BBC Radio 4, 31 March 2013
John Kemp (Samuel Barnett) is a green north-country student arriving at Oxford
University in the post-1945 era. Gauche, socially inexperienced and lonely, he discovers that life is far from pleasant
in an environment dominated by upper-class students, including his room-mate Christopher Warner (Richard Goulding).
Jill confirms many
of those images about Oxford that made it seem such an unpleasant place - especially to those who did not fit into the prevailing
ethos. Warner, his friends Elizabeth and Patrick Dowling (Richard Goulding, Jessica Raine) and Whitbread (Nigel Pilkington)
treat Kemp as if he hardly exists - except as a generous money-lender to subsidize their expensive social habits. It
is thus hardly surprising that Kemp ends up being thrown into the fountain in the quadrangle at an end-of-term party.
The only way that Kemp can find
to cope with this life is to retreat into the world of the imagination, where he creates an imaginary sister Jill - an Angela
Brazil-type adolescent attending public school leading a difficult life. This character immediately attracts Warner's
interest as someone conforming more to his social (and sexual) interests.
Fiona McAlpine's production deliberately conflates actual and imaginary worlds through the
use of a narrator, who describes Kemp's actions in the third person (just like Kemp, who describes Jill's actions in
his letters in similar vein). This device shows how many students learn to cope with their new lives away from home
by retreating into fantasy-worlds, and by doing so acquire the kind of maturity denied to Warner and his social circle.
Kemp begins to understand what a university exists for; it isn't just a life of tea-parties, pubs and balls, interspersed
with the odd (and generally inconvenient) tutorial, but a place where students should begin to understand themselves and their
place in the world. This process should help them acquire a vocation for the future.
McAlpine's adaptation ended somewhat anticlimactically,
with Kemp bidding farewell to his fellow-students, while looking forward to next term. At the same time we understood
how he had acquired a kind of inner strength, in spite of the indignity of being thrown into the fountain (and catching
bronchitis as a result).
Samuel Barnett made a welcome return to the airwaves as John, his quizzical tones contrasting with the
self-assured arrogance of Goulding's Warner. Jill might be a period piece, but it dramatizes the experience
of many students, irrespective of their socio-economic origins.