Can teachers dream of a Hollywood ending?

20th June 2003 at 01:00
The "director's cut" is a delightfully ambiguous expression: whichever way you care to take it, it has a tale to tell about the film industry.

The phrase cropped up the other day in a student's work - a review of the cult film Blade Runner. My student was enthusing about the sci-fi drama, recently re-released on video in a new and definitive "director's cut".

In the film Harrison Ford plays a has-been detective, pressured into coming out of retirement to take "one last case" and save the world from out-of-control androids. This struck me as being something of a cinematic cliche - and then something else struck me too: the extent to which film cliches can spill over into the world of teaching.

Our scene is set in a run-down bar in the seedy part of town. A man in a tie (obviously a manager) sits opposite a man not in a tie (obviously not a manager). "Damn it Perkins," says tie man, "we need you back at the college. The NVQ level 2 plumbers are running riot and no one, repeat no one, can rein them in like you can."

His dishevelled companion reaches for the bottle, pours out four fingers of redeye, sinks it in one, pulls the back of his hand across his mouth. "It's no good Smithy. I'm all washed up. I ain't had the sniff of a good flux in years. This is the only lubrication for me now."

"Listen Perkins." Tie man isn't going to be deflected so easily. "You were good. You were the best there was. Why, your level 3 textbook Five Turns of the Wrench was a legend in its own lifetime. Whenever there was trouble - a burst pipe or a rogue apprentice - all we had to do was call for Perkins and it was problem solved."

"That was then, Smithy. This is now." Perkins sinks another large measure of whisky. "These days I can hardly roll a joint, let alone solder one."

Tie man is getting desperate. "Perkins," he says, "if you don't pull yourself together and come back to work, the whole of building services - brackets maintenance - could go down the pan. Thirty years of your life went into brackets maintenance, Perkins. Are you really prepared to say goodbye to all that?"

The manager gets to his feet and heads off to the john. As the door slams behind him, a slight figure appears as from nowhere and slips on to the vacant bar stool. Perkins looks up. A shock of recognition steals into his bloodshot eyes. "Well, I'll be... if it isn't little Dolly Pimple, the yellow rose of Plumbing for Pleasure."

Dolly flashes her trademark gummy grin. "Come back Mr Perkins won't you? Life seems so empty without your Tuesday afternoon boiler renovation class.

We need you, teacher."

Perkins wipes a tear from his begrimed cheek. "All right Dolly, you win.

I'm going to climb back into those dungarees one more time..."

And once you start to think about it, the whole of Hollywood opens up for FE comparisons. Take the mandatory car chase. In FE that would obviously become a mandatory paper chase. And the hooker with a heart of gold? What else does the finance director do with her weekends?

Then there's the heist movie, or the sting, the first reel of which is dominated by getting the guys together in order to carry out some audacious new swindle. Or, to put it another way, the chief executive picks his team of negotiators for the latest pay round with Natfhe, the lecturers' union.

But everyone knows that the ultimate film cliche is the one-to-one confrontation - the fight to the death at the end of a good 50 per cent of Hollywood's finest. Our hero - naturally he's a lecturer - is a good guy, but he's flawed (don't you have to be flawed to want to work in FE these days?) And while there will be many candidates for "villain", who can have a better claim than that Machiavellian monster known as the quality manager.

From the very first frame, our good guy has been pursuing the villain; but then he also has the distinct impression that the villain is pursuing him! This man wants something from him, and when he gets it our hero knows it is going to hurt.

The showdown takes place in some slimy, vermin-infested landscape of broken tables and upturned chairs - instantly recognisable as the student canteen.

"Hey punk," calls the lecturer, "you've had your pound of flesh and now I'm going to get mine." They move closer. They engage. After five minutes of taking all his quality manager can throw at him (the man even uses sarcasm) the lecturer triumphs and walks away from the broken figure of the villain.

Sadly though, this is the point where we all know we are dealing with fiction. In real life, the ending would have to be the other way around!

Stephen Jones lectures at a south London college

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