There's no thrill in being telly fodder

30th September 2005 at 01:00
It was a better idea than when Eddie broke into the school biology area and laid a trail of bread so the ducks would follow him into assembly. And it was certainly better than when at 14 he and his friends wheeled his mate's disabled grandma round Safeway with their camping booze kitty, loading her wheelchair with the Belgian beer she seemed happy to buy for them.

But when my 15-year-old son announced on the last day of the school holiday that he'd got on ITV Soap Challenge, recording at Granada Studios in Manchester, and could I take him the following Tuesday afternoon, it seemed like another thing I could do without. It meant crying off half a training day, but 10 minutes later I'd spoken to the head and told Eddie we were on.

"I forgot to say, you're in it as well."

What?! Eddie knows I've spent the years since he was old enough to watch television resisting all attempts to be gunked, Ground Forced, Big Brothered or Blind Dated ("What would Mum think?"), and that I refused to volunteer for Faking It even if my skill as a portly trapeze artist could provide an escape from teaching.

"I can whisper you the answers," said Eddie, appearing with my revision, a videotape entitled "30 years of Emmerdale". This proved to be a sequence of fights and weddings in which characters choose the moment at the altar to refuse to take someone called Sugden or Dingle to be their lawful wedded wife or husband, with diminishing dramatic effect.

A few days later we were queuing in the sun at the studio gate waiting to be collected, and Eddie was in the full grip of media awe. "That's the Coronation Street set on the roof. I recognise the wall." We gazed up at the magic bricks. "It's only where actors work," I said. "I'll show you my classroom if you like."

At this point I began to feel uneasy about the way we use television to squeeze interest out of the national curriculum. Who would refuse a soap star who offered to come and talk to the school? And if you'd had one pupil who'd gone on to be a top surgeon, and another who presented children's television, whom would you rather have speak in assembly?

When we'd been marshalled into the studio by young women with headsets ("Hi, guys!"), I found myself sitting near a woman who had once been interviewed on morning television as the country's greatest soap addict.

Her interview had lasted 13 minutes. Two minutes of fame left.

Corralled into three blocks - we were in the Emmerdale team - we practised standing ovations so we'd know what to do when moved by the arrival of each team's soap star leader. We practised applause for the sequences of soap clips we couldn't see properly. And we practised applause for the end of each commercial break, the announcement of our scores, and of more questions to come. "The final questions. Are you ready?" beamed presenter Richard Arnold. And after three and a half hours of takes and retakes without a drink (unlike our team leaders, who were regularly watered), we certainly were.

I hope Eddie feels used. I hope he realises we were cheap scenery for a show that did not involve us; and that the presenters, Kate Garraway and Richard Arnold, were so focused on the camera they had scant time for the studio audience. Most of all I hope he realises that being on television is not an end in itself, something I'll remember if I find myself glamorising learning with reference to television.

David Buckley is a part-time English teacher in Sheffield

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