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Ivory Tower: Professor Higgins has a visit from the Research Office

INT. Drawing room in Higgins’ London home, at his desk he is surrounded by phonetic charts as he tinkers with phonograph recording equipment. Col Pickering slumps in an armchair reading the Times.

Pickering: Another cove in the paper saying university is a waste of time.

Higgins: Someone had better tell Eliza now that she is doing her PhD.

Pickering: Yes, soon she’ll be Dr Doolittle.

Higgins: I’ve known a few vice chancellors like that.

Pickering: You know, Higgins, maybe this chap in the Times has a point. Perhaps Eliza would have been better off in a flower shop.

Higgins: Nonsense Pickering, Eliza’s education has given her extraordinary social mobility. You know, from a phonetics point of view universities are fascinating. Give me the plumiest Oxbridge graduate on the board of the BBC and I will tell you in two minutes which borough of the Essex estuary they are really from.

Pickering: Not that old parlour trick.

[Enter Mrs Pierce, the housekeeper]

Pierce: There’s a gentleman to see you Professor Higgins, says he’s from the university.

Higgins: Damn and blast Mrs Pierce, can’t you see I’m busy?

Pierce: He says it’s about the REF.

Pickering: Rugger or soccer?

Higgins: It will be this damnable research office again. They keep leaving messages. Show him in Mrs Pierce, but don’t offer him tea or we’ll never get rid of him.

Pierce: Very well, professor.

Pickering: Damn impertinent this fellow turning up here.

[Enter Research Officer]

Research officer: Professor Higgins, you are a hard man to track down. I’m Geoff [he goes to shake hands].

Pickering: I’m not Higgins.

Higgins: He’s not Higgins. I am. That’s Colonel Pickering.

RO: Helping the military with your phonetics research?

Higgins: No, he lives here, with me.

RO: Oh, I see. Apologies, I didn’t know you were…

Higgins: Ah, let me see, yes, definitely Kent, but northern… Gravesend, I would say. Probably somewhere near Greenhithe.

RO: Sorry?

Higgins: That’s where you are from, isn’t it? Phonetics, the science of speech, a man’s vowels are as unmistakable as his fingerprints.

RO: That’s amazing. I thought I lost my accent after going to university.

Higgins: Let me see, yes, definitely red brick, lower thirties in the average league table. You did a joint degree in business and psychology. I’d say at the University of Wessex.

RO: That’s unbelievable. You can tell all that from my vowels?

Higgins: No, that bit was on your LinkedIn page. I looked you up when you left all those messages.

RO: Yes, the university is going to be part of the people, culture and environment pilot for the next Research Excellence Framework, so we want to talk to our senior researchers about any good examples of inclusivity.

Higgins: Better talk to Eliza about that sort of thing.

RO: Who’s Eliza?

Pickering: Why, Miss Doolittle, of course.

RO: I don’t understand.

Pickering: It’s all very straightforward. One evening, Higgins and I were strolling through Covent Garden when we picked up Eliza.

RO: Picked up?

Higgins: Picked up her accent.

RO: Of course…

Pickering: She was a common flower girl. So, Higgins took her home.

RO: Sorry?

Higgins: For the experiment.

RO: I’m confused but carry on.

Pickering: Had to burn all her clothes, obviously. Mrs Pierce gave her some new ones and then she started practising day and night.

RO: What?

Pickering: Yes, Higgins said that in six months he could pass her off as a duchess at the embassy ball. So, the poor girl studied day and night. You were damn near like a slave driver, Higgins.

Higgins: Yes, I confess.

RO: My God.

Pickering: Well, that’s what I thought when he pulled it off. Eliza did go to the ball, and she was indeed mistaken for a princess.

RO: By whom?

Higgins: By Zoltan Karpathy, a former student of mine, who now thinks he is an expert in the field.

RO: Is this research? Have you written up the results of the experiment?

Pickering: No, no, of course not. It was just a wager.

RO: Wager? You mean it was risky. Tell me you did a risk assessment.

Higgins: Of course not, it was only a few hundred pounds between me and Pickering.

RO: This is not normal.

Pickering: But dash it all, that’s what Eliza said. She stormed off and said she was not coming back.

RO: What happened?

Higgins: Yes, perhaps we should stop the story there.

Pickering: Well, Higgins ended up marrying the girl.

RO: What?

Higgins: She’s studied phonetics in great depth and is now doing a PhD.

RO: Who’s the supervisor? No, don’t tell me…

Pickering: Why, Higgins of course.

RO: I wish you hadn’t told me that.

Higgins: Nobody’s damn business except Eliza’s and mine.

RO: Professor Higgins, have you read the guidelines? Tell me you had approval for the experiment at least.

Higgins: Of course I did.

RO: Thank goodness.

Pickering: Yes, Eliza’s father came round one day, asking for money. But Higgins saw him right.

RO: You cannot be serious.

Higgins: He now gives lectures on moral philosophy.

RO: Please say it’s in another university.

Higgins: What damn business is this of your research office, or anybody else?

RO: We are just about to be audited for our research culture and how the university treats its people.

Higgins: Treats me fine. I come in one day a week, teach a class, then go home and spend the rest of the time in my study. Suits me well.

RO: You’ve just told me that you kidnapped a disadvantaged student with no qualifications. Forced her to train in your phonetic methods for hours on end to wrench her from her community and lose her accent. Bribed the student’s father to turn a blind eye. Falsely presented her as royalty in an official context. Misled a fellow academic expert in the field. Bet money on the outcome of an experiment involving human subjects with your live-in soldier chum. The student is distraught and runs away. Then, to cover your tracks, you entered a relationship with the student, who you are now supervising for a PhD in your own methods.

Pickering: When you put it like that, it sounds a bit sordid.

RO: Sordid? We are looking at multiple very serious breaches of research ethics. This is gross misconduct.

Higgins: Can’t do anything these days.

RO: Professor Higgins, I have a duty to refer this.

Higgins: Such a pity. I suppose we won’t have that impact case study after all.

RO: Impact?

Pickering: Yes, Higgins’ story has gone worldwide. It’s been a play, a musical and a film.

RO: Film?

Pickering: Oscars and all sorts, old boy.

RO [thinking out loud]: It works for the TEF and KEF but mainly for the REF.

Higgins: What did you say?

RO: The TEF and KEF but mainly for the REF.

Pickering: Say that again.

RO: The TEF and KEF but mainly for the REF.

Higgins: By George, he’s got it! [He starts to sing to the tune of ‘The Rain in Spain’] By George, he’s got it!

RO [joining in]: The TEF and KEF but mainly for the REF.

Higgins: Now Geoff, where does it cross-ref?

RO: In the TEF! In the KEF!

Higgins: But where’s the biggest heft?

RO: For REF! For REF!

[All three sing]: The TEF, the KEF, but mainly for the REF.
The TEF, the KEF, but mainly for the REF.

Higgins: In health, history and humanities?

RO: Impact hardly happens.

Higgins: Now Geoff, where does it cross-ref?

RO: In the TEF! In the KEF!

Higgins: But where’s the biggest heft?

RO: For REF! For REF!

[All three sing]: The TEF and KEF but mainly for the REF.
The TEF and KEF but mainly for the REF.

[They collapse on the sofa exhausted]

Higgins: Bravo, Geoffrey. Let’s hear no more about this gross misconduct nonsense.

RO: Fair enough, but we still can’t put you in the pilot.

Higgins: Why ever not?

RO: We’re closing the languages department. Phonetics is on the list for cuts. Sorry about that.

Higgins: Damn and blast.

[Curtain falls]

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