Why saintly teachers make dull television

30th March 2001 at 01:00
When Channel 4 first spoke to me and my colleagues at Tiger Aspect about making a series about a group of teachers my heart sank. I mentally scanned all the fictional teachers I could remember: the good, the bad and the worthy. Situation comedies like Please Sir and The Grimleys aside I couldn't think of a single school drama that didn't take itself too seriously. School drama meant issues. Teachers on screen meant do-gooding bores. It felt like a law of the universe.

Then they said that rather than a piece claiming to be an accurate portrayal of the state of the education system they wanted something funny, irreverent and, hopefully, refreshing. Something which was primarily entertaining. About people rather than the profession. They had begun to develop an idea centring on a teacher called Simon, a man resisting maturity, desperate to avoid commitment and responsibility, and where better to play out his story than in a school - caught between the conflicting worlds of his students and colleagues. I could see the appeal.

Why is there a pervading feeling that to depict teachers on television as anything other than caring and committed is to do a disservice to the whole profession? When you look at the plethora of police and medical dramas, focusing on two equally important and challenging professions, you see that they are peopled with a whole gamut of characters. The corrupt, lazy and incompetent, working alongside the dedicated, driven and talented. We relish the hard-drinking cops in The Vice or the young doctors in Cardiac Arrest taking drugs to stay awake. We believe these people probably exist and yet that doesn't devalue the role of the police or of doctors. We simply accept that in every barrel there are some apples that aren't quite perfect. Perhaps it is because, unlike any other group of people, teachers are responsible for shaping the lives of our children that we daren't allow ourselves to think that not all of them are flawless role models. But talk to anyone about their school days and you'll hear stories that make you question that ideal.

Traditionally it seems to me that teachers in fictional dramas fall into three categories: the saint, a driven idealist usually sent in to save a sinking school; the lech, a an in the grip of a mid-life crisis who wants totries tomanages to seduce one of his Year 11 girls; or the inspirational guru, a maverick who manages to engage even the most disaffected student, usually by reading poetry. Where is the teacher who is just doing their job?

Of course there are those who fit into the above categories and (lech aside) thank God for that. A profession where the rewards can be so meagre and the stress levels so high needs to rely on the dedication and devotion of a large number of committed people. But equally true is the fact that there are also teachers who are only there because they couldn't think of anything better to do and those who, as with any profession, are bad at their jobs.

Our central character, Simon, did fall into his job because of a lack of any other inspiration. He is sometimes good at what he does and sometimes spectacularly bad. Occasionally he manages to ignite a spark of interest in his students, even to inspire, but more often than not they laugh at his attempts to fit in with them. He can be lecherous but no more so about his students than their mothers or his co-workers and he would never ever try anything on with one of his Year 11s. He swears like a trooper but never in the classroom. He is by no means a saint but he is well meaning, fallible and flawed. He is not a "typical" teacher - I don't believe there is any such thing - but I know teachers like him exist.

With Teachers we wanted to look at a bunch of people who were not entirely defined by their jobs, who led rounded lives which did not begin and end in the classroom. Unrealistic, possibly, in a profession where the demands of the workload mean that there may be little time to socialise. Liberating, hopefully, for those teachers who would love to shake off the "corduroy jacket with leather patches" image. But above all, entertaining. Drama can do two things - it can reinforce a stereotype or it can try to work against it. I think the portrayal of teachers as either saints or sinners ultimately does them no favours at all. Showing that they are real people like the rest of us, with both strengths and weaknesses, can only be a good thing.

Jane Fallon is producer of Channel 4's new drama, "Teachers"


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