Hackney is notorious for being one of the poorest boroughs in the land. What those outside London may not know is that it is also renowned at this time of year for the quality of its pantomime. Playing at the Hackney Empire this season is Clive Rowe in Jack and the Beanstalk. Down the road at Haggerston School another farce is unfolding starring a familiar list of characters (page 3).
Reprising his acclaimed role as education hero is Sir Michael Wilshaw. As head of Mossbourne Academy, Sir Michael has given pupils from largely poor backgrounds the skills, hope, discipline and ambition to achieve some of the most amazing exam results in the country. Now he wants to apply his successful formula to neighbouring Haggerston. Before the governors is a proposal to turn the school into an academy in federation with Mossbourne. Fe fi fo fum, bellows the local union branch, which has had a vote and decided that, all things considered, the staff would rather not be disturbed with too much improvement. Thanks ever so. It's a tough choice for the governors.
Aware that the traditional lines - "Go away", "We really don't like academies" and the perennial "What can you do with kids like these?" - might be a tad insufficient, the local NUT has come up with some new dialogue. Sir Michael, it says, is a megalomaniac whose lust for power will reduce Haggerston to "a satellite". All he wants for Christmas "is an empire". Ooh missus.
Everyone can recognise a pantomime villain. There's the Evil Giant, the Wicked Wizard and the Greedy Wolf. Unfortunately for the union, it's hard to typecast a man who has transformed the lives of some of the poorest pupils in the country as any of these. In any case, there are other contenders for the role. A traditional standby is the Angry Activist, a preposterous character who would rather see a school sink into mediocrity and disadvantaged kids deprived of a decent education than have colleagues' competence questioned by a management that dared to think its chief concern was the welfare and progress of its pupils and not the self-interested posturing of its staff. The character is generally good for a few laughs but tends to spend most of the time walking off the stage instead of doing anything useful on it.
In pantomime, by convention, roles are reversed: men are dragged up as women, women as men and bad tries to pass itself off as good. Of course, the deceits are easily spotted by the audience, who have no trouble spotting a wolf in grandma's clothes, or reactionaries disguised as radicals. But in pantomime the actors are in on the act; they understand the roles they play. In Hackney, the union appears to have forgotten that the children are the point, Sir Michael isn't the villain and it is becoming the joke. Oh yes it is.