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Useful Notes / Oxbridge

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A portmanteau term for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (two distinct institutions). They are the UK's equivalent of (and the basis for) the Ivy League,note  and are thus popular in UK fiction. They have also inspired fictional universities such as the Unseen University for wizards in the Discworld novels.

The University of Oxford was the first of the two schools to begin teaching, although, like all of the first European Universities, it was never officially founded. As decades and centuries went by, it grew organically as scholars settled in the city and began establishing their own informal institutional ties. Teaching activity is recorded in the city from as early as the late 11th century. In 1209-10 the university was closed down temporarily because two students were hanged for killing a woman. Many scholars fled, and some of them settled in Cambridge, establishing their own University. The University of Cambridge received its official royal charter in 1231.

In entertainment, Cambridge is known for the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club (more commonly just "The Footlights" or "The Cambridge Footlights"), which puts on a yearly comedy revue with many of Britain's best-loved comic writers and actors. When they find that they work well together, some of the participants put assemble comic/acting pairings/groups. Oxford is known for "The Oxford Revue", which has just as prestigious a pedigree. Indeed, most of the Monty Python troupe performed for either one school or the other (Terry Gilliam is the exception, having graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles).

Both universities are composed of semi-independent colleges, which hired faculties and accept applicants individually. Undergraduate teaching methods are distinct from many others in the UK in using the "tutorial system". In most subjects, rather than a schedule of classes attended by a specific group of students, the university schedules several lectures that any number of students can attend, the colleges assign coursework to the students separately, and at the end of the year, the university holds exams (the grade on the exam pretty much determines whether or not students receive their degree). Most of this college-level teaching is done in tutorials between a faculty member and one or two students at a time, scenes of which will often crop up in Oxbridge-set fiction.

There is a traditional rather fierce rivalry between the two universities, members of each referring to the other as 'The Other Place' (though this rivalry may be exaggerated for effect; after all, successful academics may work stints at both during their careers). This rivalry is most apparent in Varsity matches, which are any type of competition between the two, most often sporting (e.g. the boat race) but also covering various events such as the annual Tolkien quiz. The 'Town' (non-university) vs 'Gown' (university) divide is also a thing in Oxford and Cambridge, as both Universities essentially run their host cities, something accepted with fluctuating levels of equanimity by the other inhabitants.

Naturally both of them have a Pretentious Latin Motto, though there was nothing pretentious about them when they were chosen—back then, all the students would have been expected to speak Latin because much of the teaching was done in that language. Oxford has Dominus Illuminatio Mea ("The Lord is my Light") and Cambridge has Hinc lucem et pocula sacra (literally, "From here, light and sacred draughts"—draughts being a metaphor for knowledge, but it would also work quite well as a reference to the pubs...).

Both cities suffer from a minor Eiffel Tower Effect in movies; Oxford is usually denoted by the striking, circular Radcliffe Camera library building, while Cambridge is usually indicated by the grandiose Kings College chapel, invariably filmed from across the river to the west, a view which conveniently excludes other distracting or anachronistic buildings.

Oxford in the media:

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    Comic Books 
  • In X-Statix, one of the Euro-Trash mutants is Oxford Blue, a Hulk-like bruiser based out of Oxford.

  • Shadowlands is a film about C. S. Lewis, definitely an eccentric don, set partly in Magdalen College, Oxford where he taught.
  • In X-Men: First Class, the University of Oxford is the alma mater of Charles Xavier, and there are several Oxford scenes shot on location. It is clear, however, that the writers did not do their research properly, as his claim that you don't get to be called a professor unless you have a teaching position is utterly untrue. A professor at a UK university is not the same thing as a professor at a US university, and at Oxford in particular, professors frequently do little to no teaching. Someone in his position would either be a Junior Research Fellow or, if so elected by his college, a Don.
  • Harry Potter: Hogwarts is heavily based on Oxford, with much of the movies' locations filmed in colleges and university buildings (e.g. Bodleian Library), in the surrounding area, or using sets based on the architecture.
  • In An Education, Jenny dreams of going to Oxford, until her relationship with David distracts her from her goal. She eventually does attend Oxford, and the movie ends with a shot of her riding a bicycle with a boy on the grounds of Oxford University.

  • Amateur detective Gervaise Fen, in the series by Edmund Crispin, is an Oxford don.
  • Brideshead Revisited (Novel and film) — The two main characters meet while studying at Oxford.
  • DI Fawley: Averted until the fifth book in the series. While set in Oxford, they are pointedly not about the university or the students, except The Whole Truth, which is about a rape allegation against an Oxford professor.
  • His Dark Materials - Alternative Oxford, but still quite recognisable.
  • Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, Fire Watch and To Say Nothing of the Dog: Oxford in the future runs a Time Travel project.
  • Lord Peter Wimsey is a Balliol alumnus. In the same series, Harriet Vane attended Shrewsbury, a fictional all-female Oxford College.
  • A character in "The Serial Murders", one of Kim Newman's Diogenes Club stories, is another Shrewsbury alumna; on its first American publication, the story included a footnote that helpfully explained that Shrewsbury was an Oxford college whose other famous alumni included Harriet Vane, but mischievously neglected to mention that both were fictional.
  • Mary Russell spends a great deal of time at Oxford.
  • Jay Gatsby went to Oxford. Well, sort of. He was there briefly after WWI as part of a "mixup" of some kind, but left after a couple months to search for Daisy.
  • The Doctor Who New Adventures novel The Dimension Riders by Daniel Blythe is set in the fictional St Matthew's College. The college president is a retired Time Lord. Presumably, the author (an alumnus of St John's, Oxford) wanted to balance out "Shada".
  • Christminster University in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure is a thinly disguised Oxford. The title character is at Bibliol College, which is a barely-disguised-at-all Balliol.
  • Oxford Murders (both the book and the film). It also features Cambridge, albeit very briefly.
  • A Discovery of Witches is set in Oxford, and heavily features the Bodleian library, colleges, and the river.
  • The Cavaliers Series As the name of the first book, Oxford Blood, suggests, the series is set at Oxford University. The books revolve around a vampire dining society based on the real life Bullingdon Club. The books give a detailed portrayal of life as an contemporary undergraduate student. All the boxes - Oxford Union, punting, rowing, black tie dinners, tutorials with grumpy dons - are quite thoroughly ticked.
  • The Bone Season: In Alternate Timeline England, Oxford has been converted into a penal colony called Sheol I for magic-users known as "voyants." Many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair except for those used as residences by the magical race known as the Rephaim. The city was given to the Rephaim when they first arrived on Earth and has since been off-limits to the public.
  • The Village Tales novels are rife with Oxonians: a goodly number of the clergy, a lot of peers, gentry, and The County, and any number of scholars and professors. The Duke of Taunton and the Nawab (both Christ Church men) were captain and vice-captain, respectively, of the OUCC 1st XI, the Duke's cousin the Duke of Trowbridge (also up at the House) having preceded him in that role, and Taunton and the Nawab are nowadays a Fellow of All Souls and involved with OCIS, respectively. Both of the Duke of Taunton's nephews are up at Oxford (the House and Oriel in turn). The Rector and two of his three curates are Oxford men (Keble, Keble, and Jesus); the third is a retired Cambridge don new to Orders. And Professor the Baroness Lacy may lecture at Durham, but she's a product of Oxford (LMH), as is her deputy in the local archaeological survey, Professor Den Farnaby of All Souls and the House, Tauntonian Professor of Ancient British History and Antiquities.
  • Hilary Tamar is an Oxford don, and most of the main cast of lawyers are Oxford graduates; the exception is Cantrip, who went to Cambridge and is therefore seen as the brawny and less intelligent member of the group.
  • Elemental Masters: In Phoenix and Ashes, after Alison magically enslaves Eleanor, she tells the village that Eleanor is attending Oxford to explain her "absence". Everyone in the village already knew Eleanor was determined to pass the entrance exam for Oxford, so no one questions the statement. (At the end of the novel, she's there for real.)
  • I'm Not Done With You Yet is set partially during Jane and Thalia's exchange year at Oxford.
  • Doctor Syn was an academic at Queen's College — and was considered to be a brilliant theologian — before embarking on a career of piracy and later smuggling. The early part of the first (chronological) novel, Doctor Syn on the High Seas, is set in Oxford.

    Live-Action Television 
  • Oxford is the centre of the Morseverse (Inspector Morse, Lewis and Endeavour). Establishing shots of the dreaming spires are the norm, and several episodes involve fictional Oxford colleges staffed by sarcastic, eccentric, scheming and often downright murderous dons. Various locations - especially pubs as well as colleges - have been used to film scenes, to the point where visitors to Oxford can do themed 'Inspector Morse' walking tours. Perhaps most famously, Exeter College doubled as Lonsdale College for Morse's death scene in the final episode of the original show.
    • The use of fictional colleges started in the booksColin Dexter wanted to include the goings-on in an Oxford college for The Riddle of the Third Mile. Mindful of not wanting to offend any actual colleges by portraying them as hotbeds of murderous intrigue (especially given that he was still working for Oxford University at the time), he invented a college — Lonsdale. This was later retconned to be Morse's old college (originally, he'd studied at the Real Life St John's College). There are now over twenty of them — as well as Lonsdale, names include Beaufort, Beaumont, Courtenay, Lady Matilda's, St Saviour's and Wolsey.
  • The fictional Bailie College at Oxford made occasional appearances on Yes, Minister, being Sir Humphrey's alma mater, to which he retains connections. One of the oldest Oxford colleges in Real Life is Balliol. Bernard is noted as another Oxford alumnus, having read Classics (his pedantry regarding grammar and Latin are a running joke). Both tease Hacker for having attended the London School of Economics (the LSE is a perfectly respectable university, but since it was inaugurated in the 19th century and actually teaches things with real-world application, it is considered quite the parvenu by the Oxbridge set) and take any opportunity to pour (exceedingly polite) abuse and disdain upon Cantabrigian civil servants. (As an example, one episode offers a "Just So" Story explaining that a motorway was built to Oxford before Cambridge because the Department of Transport rarely had a permanent secretary who went to Cambridge.)
  • Cal Lightman of Lie to Me went to Oxford.
  • In the first episode of Series 4 of The Sarah Jane Adventures Luke and K-9 were put in a yellow VW Beetle to Oxford after Luke passed his A Levels a year early.
  • Inspector Lynley is an Oxford alum, as is Agent Mulder.
  • In Sanctuary, Helen Magnus was the first woman to attend Oxford, where she met John Druitt, Nikola Tesla, Nigel Griffin, and James Watson (and was canonically lusted after by three out of those last four). "The Five" form a critical aspect of Sanctuary's backstory.
  • In Blackadder Goes Forth, Captain Blackadder is tasked with finding a German spy in the British ranks. He tests one of his suspects by asking her if her late boyfriend, who she claims was a British soldier, went to one of the "Great British Universities" but lists three instead of two. He uses her failing to catch this as proof that she's the spy. General Melchett has his own idea about which of the universities is the odd one out. This was also an inside joke; Stephen Fry, who played Melchett, was a Cambridge man, while Rowan Atkinson, who played Blackadder, attended Oxford.
    Blackadder: I asked if he'd been to one of the great universities: Oxford, Cambridge, or Hull.
    Nurse Mary: Well?
    Blackadder: You failed to spot that only two of those are great universities.
    Nurse Mary: You swine!
    Melchett: That's right! Oxford's a complete dump!

Cambridge in the media:

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  • 28 Days Later: The Zombie Apocalypse starts after environmental activists free infected chimps at Cambridge.
  • Chariots of Fire: One of the main characters, Harold Abrahams, starts his running career competing in and successfully finishing the Trinity Court Great Run whilst studying at Cambridge - getting around the 343 metres of court in the c.43 seconds it takes for the bells to chime 12. This has only been confirmed as being done in real life twice, the first in 1927 and the second in 2007 (the current route shaves the corners off and takes it down to 299 metres, manageable by a good club athlete) - Seb Coe just missed out in 1988. The real-life Abrahams never even attempted it.note 
  • Eskimo Day is a TV film about teenagers who have their interviews at Queens' College, Cambridge. Cold Enough For Snow is the sequel.
  • The Man Who Knew Infinity sees Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan travel to Trinity collage just before World War One after he began corresponding with G.H Hardy and the majority the film is set in and around the college and was filmed on location in Cambridge.
  • Oppenheimer: Oppenheimer teaches at Cambridge (among other places).
  • The Theory of Everything: As a Stephen Hawking biopic, large chunks of it take place in Cambridge (and it was also filmed there).

  • The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale is set in one of the original Cambridge colleges.
  • Porterhouse Blue: Set in a fictional Cambridge college. Which is not Peterhouse, at all.
  • The 'Imogen Quy' detective novels by Jill Paton Walsh are set in a fictional Cambridge college.
  • Susannah Gregory's 'Matthew Bartholomew' novels are set in and around one of the original Cambridge colleges.
  • Grantchester: Takes place in Grantchester, a village just south of Cambridge. Some of the mysteries involve university fellows, and Sidney is often seen cycling up and down King's Parade, past King's College. In the stories that the series is based on, Sidney combines his post as a vicar with an academic post at his old college, Corpus Christi.
  • James Bond has a First in Oriental Languages from Cambridge.
  • At the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 2010 film, there are several shots of university buildings, including King's College.
  • The Worst Witch followup Weirdsister College relocates Mildred and company from Wizard School to Wizard Cambridge College.
  • The Liar (novel) by Stephen Fry, his monologues on The BBC Radio 4 programme Loose Ends, and his more recent podcast monologues The Dongle of Donald Trefusis all feature Cambridge don Professor Trefusis, of the fictional St Matthew's College.
  • Thomas Gray, Philosopher Cat by Phillip J. Davis tells the tale of a cat that is a resident at Pembroke College.
  • The newest – though not himself young – curate in the Village Tales series is the Rev'd Henry Gascelyn Levett, an expert on church architecture and restoration who has recently taken Orders in his retirement … retirement from a Fellowship at Clare College Cantab (he was at Selwyn as an undergraduate). As the Rector and the other two curates are, in order, Keble, Keble, and Jesus, this ought to make the Boat Race interesting in the parish.

    Live-Action Television 
  • The Doctor Who story "Shada" is set at St Cedd's College, a fictional Cambridge college, and was filmed in Cambridge. It was written by Cambridge alumnus Douglas Adams, who also used it in his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. In the forward to Dirk Gently he notes that elements of it are based loosely on his own college, St John's, as well as other colleges. St Cedd's appears in the second episode of the Dirk Gently TV series.
  • Harry and Paul has several characters who went to Cambridge, and sketches filmed while the comedians were at Cambridge themselves.
  • Mackenzie McHale from The Newsroom, a former President of the Cambridge Union, is considerably upset to discover that her Wikipedia page says she was the President of the Oxford Union.
  • Country solicitor Peter Kingdom (played by—who else?—Stephen Fry) in Kingdom (2007) read Law at Cambridge, and two episodes (Series 1, Episode 4 and Series 2, Episode 5) involve him going back to Cambridge for one reason or other:
    • In the Series 1 episode, Peter is retained by the parents of a girl who was not admitted to Cambridge to sue the university for discrimination. He eventually gets to the bottom of the issue and helps her find a place. She plans to read Law.
    • In the Series 2 episode, Peter gets involved in a mystery about the death of a Cambridge biologist.
  • A Spy Among Friends: As an adaptation of the real-life Cambridge Spies case, the men involved are shown meeting at Cambridge.

  • In Utopia, Limited, Utopia's crown princess Zara has been studying at Girtonnote  for five years. Her return to her Anglophilic homeland is a major plot point.

Both in the media:

    Comic Books 

  • The Sherlock Holmes story "The Three Students" takes place in a university town called Camford.

    Live Action Television 
  • The The Young Ones episode where Scumbag College gets onto University Challenge sees the Scumbags come up against a (fictitious) Footlights College, Oxbridge, populated by chinless Henries and simpering Henriettas. The boys realise straight away how everything is rigged in favour of the Oxbridge team and behave accordingly. note 

  • The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard begins (chronologically) at Oxford, where the main characters are students, and continues on to Cambridge, where A. E. Housman has become a professor. The cultures of both universities figure prominently in the play.

    Western Animation 
  • Phineas and Ferb: In "Act Your Age," Phineas mentions that Ferb will be attending Camford on Oxbury for university.