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Review - Firm handshakes, floppy hair and tears across the board

Britain's Youngest Boarders

Wednesday September 22, BBC2, 9pm

Luke Clegg is trying to choose between two cuddly toys. It is an important decision: the choice will have to last him the entire term. The small, floppy-haired eight-year-old is beginning his first term at boarding school, one of three pupils portrayed in this sweetly sympathetic documentary.

His older brother, James, has been at #163;16,000-a-term Sunningdale for two years. "I would be Clegg major," James explains. "He would be Clegg minor." Next to him, Clegg minor thrashes at the air with an imaginary sword. The Berkshire prep is home to 100 boys between the ages of seven and 13; all will go on to board at big-name public schools, including Eton and Harrow.

As his parents drop both brothers off, Luke is greeted by "Hathers", his official guardian. Nine-year-old Hugo Hatherley, wearing tank-top and new sense of self-importance, smiles from under his floppy fringe. There are a lot of floppy fringes here. The owner of one, 10-year-old Louis, is also a new boarder. He and boarding veteran Zac are discussing the differences between Sunningdale and state primaries. "In state schools, you probably always have to sit cross-legged on the floor," says Zac.

Dominic is also a new pupil. The 11-year-old's parents live in Shanghai; tomorrow they will take the 6,000-mile journey back home. As the boys are given a tour, his mother blinks repeatedly. "Of course it's difficult," headteacher Tom Dawson tells her, "he's your baby." Dominic, meanwhile, is more stoical. His father has told him that boarders usually cry on their first night. "I figure I shouldn't," Dominic says, "just to show I'm tougher, make my dad proud."

Within a week, most of the new boys are settling in. Luke's classmates have deemed him "a nice chap"; one of his dorm-mates has begun leaving bottles of Garnier Fructis (all that floppiness needs to be looked after) in the communal bathrooms. And Dominic is rehearsing public-school interview technique with Mr Dawson.

"Firm grip," the head counsels his boys on handshakes. Preternaturally self-possessed, Dominic takes to interviewing immediately.

But Louis is struggling with homesickness. When he learns that his parents will be at his football match, his plaintive "yay" is heartbreaking. Yet the film never takes the easy route of pity-the-posh-kids heartstring-tugging. Reality is more complicated. And so we see Lt Col Carew Hatherley - Hathers' pater - explaining that Sunningdale provides much-needed stability for Hugo: the family is in its seventh home in 12 years.

And when Harrow places Dominic on its waiting list, Mr Dawson vows to do everything he can to ensure his young charge is offered a place. Indeed, the headstart these boys receive is undoubted: Mr Dawson's firm handshake will take them from public school to top university to high-flying job.

But the sacrifices are equally undeniable. "The first two weeks, I felt really sad, but I probably enjoy it more than my old school now," says Louis. "Yeah," he tells himself, and looks wistfully into the distance.

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