Cultural prescription: plays, films, books and more to help you start university

From Educating Rita to The Secret History, Guardian critics suggest some comfort viewing and listening to take on campus


I first read Educating Rita at school although, ironically, I wasn’t taught it brilliantly. It’s the perfect play for students heading off to university – a place that should encourage freedom of thought but often promotes conformity. Every student should be more Rita.

Willy Russell’s hugely popular play sees Liverpudlian hairdresser Rita sign up for an Open University English literature course. There she meets middle-aged, middle-class (middle everything, really) professor Frank. Gradually, the two help each other look at life a little differently. But above all, Rita reminds us just how instinctive and exhilarating education can be. That’s a lesson worth holding on to. Miriam Gillinson

* * *


University challenged … James McAvoy in Starter for 10.
University challenged … James McAvoy in Starter for 10. Photograph: Moviestore/Shutterstock

You may be just about to go up to “uni”, as absolutely nobody called it in the 1980s when this film, Starter for 10, is set – in those days it was “college” or “university” in full. Or you may be watching one of your kids do it. Either way, you probably need a little filmic comfort food on the subject, with a bit of comic discomfort thrown in. David Nicholls adapted his own novel for this adaptation directed by Tom Vaughan in 2006. It is a very entertaining romp starring James McAvoy as Brian, a bloke entering fresher hell at Bristol University and dreaming of competing on University Challenge. He is hoping to impress a fellow student Rebecca, played by Rebecca Hall, with whom he has fallen deeply in love. The team captain is a thoroughly stuck-up weirdo played by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Gatiss contributes an eerie impersonation of the man who presented the show in those days: Bamber Gascoigne. So get your fingers on the buzzers. Peter Bradshaw

This article comes from Saturday, the new print magazine from the Guardian which combines the best features, culture, lifestyle and travel writing in one beautiful package. Available now in the UK and ROI.

* * *


Secret History
Secret History Photograph: Penguin Books

“This is the only story I will ever be able to tell,” intones Richard Papen, looking back on the lurid events of his university years – and it’s a good one. Donna Tartt’s 1992 mystery The Secret History, a winning combination of immersive realism and fairytale enchantment, is precision-tooled for the fresher bookshelf. Take a scholarship boy at an exclusive American college who is drawn into a glamorous clique; scatter the intellectual stardust of ancient Greek; stir in passionate friendship, hero worship, first love … and, of course, death.

I devoured it in one go, sitting on a six-hour coach journey to university; 30 years later, this deliciously doomy thriller remains a stone-cold classic. Justine Jordan

* * *


Jaunty riffs … Bombay Bicycle Club.
Jaunty riffs … Bombay Bicycle Club. Photograph: Tom Oldham/Shutterstock

When I started university in 2011, I cared about two things; how many gig tickets my student loan would cover, and how I was going to find a new mate to go with. I still remember the nerve-racked relief of hearing Bombay Bicycle’s Clubs song Shuffle coming out of my nextdoor neighbour’s room on move-in day, the beginning of three years of bonding over sticky strawpedos and stolen posters clawed from the local indie night. If you’re stuck for ideas on your first communal playlist, Bombay Bicycle Club’s jaunty piano riff can still unite even the most diverse of flatmate tastes. Jenessa Williams

* * *


‘Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool’ … Sol LeWitt in 1969.
‘Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool’ … Sol LeWitt in 1969. Photograph: Jack Robinson/Getty Images

In 1965, the German-born young sculptor Eva Hesse wrote to the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, complaining of creative block. LeWitt replied with a funny and deadly serious handwritten letter that has since become famous among artists. I wish I’d read as an anxious young student. I’d prescribe it to anyone in any discipline facing creative self-doubt or wondering who they are.

“Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out,” LeWitt writes, the words tumbling over themselves for pages, telling Hesse to stop “bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting and nit-picking … don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Stop worrying about big, deep things. You are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT.” And Hesse did. Adrian Searle


Miriam Gillinson, Peter Bradshaw, Jenessa Williams, Justine Jordan and Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Cultural prescription: film, books, plays and more to help you embrace autumn
From A Midsummer Night’s Dream to When Harry Met Sally, Guardian critics suggest comforting culture for the changing seasons

Peter Bradshaw, Tim Ashley, Adrian Searle, Alison Flood and Arifa Akbar

04, Oct, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Darling buds: books, music, theatre and more with spring in their hearts
From Chaucer’s elemental epic to Gnarls Barkley’s alternative take on gospel, our critics suggest popular culture inspired by the return of sunnier skies

Miriam Gillinson, Jonathan Jones, Sam Jordison, Jessica Kiang and Christine Ochefu

28, Mar, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Something for the weekend: film, music and more for May Day bank holiday
From a spot of Quadrophenia to a good innings with The English Game, our critics suggest art to inspire the best use of your extra day of free time

Sasha Mistlin, Kadish Morris, Steve Rose, Jason Okundaye and Jenessa Williams

30, Apr, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Astral peaks: music, books, art and more about the majesty of space
From beautiful celestial metaphors to a virtual simulacrum of an entire galaxy, our critics suggest popular culture inspired by the wonders of astronomy

Jonathan Jones, Jenessa Williams, Sam Jordison, Luke Holland and Jessica Kiang

14, Mar, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Enjoy your trip: books, music, films and more for an out-of-body experience
From Gaspar Noé’s death-dream to Elgar’s emotionally charged choral composition, our critics recommend culture to take you into another dimension

Miriam Gillinson, Sam Jordison, Jessica Kiang, Hugh Morris and Jason Okundaye

30, May, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
People power: music, film, books and more about the madness and wisdom of crowds
From Dickens’s depiction of the Gordon riots to Alessia Cara drifting around a party, our critics select culture about the seething masses

15, May, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
From the Beano to Katherine Ryan: 31 ways to beat the January blues
Each week, our critics choose the best music, film, theatre, art and games – so who better to ask to help us through a whole month?

Andrew Clements, Ryan Gilbey, Ammar Kalia, Danny Leigh, Brian Logan, Dale Berning Sawa, Skye Sherwin, Keith Stuart, Jenessa Williams, Nicholas Wroe & Kate Wyver

01, Jan, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
A bit of rough: books, music, art and more to help with a hangover
You’ve had a big one, but what goes up must come down. From gentle piano to breezy laughs, our critics offer salves for sore heads

Jenessa Williams, Jason Okundaye, Sam Jordison, Rebecca Liu and Jonathan Jones

05, Dec, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Christmas crackers: books, films, games and more to kickstart your festivities
From a trans LA showdown to a pastoral Nintendo game, Guardian critics have the yuletide covered

Danny Leigh, Kate Wyver, Jenessa Williams, Sam Jordison and Keza MacDonald

20, Dec, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Family misfortunes: film, books, games and more about dysfunctional clans
From Jonathan Franzen to Charles Ray, Guardian critics suggest culture that can mess you up as much as Mum and Dad

Danny Leigh, Sam Jordison, Kate Wyver, Skye Sherwin and Keza MacDonald

22, Nov, 2021 @8:00 AM