Stars go back to school

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
The latest TV drama to feature life in a secondary has stirred memories for its cast. Nick Hilborne reports

Actor Jason Merrells turned to The TES and a friend who teaches at an inner-city school in east London for inspiration for his latest television role.

The 37-year-old plays Jack Rimmer, the harassed headteacher of a fictional failing secondary school in a BBC drama which starts next week.

"You might think from the media that everyone is doing crack, being stabbed and that there's no discipline in schools," said Mr Merrells. "But the impression I get is that it's not all doom and gloom. I've heard a lot of positive stories. What strikes me is that the kids can be very warm."

Life at Waterloo Road, a hard-hitting drama written by Ann McManus, an ex-teacher, and based in a sink school in Rochdale, Lancashire, was never going to be simple though. Attention-grabbing storylines include a love triangle involving a male teacher and two female colleagues and an attack on a deputy head by an angry father. For Mr Merrells it represented a chance to take on a part very different from his last big TV role - Gavin in BBC hairdressing soap Cutting It.

He describes Gavin as "a laid-back guy with a nice haircut."

Some similar roles have been offered to him, but he was bored by them.

"It's good to have the opportunity to play a frazzled, really quite troubled, semi-alcoholic man," he said. "Jack Rimmer's instincts are good, but he has been battered down by the bureaucracy and the way the school has gone downhill."

Mr Merrells drew inspiration from his teacher friend and prepared for his role by reading articles in The TES.

He also watched the Channel 4 TV series The Unteachables, which showed a group of teenagers with behaviour problems being taught by a team of experts.

But he hated his own secondary school - a boys-only comprehensive, now closed, near Woodford, Essex.

"It was extremely rough and horrible," he said. "Because it was just for boys it was all about hierarchy and fighting."

In contrast Angela Griffin, who plays Kim Campbell, head of pastoral care at Waterloo Road, said she loved her primary and middle schools so much she could be very cruel to any teacher who disappointed her.

"Any supply teacher who did not walk in with confidence got taken apart,"

she said.

Ms Griffin said that, like her character Kim in the TV series, she was very opinionated.

"Kim is based on the good teachers who came in and took control. It's all about confidence and not letting the pupils think for one moment there is a weakness."

Ms Griffin, who played nurse Jasmine Hopkins, in hospital soap Holby City, took GCSEs in drama, dance and music among others at Intake high in Leeds.

She said it had never occurred to her before her latest role that teachers did not always get on with each other.

"I realise now it's like any other place of work," she said. "Everyone is in it for a different reason."

Jamie Glover, who plays Andrew Treneman, the Oxbridge-educated deputy head, went to private school. From the ages of 10 to 18 he was a weekly boarder at Frensham Heights in Surrey, sister school to Bedales, and with a similar liberal culture.

He praised his headteacher, the late Alan Pattinson, for cracking down on drink and drugs, while allowing the students not to wear uniform and call teachers by their first names.

He said his Waterloo Road character would prefer more of a back-to-basics approach to discipline than that at Frensham.

"Andrew knows he is swimming against the tide, but is arrogant enough to believe he is right."

Mr Glover said making the programme had only increased his respect for state school teachers. "They're fighting a battle with one arm behind their backs," he said.

* newsdesk@tes.co.uk

The first episode of Waterloo Road is on BBC1 on Thursday March 9 at 8pm.

The series runs for eight weeks

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