Teachers' lives can be dramatic and emotionally charged, which is why their experiences make good TV viewing. Stephen Manning reports
Tamsin Greig is back at her old primary school for the first time since she left 30 years ago. The 41-year-old award-winning comedy actress, best known for the Channel 4 sitcoms Black Books and Green Wing, admits to nerves when she arrives at Malorees Junior School in Brondesbury Park, north London.
"I did have a moment walking through the door where lots of memories came back to me," she says. "It was a lovely school and is as vibrant a place as I remember it."
Tamsin's here to film her latest role - a seven-minute monologue entitled Always the Teacher Never the Bride, about a reception teacher called Samantha whose wedding plans seem to involve her school more than they do the groom. It is written by Sarah Butler, a primary teacher from Essex, and is one of the five winning scripts in this year's Staffroom Monologues, a writing competition for school staff run by Teachers TV.
Sarah, who teaches at Thorpedene Infants' School in Shoeburyness, Essex, is thrilled about the casting. Her story (panel, right) is based on conversations overheard in the staffroom and is being broadcast on Teachers TV on Monday.
"You can get so into the job that you don't realise how it affects other things in your life. For Samantha, the pupils mean so much to her that she is blinded to the consequences.
"When I heard that Tamsin Greig would be playing the role, I thought that was perfect," Sarah says. But then Tamsin can draw on family experience - both her sisters, who also attended Malorees, went on to work in education.
Abigail, Tamsin's younger sister, taught at the school and is now deputy headteacher at Church Hill School in East Barnet, Hertfordshire, while Dorcas, the eldest, is an adult tutor.
"I think teaching is a performance and you need a lot of the same kind of qualities as you do in acting, maybe a bit of front," says Tamsin. "I think my sisters would agree with that."
She is also governor at her children's primary school and recognises a great deal in the character of Samantha. "Reading the script reminded me how teaching is not just about the lessons; it can impact on someone's life. This character is obsessed with school and that's quite accurate, I think."
Tamsin was always destined for a career in the arts - only not the one she ended up in. Tom Rainbow, the school's deputy headteacher and head of the music department, was convinced that a great future lay ahead of her - in dance.
"She was gifted at ballet," he says. "I wanted her to do tap dancing, which I taught, and which her older sister did. But you couldn't do both and so she chose ballet."
Zadie Smith, the novelist, was also a pupil at Malorees, and Tamsin thinks the school is a good nurturing environment for artistic people.
"This kind of live creativity is important in a school," she says. "If I had been in an environment where that was not honoured, it would have been tougher for me to become an actor, although I was well supported from home.
"I didn't realise it so much at the time, but in retrospect it was a good milieu." It's still the case today. There is a commune of artists on the site and beautiful painted murals on many of the outside walls. It's a musical school, as well, with its 12 staff augmented by 10 peripatetic music teachers and a range of school bands and choirs.
Every child plays a musical instrument and the majority play at least two. In the dining hall is an upturned Steinway, rescued and due to be restored with funding from, among other sources, a recent piano concert by Michael Nyman, the composer.
This is the second year of Teachers TV's Staffroom Monologues competition, which attracted 446 entries. The five winners were picked by a judging panel of three: Ashley Pharaoh, television screenwriter and co-creator of the BBC drama series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, Andrew Bethell, chief executive of Teachers TV, and Kendra Deacon, a primary teacher and a young teachers' representative in Norfolk for the National Union of Teachers.
Three of the winning monologues have been filmed and will be broadcast on Teachers TV next week at 8pm. The other two have been recorded for audio broadcast and can be heard on the Teachers TV website from Monday.
Sarah, who is married and has a 22-month-old son, only found out about the competition three days before the deadline, and wrote the monologue quickly, although she had nursed the idea for a while. She has previously dabbled in writing but has never won anything before. She is honoured to be one of the winners, though it's no surprise to her that this competition has had a big response.
"There is a big overlap between teaching and artistic activities. A lot of freelance writers or musicians end up teaching and find that the life does provide a certain amount of creative fulfilment."
Sarah has taught at Thorpedene Infants for eight years and says: "I enjoy the challenge of being the first teacher that a lot of young children encounter. That's a crucial time when you can make a difference."
Samantha's wedding is themed around the class topic for the term - nursery rhymes. All her pupils will be bridesmaids and page boys, dressed up as Little Bo Peep or the Grand Old Duke of York.
She has hired the school hall for the reception "at a slightly discounted rate" and the vicar has even agreed to let the objectives of the day be projected on a screen. The wording of the ceremony has been amended: "Does anyone know of any just impediment" has become "why is it important that there is no just impediment?"
She worries that her fiance, Neil, will find the whole thing to be a just impediment. Will he even turn up? He's got to. "Otherwise I'll have to redo all the follow-up work I've got planned." says Samantha.
AND THE OTHER WINNERS ARE ...
- How Are You by Laura Owen, a special needs teacher in Norfolk; a teacher returns to school following a nervous breakdown. Performed by Riz Ahmed (star of Britz and Road to Guantanamo).
- Measure of Love by Jo Heathcote, an FE lecturer in Manchester; a female English teacher is the object of a teenage girl's crush. Performed by Julie Graham (William and Mary and At Home with the Braithwaites).
- Miss Kilmister and Me by Tim Connery, a voluntary helper in a school in Brixton, south London; a man has sexual fantasies about his son's teacher. Performed by comedian Steve Punt (Punt and Dennis and The Now Show)
- Old School by James Ward, curriculum leader in religious studies in Tunbridge Wells, Kent; a teacher's optimistic expectations of his pupils differs from his headteacher. Performed by Jim Carter (Cranford and Brassed Off).