That'll teach those reality TV producers

26th September 2003 at 01:00
I tend to watch more television during the school holidays, although the summer is not the best season for viewing. There's little to grab your attention, as all the channels are running things down, ready to hit us with their autumn schedules. I always find it depressing, along with the "Back to school" signs in shop windows. You know that the nights are drawing in and it will soon be Christmas.

So you can understand my excitement when I came across That'll Teach 'em on Channel 4. It should have been right up my street. The fictional King's school of the 1950s is not too far removed from the state grammar I attended more than 30 years ago. We had caps, blazers and boarders, too. We did prep instead of homework, and there was a combined cadet force - although I have to admit that I was a conscientious objector.

But I was disappointed. The volunteer pupils were excellent in front of camera and carefully chosen. The staff, too, generally performed well and we were given some stark factual information, albeit a bit sensationalised.

"In 1950 a typical boy could run 10 miles, learn the Bible and clean his rugger boots on two Spam fritters and a slice of plum duff."

The problem I have is that I am not really sure what the show was trying to achieve. On the one hand, it seemed to be trying to show us that good old traditional values and standards have been undermined. On the other, it reassured us that "kids will be kids" in any era. They will be good sometimes, and naughty at others. What the programme did not do is give us the feeling of what it was really like to be there. Fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Airport and reality television shows of the I'm a Castaway Big Brother Fat Club Celebrity Idol in the Jungle Get Me Out of Here type simply do not work in this way.

In the austere world of the 1950s, children came from homes still affected by the Second World War. There was rationing. There was corporal punishment. Parents and pupils had different aspirations. The whole world was different then. You cannot turn back the clock in a reality television show.

There has been a lot of dumbing down during the past 20 years, but it has not necessarily been in schools. We still turn out bank managers, airline pilots, doctors - just as we did in the 1950s. If you really want to paint an accurate picture of days gone by, then a good television drama in the mould of the now defunct Play for Today would be far more effective. But it is too expensive to produce, so we have sunk to the lowest common denominator. It is ironic that a programme such as That'll Teach 'em shows the declining standards of television rather than those of schools.

Stephen Mears teaches history and economics at Wymondham high school in Norfolk

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