Lost in a cloud of chalk dust
Chalk, a six-parter that started yesterday (February 20) on BBC1, is set in a comprehensive that is to education what Fawlty Towers was to hotel management. In fact, Chalk has several similarities with that hotel comedy series. Deputy head Eric Slatt, played by David Bamber, bears more than a passing resemblance to John Cleese's Basil Fawlty, with a good measure of Rik Mayall (Bottom) thrown in for extra bile. Moreover, Nicola Walker, who plays the new teacher outraged with what she finds at Galfast High, is uncannily similar to Connie Booth's Polly as the one voice of reason in a microcosm gone mad. And the parallels continue.
In the first episode, even a sub-plot comes straight out of Fawlty Towers. A dead teacher is detected after two classes have come and gone. Mr Slatt and his long-suffering wife - who is also the school secretary - have to dispose of the body, in front of the whole class. If we hadn't seen it all before in the Fawlty Towers episode when one of the guests inconveniently snuffs it, it might have been amusing. As it is, it is just plain tired.
And here is where the depression comes in. Like the music group Pulp, Chalk is just plain derivative. It could have been written 20 years ago, if you took out the few carefully placed references to league tables and OFSTED inspections. In itself, that would not be worthy of comment, since so much of television comedy copies what has come before it. But the fact that here is a school that is run and staffed solely by blithering idiots seems particularly unfunny at a time when the question of the quality of heads and teachers is being seriously debated.
Without wishing to be too po-faced in the presence of so much canned laughter, isn't this a bit like kicking a profession when it's down, just for the sake of a few cheap laughs? What, I kept asking myself as I watched a tape of the first episode, will teachers think?
The creator of the series, Steven Moffat, isn't unduly exercised on that point. He doesn't think teachers will take it seriously because "it's farce, it's not a political diatribe. And neither is it intended to be a portrait of a school. The focus is on the interaction of characters and what they do to each other in the staffroom."
Curiously, Moffat himself is no stranger to teaching. He was one in a large secondary comprehensive near Glasgow for three years. His father is a primary head and his sister teaches in a primary school. So did his granny. Moffat is also no stranger to using his own life as a basis for his comedy scripts. His previous series for the BBC, the award-winning Joking Apart, was based on his divorce.
While we can safely assume that his school experiences didn't stretch to working with a headteacher like his creation, Richard Nixon - a man so afraid of his students that he will only teach them from inside a locked cupboard - he did draw inspiration from his own teaching days. "Slatt is actually based on a real-life character who used to sit in the staffroom smoking fags and muttering 'bastards' whenever anyone passed by. He would do it in the corridors too. "
Like policemen who take on the characteristics of the criminals they spend their professional lives with, Moffat believes "there is a tremendous streak of childishness in teachers - in a fun way - because they spend so much of their time with children." He vividly remembers the shenanigans he and his colleagues got up to in the staffroom - and out in the classrooms.
"One trick we had was going into a classroom a few minutes early and telling the kids that it was their teacher's birthday. So as the teacher walked in, they would sing 'Happy Birthday'. We would also sit around at break time working out ways of inventing a few imaginary pupils, just to see if we could get away with it."
He rightly points out that with so many ex-teachers working in television, it is surprising just how few shows about schools are actually on our screens. After watching Chalk, some viewers may wish to turn the clock back in a hurry.
Chalk runs for six weeks on BBC1, Thursdays at 9.30pm