Starter for 10 is a notable film for several reasons. I avoided it when it first appeared in 2006, but watching on TV now I found it silly but enjoyable and it raised several questions. Why is it notable? Partly because it offers a cast containing a number of young British actors who would go on to bigger and better films later on. In this respect it’s something like the Brat Pack movies of 1980s Hollywood. It’s also a UK-US co-production financed by BBC films and HBO. I’m not sure what HBO hoped for with the film but a couple of the US reviews I’ve seen suggest that what might be the key element of the film, social class in the UK, isn’t really understood in the US. On the other hand, a central aspect of the narrative is based around the TV quiz show University Challenge, a version of the original US show College Bowl.
The novelist David Nicholls wrote his first novel, Starter for 10 partly drawing on his own university experience in Bristol in 1985-6. It was published in 2003 and Nicholls, already a successful writer for TV, adapted his own work for the film version. The narrative is a form of ‘coming of age’ story, romantic comedy and social comedy structured around the central character’s appearance on University Challenge. Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) is a working-class boy, obsessed with University Challenge from his childhood. It is something that has stayed with him since he watched the programme as a small boy with his father, who later died before Brian got to university. The romance narrative comes from Brian’s attempts to develop relationships with two contrasting young women, Alice (Alice Eve, daughter of Trevor Eve who ironically found fame on TV as ‘Eddie Shoestring’ a radio broadcaster turned detective based in Bristol) and Rebecca Hall (daughter of the great stage director, Peter Hall). Alice is an ambitious blonde from a wealthy background and Rebecca is a political activist. This is one aspect of the social class conflict.
Nicholls (or the producers) decided to keep the setting as 1985, a decision which allowed the film to make use of a range of New Wave music from the 1980s (though some of the songs were actually released after 1985) and to set student life in the context of the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s controversial Tory government. On the other hand, this decision did raise some problems re University Challenge, which by 2006 had shifted from ITV to BBC (though still made by Granada/ITV) with a new quizmaster. It also placed the film in an odd position re 1980s nostalgia, something that was present in UK films of the 1990s/2000s but which was perhaps more common in Hollywood?
The social class conflict is that the University of Bristol, was around the time of the film’s release, renowned as the university favoured by students from private schools and was deemed part of an elite group of universities with a predominantly middle-class intake (alongside Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and St. Andrews). Brian isn’t just a “working-class boy from a coastal resort” as one US review puts it but a boy from Essex and specifically from Clacton-on-Sea (though I think it’s meant to be Southend). Essex boys (and especially girls) were much mocked in the UK media in the early 2000s.
The social comedy is a great British institution and James McAvoy, whose career really took off in 2006 was a good choice for Brian, even though he was 26 when filming began. A Glasgow boy with a passion for creating opportunities for working-class actors he encapsulates the traditional British comedy hero figure (it helps that he is short and a terrific actor). Starter for 10 is, however, a multi-genre picture. It plays with familiar typing and it is indeed predictable – although the ending is perhaps not what is expected (and doesn’t actually work in one respect). Genre films are by definition conventional but the mix in this film is difficult to carry off for director Tom Vaughan. This was his first cinema feature after he started in TV production and after four further cinema features, none particularly distinguished he has since mostly worked back in TV. I think the tone of Starter for 10 is a problem. It is a difficult task to meld the the serious elements of the story with the romance and the social class comedy. For me, the biggest problem in the film is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Patrick, the pompous Tory captain of the quiz team (which depends on Brian and an Asian-American student, Lucy (Elaine Tan)). Alice is the fourth member. The opposing team in the quiz show comprises a heavily typed set of public schoolboys, who struck me as a take on the characters from Lindsay Anderson’s if . . . . (1968). The more serious element in the narrative concerns Brian’s home life with his mum Julie (Catherine Tate) and her new boyfriend Des (John Renshaw) plus Brian’s two friends he leaves behind in Clacton. James Corden (Tone) and Dominic Cooper (Spencer) had been together in the play The History Boys which saw a film adaptation released later in 2006. History Boys was written by Alan Bennett, drawing on his own experiences of being a grammar school boy encouraged to apply to Oxbridge colleges. UK and some American audiences for Starter for 10 may well have been aware of Corden and Cooper’s roles in The History Boys.
Since the revival of University Challenge on the BBC in 1994 (it ended on ITV in 1987), the show gradually developed with a new quizmaster, Jeremy Paxman and by now is in some ways very different, though the basic idea remains the same. The quizmaster in 1986 was Bamber Gascoigne, a much loved figure who died earlier this year. He had started with the programme itself in 1962. He was a unique figure who is impersonated in a skilled technical performance by Mark Gatiss. He’s very good but, close as he gets, he isn’t Bamber Gascoigne. I do wonder if the whole thing would work better if the show was fictitious with a different presenter altogether.
Overall, Starter for 10 is decent entertainment but could have been better with more focus on a consistent tonal mix of the genre elements. The film is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for several months and on most of the major streamers or digital rental platforms in the US.
Saw this one as a press show back in the day, and enjoyed it in a low-key way. But I think it did catch a lot of talent on the way up, and your review encourages me to have another look. And maybe a little more fictionalisation might have helped in this instance…