Robin Buss finds little hope or glory in the latest shcool-based drama, but an entertaining portrayal of young teachers as real people.
Teachers will have mixed feelings about Channel 4's latest drama series. Teachers is an amusing, eight-part story about young people who drink, have sex and smoke various substances, usually legal. It just happens that, the rest of the time, they teach. There is little hope or glory here, and not a crumb of Mr Chips. But secretly teachers may be relieved to see themselves appear, for once, as something other than tireless campaigners for social justice or relics of the Fifties jazz revival, with a passion for poetry and a tragic lack of dress sense.
If anyone can make teachers appear appealingly louche and dissolute on screen, it is executive producer Jane Fallon, whose BBC series This Life made the after-hours exploits of young lawyers (arguably more promising material) compulsive viewing.
"People will say this isn't an accurate portrayal of life in a school," she says of her latest project. "But, above all, I wanted it to be funny and entertaining." On the other hand, she and the three scriptwriters did prepare for the expected flak by doing research in schools, watching education-related documentaries and employing a teacher to check the accuracy of references to the curriculum and classroom practice. The "mixed" reaction she is expecting should be about the ethos of the series, rather than the facts.
Screen stereotypes of teachers come in three varieties. There are images of selfless dedication, surpassed only by doctors and nurses (for example, the maths teacher in Ramon Menendez's 1988 film Stand and Deliver). There are, thankfully less often, images of grotesque cruelty (the teachers in Jean Vigo's 1933 masterpiece, Zero de Conduite, or the sadist in Alf Sjoberg's Frenzy, which was the first film scripted by young Ingmar Bergman, fresh out of school). And there are images of pitiful inadequacy (the disappointed Chips or the Latin master in Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version, hated by his students and cuckolded by his wife, are the models here).
If any of these blackboard scratchers has a private life, it is one few of us would envy. This is not precisely the case with the characters in Teachers. The story revolves around Simon, a young English teacher played by Andrew Lincoln. The actor made his name in This Life as Egg, who wasn't quite grown up enough for law. Simon, too, much of the time feels closer to his students than to his colleagues - and not to the more conscientious of his students, either. He regularly oversleeps and enjoys a quick fag behind the school canteen, where he is quite ikely to run into a Year 9 pupil doing the same thing. His teaching style is informal and based more on spontaneous discussion than the purposeful pursuit of learning goals (my guess is that he bunked off teacher training to watch Dead Poets Society). He still lives at home, and this, together with a powerful thirst, leaves him little time for such out-of school activities as marking. When he can, he hands that chore over to other members of the department, down at the pub, in exchange for a round of drinks.
This general attitude, combined with the sounds of revelry from Simon's classroom when he is teaching Romeo and Juliet, does not endear him to Jenny (Nina Sosanya), who is in the classroom next door. Jenny is a very different brand of teacher, ambitious for herself and her pupils. She seldom goes to the pub after school, preferring an evening at home with a DfEE circular. She certainly doesn't want to take on any of Simon's marking. Early indications suggest that this ill-matched pair are destined to fall in love.
"The fact that they're teachers is irrelevant," Jane Fallon says. "I wanted to avoid an issue-based drama." But by making the chief characters work in a secondary school and building the contrast between them around their professional practice, the series is bound to raise issues - as Fallon admits.
Jenny, she says, is a much better teacher than Simon "on paper". But there are moments when he is more effective than she is in getting a lesson across - although his pupils give him a far easier ride than you would expect from any real class of 15-year-olds faced by a young man with a hangover and no lesson plan.
Underlying this, though, is a feeling about the essence of teaching and learning. In a small way, Fallon admits, Teachers does tackle some issues, reflecting what she and the rest of the team found when they went into schools and talked to the staff: that curriculum demands have become more rigid, that the workload has grown and that the job now demands "soulless professionalism", rather than an instinctive, human rapport with the pupils. So, even a series that has deliberately tried to avoid being didactic has ended with a little something to teach.
A bigger lesson is about how much we are all obsessed with image. When Simon wakes up and finds that the pretty girl in bed beside him is a police officer, his first impulse is to hide any traces of what he was smoking the night before. But his main concern is for the effect the relationship might have on his credibility if his colleagues or, worse still, his students, find out he is dating a cop. Could he ever live it down? After all, there's always got to be a profession which has an even worse image than your own.