Rebels with a ham course

5th September 2003 at 01:00
For a grumpy hater of "reality TV", I have been strangely hooked on That'll Teach 'Em!. The parody of a 1950s school was set up to embarrass modern curriculum planners by proving that even the smartest modern 16-year-old could not do O-level, and at the same time to cheer up grumpy parents by showing hip modern kids being put through the humiliating and pointless discipline we all remember with affectionate loathing.

It fulfilled its first brief, although I had reservations about the French.

While it is perfectly true that O-level French pupils in the 50s could say "J'ai, tu as, il a" , accomplish a dictee with fewer than 30 mistakes and identify a past-pluperfect at 50 yards, what was not stressed was that owners of a French O-level were famously and spectacularly useless at actually using the language. Whereas the modern GCSE kid, ignorant about pluperfects, can order a beer in Calais with insouciant confidence, even if with dubious accuracy. In English language and maths, however, embarrassing deficiencies were laid bare, to general fogey rejoicing.

But the really interesting bit was the discipline: the hysterically absolutist banning of contraband biscuits, the glum silent mealtimes, the chalk-and-talk teaching, the pompous assemblies and the unspeakably embarrassing interviews in the headteacher's study. The reason it was interesting was not the kids - they adapt to anything, and besides, they knew that there were cameras present and that nobody would dare to hit them. This invalidated any claim to "reality", and enabled the boys, in particular, to send the whole thing up in a gentle and admirable manner, especially where the contraband biscuit tin was concerned.

The really fascinating thing was watching the teachers. For they, of course, were not in a "reality" show, not being tested or experimented on.

They were acting. To be precise, they were hamming it up. And did they ham! The headteacher was plainly under the influence of the some very, very old films and a sketchy remembered reading of Stalky amp; Co, while the others had modelled themselves firmly on Teecher in The Beano. The only ones with any vestige of normality were the beautiful and dignified English teacher, who accordingly was seen less and less as the series went on, and the manic ginger-haired French teacher, who was in fact the inimitable Mr W from my own children's school. He specialises in showy and humorous ranting, but is invariably forgiven for it and prized by all, not least for his vigorous impressions of glam-rock stars. All he had to do for this programme was to turn the ranting act up a notch, and refrain from laughing.

Watching the teachers was the truly hilarious bit. Relish those dire, dire assemblies; that pompous reiteration of the high standards of the school - it is every rebel's dream to have a head so humourless, something to kick against. The persistent verbal abuse in class was vintage, too - "I am horrified ... I repudiate you ... you are a disgrace...". Some of them tried heavy sarcasm, but it failed to work on the bewildered modern kids, who merely bowed their tidy heads and glanced sideways with a sort of awed pity, towards the gloating camera.

Many of the tellings-off reminded one inevitably of the joke about the inflatable schoolboy who went to see his inflatable head in the inflatable school, and was told: "Boy, you've let yourself down, you've let me down, and you've let the school down."

As for the appointment of the head boy and girl, and the dormitory searches for contraband, these were carried out in a spirit of parody worthy of the most advanced Sixties experimental theatre group working on a caustic parallel between public schools and Stalin's Russia. And booking Lord Tebbitt for speech day was nothing short of genius.

Look, it was tough at times back in the 1950s, and you did have to do grammar. But it wasn't all that bad. Some teachers actually laughed. Many were inspiring. Breaking rules in a boarding school did lead to a certain amount of tedious hectoring, and the constant claim of heads to be "disappointed" is perennial (as my daughter once said, why do these people think we might care about their disappointments?) It was just life, bits of it better than now, bits of it worse.

What we need now is another series, in which adults who were at school in the 1950s are put into a simulacrum of a modern comprehensive, and have to cope with new maths, modern tech, oral French, investigative history, political correctness, school-gate drug gangs, deprivation of games and fresh air, endless government tests, and the dispiriting discovery that your school is bottom of the local league table and the Daily Mail says your exam results are worth nothing.

See how they cope!

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