How sexy we are on screen

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Theme tune by Lulu, extra syrup by Robin Williams and bed-hopping by Andrew Lincoln; teachers have often been hard put to recognise themselves in film and TV. Geoff Barton is puzzled but cheered by a new analysis

Carry on Teachers!: representations of the teaching profession in screen culture; By Susan Ellsmore; Trentham Books pound;16.99

I can't imagine that anyone became a teacher because of Grange Hill. While it might have kick-started the career of Todd Carty (formerly EastEnders, twice, and now The Bill) and persuaded the viewing millions that school caretakers had more class control than most teachers, it did little to enhance the reputation of a profession battered by negative media images, low self-esteem and disastrous industrial action. That was the Eighties.

Now, as sociology sixth-form teacher Susan Ellsmore tells us, "education has become a sexy subject". Her book is a survey of the main media representations of the teaching profession, from Goodbye Mr Chips (1939) through Carry on Teacher (1959), To Sir, With Love (1967), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Clockwise (1986), Dead Poets Society (1989) to Lenny Henry in Hope Glory (1999). Oh yes, and Teachers (2001 onwards).

Carry on Teachers! provides a comprehensive overview of the films and TV series that have shaped our perception of teachers, grouping the examples thematically as television dramas (which the author calls, excessively and gratingly, the "reel world" of television), the charismatic teacher film, the encounter of charismatic teacher and student, and the social representation of teachers.

Sometimes I found myself confused by the supposed focus of each chapter and instead just relished the vivid descriptions of each genre. That's where the pleasure of the book lies. My own earliest memory of a teacher on film was To Sir, With Love, in which the enigmatic Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) starts to impose his values on an unruly backchatting East End class that predates contemporary chavs by 40 years. Memorable for Lulu's theme tune and for school student characters who, in hindsight, seem older than most of today's newly qualified teachers, it was a film that defined the screen tradition of teacher as hero and helped to shake off the teacher-as-bumbling-idiot image which was becoming so ingrained through TV's Please Sir, Carry on Teacher and the St Trinian's series. Poitier's character, the reluctant young teacher who still hankers after being an engineer, turns around the hard class through his sheer charisma.

Two decades later the same storyline was translated into American (this time at a rather more upmarket boys' school) and soaked in the thickest of maple syrup for Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society. Weir is a great Australian movie-maker. From Picnic at Hanging Rock through Witness to, most recently, Master and Commander, he brings an outsider's forensic eye to confined, claustrophobic worlds, exposing their strange rituals. Unfortunately, in Dead Poets Society he was let down by the gooey performance of Robin Williams as English teacher Mr Keating, the kind of teacher who captivates his class by breaking all the rules. While we might not all like Robin Williams' delivery, it was this kind of teacher who brought many of us into the profession.

My guru was Roy Samson, the English teacher who inspired me with his unconventional method of teaching about the Spanish Armada by setting the school biology pond on fire and feeding cat food to hapless first years (don't ask: there was a good reason). So Keating gets his students standing on their desks chanting poetry and whispering "carpe diem", until it declines into a vomit-inducing sugar-fest.

Any vomit in Teachers is the genuine article. This late-night Channel 4 cult series takes the gritty traditions of Grange Hill and rubs in half a ton of coarse gravel. For me, it's the early episodes that best define this new take on the teaching profession. The rosy idealism of the Teacher Training Agency's "No one forgets a good teacher" campaign, which was launched around the same time as the series, is kicked into touch with a cast of staffroom figures whose heavy drinking, chain-smoking and sexual excursions are punctuated by the occasional and distracting need to teach.

English teacher Simon Casey - played with distinguished fecklessness by Andrew Lincoln - lusts briefly after the mother of one of his students, finds excuses for not marking work, and drifts not altogether innocently from bed to bed. His students call him Simon.

For Susan Ellsmore, the appeal of the series is that "these reel-world teachers are free to say the things that real-world teachers are often thinking". I'm not convinced. Teachers is anarchic, seedy, occasionally disgraceful, and always wonderful. After a lifetime of squirming through the union conference season, in which earnest and bearded zealots reinforce the squareness of an unrecognisable profession, we watch Teachers turn every stereotype on its head, then knee it in the groin. It's the background shots that are particularly vivid - the staffroom characters who lurk, hopeless and dishevelled, clinging on to the hope of a meagre professionalism which never appears. But I'm not sure that teachers ever think it's like real life.

Teaching rarely feels like this. For many of us, it's far too driven by professional standards, targets and accountability. But it's the merciless crushing of public perceptions - based on decades of dodgy films and worthy news items that show teachers as bores, as saccharine rebels, as world-changing paragons - that gives Teachers such a nervy and absorbing charm.

Ellsmore's book gives us a brisk history of all of these media representations, and more. She provides a light-touch educational history (too brief to be much use) and then - unnecessarily, to my mind - asks a tiny panel of teachers what they think of the films. It all has the slightly undigested feeling of the PhD thesis from which the work originated, and is not the rollicking read the title might imply. However, as a survey of teachers in screen culture, it's pretty comprehensive (though what happened to Kes?), entertaining and enlightening.

It's also a reminder, in this long autumn term, that we belong to a profession that's now perceived as "sexy". While that sentiment may feel as phoney and unbelievable as many of the portrayals of teachers on film, we all need a shot of escapism occasionally. That's as good as it gets.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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