Passing the screen test

11th April 2008 at 01:00
Films about teachers are always popular, but do they bear any resemblance to reality, asks Hannah Frankel

Love it or loathe it, few can forget that moment of cinematic history when a group of schoolboys defiantly stood on their desks, turned to their teacher and said: "Oh captain, my captain". It is, of course, the final scene in Dead Poets Society, the 1989 film staring Robin Williams as a charismatic English teacher in an autocratic boys' school.

The film may split opinions, but some clearly find such pupil devotion inspirational. One teacher told The TES Magazine: "I saw that film when I was about 14 and afterwards decided I wanted to influence lives as well. I knew it wasn't exactly an accurate reflection, but I wanted to give something back and thought pupils would look up to me. The reality was rather different."

But Dead Poets Society is by no means the only film to encourage people into the profession - or deter them. Ever since the classic Goodbye, Mr Chips, originally released in the late Thirties, there has been a film about teachers every decade that captures the public's imagination. The latest is Happy-Go-Lucky, directed by Mike Leigh and released at cinemas on April 18 (see reader offer, page 11), which follows the life of a carefree primary teacher in north London.

The appetite for such films is obviously there, but beyond being entertaining, they also reflect the changing nature of education and the perception of teachers.

Susan Ellsmore, head of sociology at Bournemouth School for Girls, wrote a book called Carry on Teachers! in 2005 that explores the depiction of teachers throughout the ages. "Everyone in our society goes to school, so it's an experience we all share," she says. "We all long for a teacher who entertains, inspires, educates and make us feel safe, so it's a worthwhile topic that actors and directors know can reach a wide audience."

Susan identifies four different strands of screen teacher. Firstly there is the enduring character who makes education their life, as seen in the shy but much-beloved Mr Chips, or Richard Dreyfuss as the frustrated composer turned music teacher in Mr Holland's Opus.

The second category explores social realism. Gone are the inspirational institutions buzzing with ideas, and along come inner-city sink schools, as seen in Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds and To Sir, with Love. Here, charismatic teachers finally transform their seemingly hopeless charges - heroically getting knocked down (but not out) in the process.

Thirdly are the romantics, which is firmly where the hero of Dead Poets Society sits. Another would be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In both cases, the teachers fill a loco parentis role, referring to their pupils as "my boys" or "my girls". As inspiring as these charismatic figures are, both go too far and the films end in resignation and tragedy.

The final portrayal is of eccentric teachers who are imbued with a sense of comedy and pathos. British films are traditionally strong in this area, as can be seen in Clockwise, Carry on Teacher or Alan Bennett's revered The History Boys.

"With many of these characters, we wish our relationships with pupils were similar, but they emphasise the 'magic moments' at the expense of reality," says Susan.

Certainly, endless marking or planning is unlikely to make the final cut. However, issues referring to the shifting nature of education do make appearances, especially in more recent offerings.

In the early films, there is no national curriculum, no target culture and no endless exam preparation. Maggie Smith, for instance, educates her pupils with her holiday slides from Italy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Teachers may look back wistfully at such bygone times as a new era of accountability - characterised by Ofsted and league tables in the latest St Trinian's or Harry Potter films - takes their place.

Small screen portrayals also add to the general perception of teachers today. Grange Hill was with us for 30 years, scarring a whole generation with Mr Bronson's cries of "You, boy!" in the Eighties. A more ironic and comic account could be found in Channel 4's popular Teachers series, which saw staff puffing on a sneaky fag alongside their pupils.

Waterloo Road, the BBC series, is based in a failing school in the North of England, depicting a gritty and often undesirable workplace. But Ann McManus, the co-creator, insists that it does not tarnish the public perception of the profession.

"At the heart of Waterloo Road is the message that good teachers matter," says Ann, who was a teacher at challenging schools in Glasgow. "But by the same token, it shows that bad teachers can disrupt and fail pupils.

"It reflects the real teacher experience. Teachers aren't superheroes. They sometimes take two steps forward and one back, especially when they're looking after pupils with chaotic lives."

Not everyone on The TES staffroom (www.tes.co.uk) would agree.

Waterloo Road, which can top 6 million viewers an episode and is set for a fourth series later this year, is not only unrealistic but unhelpful as well, some teachers say.

"The recent story about the girl with Asperger's syndrome was ridiculous on several levels," says Cathie Smith, a special needs co-ordinator at Summerbank Primary School in Stoke-on-Trent. "All the teachers were ignorant and incompetent; she was apparently the only special needs pupil in the comprehensive, and there appeared to be only one learning assistant in the whole school.

"Any family whose child has recently been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome might be concerned about how their child would be treated at school."

Teacher unions are not always happy about teacher depictions either. The Association of School and College Leaders has described Waterloo Road as undermining parents' and society's confidence in schools. Similar complaints have also been made about Teachers and Chalk, the BBC sitcom.

But Lord Puttnam, the Oscar-winning producer who has portrayed schools in four of his movies, says that films can project teachers in a positive light as well. "The vast majority of pupils surveyed said that a teacher has changed their life or encouraged them to pursue their dream," he says.

"Films may or may not choose to depict the good work of these teachers, but those dedicated individuals will still be in school devoting their lives to young people."

Takes on modern teachers

Poppy, the lead character in Mike Leigh's new film Happy-Go-Lucky, represents something essentially good about teachers. For the veteran director, whose films include Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvey, she is a life force. "Her strength as a teacher is that she's open and responsive," he says. "To treat kids with love and care you have to be something of an idealist. It takes a lot to nurture the future."

Poppy is a 30-year-old primary teacher in north London, whose perky, seemingly scatty nature guides her through all aspects of her life - her school day, her friendships, her flamenco dance classes and her disastrous attempts at driving lessons.

She is played by Sally Hawkins and is a recognisable Mike Leigh character, a north Londoner with a Tourettes-like jokiness that delights her friends but concerns others.

Much of the story centres upon her sometimes hilarious, sometimes fairly harrowing, driving lessons with Scott, her instructor, played brilliantly by Eddie Marsan. Scott, who is antagonised from day one by Poppy's insistence on trying to drive in high-heeled boots, is her teaching antithesis.

For Mike Leigh, Scott epitomises the wrong approach - uptight, angry, rules obsessed and utterly humourless.

"He is a lousy teacher. He has spent a lot of time reading and has a great deal slopping around in his head, but doesn't understand any of it. He lacks humanity."

As with all of his films, the characters and script were arrived at through extensive improvisations by the actors - but a distinct author's voice still comes through.

"I wanted to explore education," he says. "I remember the teachers I had in state schools who had passion and conviction about the job, and taught to their abilities.

"I'm vehemently opposed to the national curriculum or anything that is a prescriptive, formulaic attitude to teaching."

Stephen Manning

BIG SCREEN TEACHERS

- Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939, 1969 2002)

- St Trinian's films (1954-2007)

- Blackboard Jungle (1955)

- Carry on Teacher (1959)

- To Sir, with Love (1967)

- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

- Please, Sir! (1971)

- Clockwise (1986)

- Dead Poets Society (1989)

- Mr Holland's Opus (1995)

- Dangerous Minds (1995)

- Harry Potter films (2001-2007)

- Les Choristes (2004)

- The History Boys (2006)

- Notes on a Scandal (2006)

- Freedom Writers (2007).

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