Why are Star Wars stormtroopers on patrol where generations of undergraduates have passed through the final ordeal of their student lives?

The Force is strong in here … Oxford’s Exam Schools go rogue‘These aren’t the grades we’re looking for…’ A Star Wars stormtrooper brings a new frisson to the time-honoured terrors of the Examination Schools

By Olivia Gordon

When Edward VII and George III gaze down from the walls of Oxford’s Examination Schools, it is usually at a sea of students making lecture notes or taking finals. One can only imagine what these stern and illustrious figures, and the Prussian kings and University chancellors in the neighbouring portraits, would make of Star Wars stormtroopers pacing the panelled passageways. Or what they would think of the North and South Halls crammed with people getting tipsy on gin.

Last year, the managers of the Examination Schools decided to travel to a galaxy far, far away from Oxford exams and lectures. In a quest to raise funds to reinvest into the upkeep of the 1880 building, events manager Anna Munday made the jump to light speed. The Schools will continue to host conferences and corporate events, on top of exams and lectures — but they are also opening up to more ‘fun’ events.

The Force is strong in here … Oxford’s Exam Schools go rogueThe portraits of the great and the good now gaze down on unaccustomed frivolity

The first, Oxford Comic Con, held in spring last year, was such a blast — attracting 1,500 members of the public — that it returned last month with some 2,000 visitors, including Oxford students and members of the public as well as others from further afield. Those on hand to sign autographs included David Prowse, who plays Darth Vader (though James Earl Jones does Vader’s voice), and Colin Baker, the sixth Doctor Who. The Star Wars element was particularly apt, given that the starring role of rebel fighter Jyn Erso in last year’s hugely successful spinoff movie Rogue One was played by Oxford alumna Felicity Jones (Wadham, 2003).

‘Comic cons’ — conventions celebrating pop culture with a focus on fantasy, gaming, comics, anime and sci-fi — have proved highly successful around the world in recent years. The idea of hosting them at the Examination Schools came from History DPhil student Leonardo Davoudi (St Antony’s, 2011), who also goes by the alias ‘The Architect’ in his role as Oxford Comic Con organiser.

The Force is strong in here … Oxford’s Exam Schools go rogue

‘The venue could only be the Examination Schools in my mind,’ he said. ‘The amazing contrast of the classical splendours of the building with fully-equipped Star Wars stormtroopers was a determinant factor.’

The festival proved a hit. ‘Bringing fun and fantasy to a place usually associated with exams and uniforms made the event truly special,’ said Davoudi. The halls, emptied of their customary chairs, were filled instead with visitors in fantasy costume, or cosplay, as it is now known. But the Examination Schools was also the idea place to introduce a wider audience to academic research, such as a talk by Oxford experimental physics professor Ian Shipsey called ‘Stranger than Fiction: From Quarks to the Cosmos to the Physics of Star Wars and Star Trek’.

The Force is strong in here … Oxford’s Exam Schools go rogueStudents celebrate the end of their finals outside the Examination Schools

The Force is strong in here … Oxford’s Exam Schools go rogueAnna Munday (right), who facilitated all this with her Exam Schools team, has been keen to bring other buzzy events to the halls, and the other big party on the horizon is a new Oxford gin festival on 5–6 August. Visitors to the Great Oxford Gin Festival, organised by Gin Festivals UK, will be able to sample 120 gins from around the world — including a new Oxford University gin being developed by the Botanical Gardens. They will be able to learn to distil their own gin and enjoy live entertainment and ‘an indoor garden-party atmosphere’.

The Exam Schools will no longer be solely known as a solemn and studious place, and that’s a good thing, said Munday. ‘It’s nice to try something different, and this is catching people’s imaginations. And it’s nice for people to see the building — it has wow factor. It will be good to see where we can go with this.’

There are limits, of course. ‘We’re not going to start doing raves,’ she said. ‘We’re going to be respectful of the building.’

Events are only organised outside term time or on weekends — the priority of the schools remains teaching and exams. The funds raised from the festivals are re-invested in the building, and have already paid for repainting rooms and upgrading audiovisual equipment, for example.

Next on Munday’s wishlist is a Christmas fair — yet to be confirmed. ‘We’re open to more ideas,’ she says. ‘Let’s see what requests come in.’

Images from Oxford Comic Con by Sheng Peng, reproduced with permission; Examination Schools portraits by Oxford University Images / David Williams Photography; students by Oxford University Images / Rob Judges Photography; Anna Munday courtesy of Oxford University.


By Prof Daniel Woo...

I very much enjoyed your article on Star Wars at the Examination Schools; and on May the Fourth (be with you) to boot.
One small correction: David Prowse was not the 'voice' of Darth Vader but his physical form. His voice was supplied by the American actor James Earl Jones.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The error has been corrected, with thanks to those readers who drew it to our attention.]

By David West

Dave Prowse provided the body of Darth Vader, not the voice. I'm not sure his West Country accent would have been evil enough.

By Catherine Goldie

David Prowse is the body of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones has been the voice throughout the entire series.