Time to rat on TV's teacher prat

6th April 2001 at 01:00
WHY do so many television portrayals and films about teachers get it wrong? I watched the first programme in the new Channel 4 series Teachers in eager anticipation, but found the central character (a "call me Simon" teacher) to be a monumental prat. I ended up wanting to hurl my boot through the television screen at him and then chuck the set under a passing juggernaut.

Within the first episode he had managed to do several things that would have had a real teacher up on a disciplinary charge. He talks to a class of pupils about their sexual fantasies, and when one girl mentions she likes the footballer Ryan Giggs, he writes up on the blackboard 'shagging Giggsy'. Hello P45 in real life.

He rubbishes one of his colleagues in front of his class and hands pupils' books round in the pub, whereupon his colleagues make up marks for them. If he is supposed to be on the same wavelength as his class, why does he not give them the respect of actually reading what they have written?

Can you imagine a series called Doctors in which the central character engages in sexual teasing with a patient, criticises another doctor in the partnership in the waiting room, and then doles out prescriptions at random? Carry On film yes, documentary-type drama no.

The truth of the matter is that most jobs are full of undramatic routine, of little interest to the public, so televised versions have to spice up the action. If this Simon character were a real teacher, then his constant prowling round the room would give his pupils a stiff neck and he would be carried out by the end of the day. But the storyline has to suggest he is urgent, vibrant, in touch with adolescents.

The result of this need for drama is that most series about people's jobs are largely false: police officers solve intricate murders every week, doctors and teachers romance one another, and perform professional miracles. As Michael Parkinson once said, the popular Saturday night BBC programme Match of the Day is not edited highlights, it i all the highlights. The resulting 10 minutes of end-to-end action may bear little resemblance to the other 80 minutes of routine passing and tackling.

Consequently no drama series about teaching gets it right.

How about this? Episode one, Simon fills in the register, but then loses his pen; episode two, Simon explains the past participle to Year 9 one wet Friday afternoon; episode three, Simon actually marks a set of books himself, while drinking a nice cup of Horlicks; episode four, Simon doesn't get through the pay threshold, so he writes a polite letter of complaint to the DFEE. I can't see it knocking up too many peak-hour viewers on a Wednesday night.

Alternatives to false realism include the Hill Street Blues mixture of actuality and comic caricature, the fly-on-the-wall documentary about real people instead of actors, and the outrageous slapstick of series like Please Sir or the Carry On films, which make no pretence to be anything other than farce.

Grange Hill is recognisable as an urban comprehensive, but, though well written, directed and acted, is unlike a real school. A few years ago there was a scene, in which the class moved from quiet to riot inside three minutes. Every single pupil ended up throwing things around the room. I have seen teaching in some of the toughest cities in the world, but even in very badly behaved classes many pupils are mere spectators.

To Sir with Love was enjoyable syrup, Blackboard Jungle menacing, but too neatly resolved for a city like New York.

The ultimately convincing drama about teaching is yet to be written.

I must start work immediately on my own realistic television series. I shall call it Scriptwriters. It begins with Simon, a twenty-something writer who has some really wacky pals. They all go to the pub one night, get drunk and then scribble on the back of beer mats the shooting script of a film about a praying mantis which can drive a Mondeo. In the second episode it wins an Oscar. Sounds realistic to me.

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