belief’.
This is a scene from The Riot Club, a film about an elite secretive dining society at Oxford University. Written by Laura Wade and directed byLone Scherfig, it stars Sam Claflin and Max Irons as two freshers who are invited to become members.
The screenplay is an adaptation of Wade’s play Posh, a big hit in London when it opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010. The play largely takes place over one night in the room of the village pub where the Riot Club hunker down for some decadence. They send for a prostitute, eat a 10-bird roast, get blind drunk, and finally destroy the room.
Crockery is smashed, pictures are ripped down from the wall, wallpaper is torn, chairs are pulled apart – the club has a tradition of on-the-spot payment for damage. ‘We do this and we pay you,’ one Rioter tells the horrified landlord. And as they get ever more drunk the mood grows dark and vicious and ultimately dangerous.
And now we have the film, which broadens out the story and gives more context to the characters. It opens in 1776 with the murder of Lord Riot, an infamous libertine, by a jealous husband who catches Riot in flagrante with his wife. The Riot Club is founded as a posthumous tribute with the rallying call to do ‘nothing without joy and everything to excess’.
The action then moves to the cobbled stones and wood-panelled dining halls of contemporary Oxford and the arrival of two new students, Alistair Ryle (Claflin) and Miles Richards (Irons). Their mutual antipathy – Ryle is old-school conservative; Richards more liberal – is played out as the 10 Riot Club members make their presence felt – for example, driving wildly drunk through the streets of Oxford in an open-top Aston Martin.
We discover that each character represents a different moneyed background. James Leighton-Masters (Freddie Fox), the president of the club, is set for a career as an investment banker. Harry Villiers (Douglas Booth) is accomplished at fencing, shooting and seduction, wears Ralph Lauren polo shirts and lives in a stately home, more specifically the cordoned-off parts not open to the public.
Richards is good-natured and popular, and despite being a Westminster-educated ‘Hon’ is outside the world of class and tradition portrayed in the film, as shown by his relationship with Lauren Small (Holliday Grainger), a student from a state school in Huddersfield. Ryle, on the other hand, is so priggish he even corrects the muggers who attack him at a cashpoint and ask for his PIN number: ‘The N stands for number, it’s Personal Identification Number – you’re actually saying number twice.’
Dimitri Mitropoulos (Ben Schnetzer), the son of a Greek shipping magnate, is an absolute sucker for anything blingy and high-status – he owns the Aston Martin. George Balfour (Jack Farthing) arrives at Oxford in a battered Land Rover, likes dogs and tractors, wears hand-me-down tweed jackets, and lives in a country pile with ‘a hole in the roof you could fire a cow through’.
Small’s character was introduced for the film, and her romance with Richards shows the distance between non-posh and posh. ‘My parents were listening to Miles Davis when I was conceived,’ Richards says of the origin of his name. ‘Good job my parents didn’t do that,’ Small replies, ‘I’d have been called Gary Barlow.’
The club, it transpires, is on a recruitment drive, and Richards and Ryle are the chosen ones. Richards has been proposed for membership by Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt (Sam Reid), a mature student with a mop of wavy hair and an Oscar Wilde-style smoking jacket, who knows Richards from school and is smitten; Ryle is nominated because he is the younger brother of an ex-Rioter who was considered by the other members ‘an absolute legend’.
In the theatre you were not shown the initiation rituals the boys have to endure to become members. But here we see the many and varied forms of forced drinking (including from a booze-filled condom), culminating with the trashing of their rooms – the sign they have passed and are fully qualified for dedicated hedonism.
Until this point there is something idiotic but endearing about the Rioters’ camaraderie and rampaging energy. But you see a different side when they congregate at the Bull’s Head for the film’s main event, the annual Riot Club Dinner. After the horrifying events of the evening, the boys have to face the consequences. Threatened with being sent down, they drop any idea of brotherhood pretty quickly and decide who should take the hit.
At the film’s core is our fascination with class, Wade says. ‘I think we love watching rich people behave badly. It has a sort of grisly fascination for us.’ It also asks a deeper question. ‘The boys we are watching are the kinds of people who will go on to hold positions of power. They are the people who may find themselves high up in government or banking or law. How much of who you are when you are that age remains when you are older?’
Wade, 36, read drama at the University of Bristol and was a member of the Royal Court Young Writers Programme when she had the idea for a play about wealthy young things. ‘It was because the Royal Court was in Sloane Square,’ she says. ‘You’d see them sitting on the steps outside the theatre waiting to meet their friends, and that just started an anthropological interest: who are these people?’
In 2007, at the same time Wade ‘started to prod’ the area, the infamous 1987 photograph of members of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club – including David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, came to light. It was a eureka moment, Wade says. ‘The idea that these boys’ clubs have huge dinners that involve a tradition of smashing up a restaurant and then paying for the damage on the way out – that felt like a really interesting metaphor for something bigger.’
Not that she wanted to write the story of the photograph and be ‘constrained by facts’. ‘The exciting idea for me was to create a fictional version where we could invent our own legends, rules and rituals,’ she says. But she wanted it to be authentic, and talking to those connected was difficult as the clubs have a code that means nobody will be interviewed.
Nor could she go to a dinner, being neither the right sex nor class – she grew up in Sheffield, where her father worked for a computer company. ‘But for me that was actually rather freeing because it meant that I had room to make stuff up and imagine my way behind that closed door, and try to take the audience with me.’
Posh opened in April 2010 to immediate acclaim. ‘The first time I saw it there was a lot of very shocked, elderly Kensington matrons,’ says Pete Czernin, a co-producer of the film with Graham Broadbent at Blueprint Pictures (best known for the 2011 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). ‘And then the next time, four weeks later or so, it was just packed with young girls and university students because word had got out that this was fun and there were cute boys on stage.’
The play also received a boost from the timing of its opening in the run-up to the general election, which meant it was reviewed in the political as well as the arts pages of the press. ‘It certainly got a lot of attention,’ Wade remembers, ‘but I found it frustrating that people saw it so directly related to party politics and to those particular real people.’ When Posh moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End in 2012, she says, ‘people were able to see the play slightly more calmly for the investigation of class, wealth and privilege it’s much more concerned with.’
Lone Scherfig, the Danish director who lives in Copenhagen, saw Posh at the Royal Court while her film One Day was in pre-production (The Riot Club is her fourth British movie, along with Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself in 2002 and An Education in 2009). After seeing it again in the West End, ‘I made sure that Laura Wade knew that if they were to film it, I’d like to be asked,’ she says.
‘Lone Scherfig was the first person on my list,’ Wade says. ‘There was something about her slight remove from it that allowed her to have a more forensic, anthropological eye.’ Czernin adds that they thought it would be interesting to have a female director ‘and also somebody who wasn’t from England, to get her view on class’.
The Riot Club, funded by the BFI Film Fund and Film4, and filmed in London, Oxford, Winchester and at Pinewood Studios, began shooting in June 2013. Without the constraints of the auditorium, Wade introduced new opportunities. ‘Things like stunt drivers.’
She was on set most days to add impromptu lines. The Rioters’ have a distinct banter: ‘Oh my wow’; ‘savage’; ‘mate’ (used interchangeably as an admonishment, greeting and question). ‘It’s like a musical score,’ she says. ‘The script exists as a top line, and then there’s an underscore of banter that needs to happen all the time, to make it feel like a really lively dinner with lots of conversations all around the table rather than people taking turns to speak as they do on stage.’
July 24 2013, Pinewood Studios. Sam Reid as Hugo is swaying, red-eyed, shiny forehead, rehearsing how to Frisbee dinner plates across the room. The private dining room of the Bull’s Head has been created here with ‘built-in trashability’. The mirrors, windows and wineglasses, for instance, are made from sugar glass, which shatters realistically but without causing injury. The wallpaper and leather seating can be easily ripped; the carpet pulled up. The room is about to be turned into a scene of devastation.
By this stage in the film the boys have clocked up six hours of intensive eating, drinking and drugs. They have vomited into black bin liners – ‘party bags!’– distributed at the beginning of the dinner. Fox has demonstrated the useful art of sabrage – opening a champagne bottle with a sabre – as well as shaking up and popping two bottles of fizz at once, shooting fountains of foam across the room.
‘The most seemingly bacchic release of the whole movie is in fact the most closely monitored,’ Fox reveals. ‘Screens everywhere and everyone wearing goggles. OK, right, we’re having fun. Be careful! BE CAREFUL!’
While the Rioters’ behaviour in the film may seem extreme it was originally deemed not extreme enough. ‘We’d given some Cambridge students an early copy of the script,’ Czernin explains, ‘and they said, yes we recognise these people but one thing – you’ve got the initiations totally wrong. They described endless drinking games that were horrific – goldfish down in one, whisky in a condom and you have to bite the end off… so we corrected it.’
‘The first time I read it I wasn’t too keen on getting involved,’ Max Irons admits. ‘I found it quite unpleasant – not only what these guys got up to, but the elitism involved. But then I read it more slowly and discovered Laura Wade hadn’t glamorised it at all, and it opened a window into a world that most people don’t see. I thought, well, that is quite an important thing that needs to happen.’
Sam Claflin brings a sneering cruelty to Alistair Ryle. ‘I am sick to f***ing death of poor people,’ he cries as part of an extended riff, while the other Rioters sit there, nodding along. ‘It was such a stretch, such a different world to me,’ Claflin says now. ‘I’d only ever experienced my parents’ humble and very average upbringing.’ His mother was a classroom assistant; his father is an accountant for a charity in Norwich. ‘I decided [Alistair] was happier on his own, so even on set I’d find myself wandering off from the group and just sitting quietly in the corner, watching. That was my way in, trying to feel that kind of loneliness.’
‘It’s the closest role to me that I’ve played for a while,’ says Holliday Grainger, who like her character Lauren is from an ordinary background in the North and studied English literature (at the University of Leeds). ‘It’s weird because all the actors are so super-lovely,’ she says, ‘but once they’re in character it creeps you.’
She cites one scene in particular when Lauren is manhandled into a corner after getting tricked into coming to the dinner. ‘After filming, Doug put his hand out to say, “Well done,” and I automatically flinched. I was like, you guys have been just a bit too good at being sleazy.’
Scherfig viewed the Rioters as ‘a bunch of tamed, elegant tigers with very short fuses’. But she chose not to take an ensemble approach. ‘I tried to access the individual actor within each of the actors, so they were 10 boys directed in very different ways,’ she says. ‘Some are much more analytical, others more spontaneous, or physical.’
The logistics were demanding for the rest of the crew, too. Ten mood/costume boards, one for each character. Ten customised waistcoats (each actor had a say in the design – Reid went for classic and restrained; Schnetzer for bling). Ten little wooden art mannequins to help choreograph the dinner. ‘Coordinating the performances is a really difficult job so we used the stick figures to work out which characters did what at any time,’ Czernin says.
Although there are Hollywood names in the film – Claflin, for example, plays Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) and Philip, the romantic lead in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2012); Douglas Booth was Russell Crowe’s son Shem in Noah (2013) – it doesn’t feel starry.
‘We’re a collective,’ Booth says. ‘We’ve spent so much time together off set and had so many dinners, and before the shoot I took some of the boys to see Prince William play polo and we stayed in a hotel and just had a great night.’ So the boys have honoured the action in the film with their own friendship.