Rule the School

Friday, July 23, 2004 by

Fraser, striking as casual a manner as a woollen hat-sporting teenager can muster, eyed the throng of shifty-looking adults towering a few feet in front of him. “I think I’m pretty laid back,” he challenged, “so if you all play the game, we should have a good time.” With that, he nonchalantly turned on his heel and beckoned the now even shiftier looking grown-ups towards their shared dormitories and compulsory uniforms of hooded tops and three-quarter length combat trousers. The oldest of the party, a grizzled warhorse named Des, went to pieces at the sight of such sartorial vandalism. “Des is having a bit of a senior time,” concluded Fraser, wryly.

The beauty of Rule the School, returning for its third series, lies with its timelessness. Its central premise, forcing teachers to trade places with pupils, retains potential to go on generating excitement and entertainment in theory forever. By taking as its foundation a universal fantasy, the programme will surely continue to ring true as long as there are school gates through which generations of five-year olds must pass.

All the motifs of childhood – the tedious communal gatherings in assembly halls, the awkwardness of stepping up to participate in desperately unappealing tasks in front of all your peers, the pressures to behave, the pressures to misbehave – they’re all here, packing as much emotional resonance as they ever will. But better still, thanks to the similarly enduring conceit of role reversal, they are rendered on screen all the more gruesomely tangible. Truly, the temptation to make mischief increases exponentially with the number of mates around you, the size of the hall in which you’re sitting, and the number of dopey-looking teachers seated up at the front waiting to catch you out.

As such there’s never been a need for anyone to try and dress up or disguise the format of Rule the School with novelties and twists and self-conscious “new series” surprises. Indeed, this first episode was almost identical in structure to the opening of the previous run, right down to the careful sequence of events from the arrival of the “pupils” and their first assembly to the first round of lessons and the post-mortem in the staff room. But again this seemed to be almost tipping a hat to that all-too familiar sense of how going back to school always involved the same grim routines and rituals year after year: back again for a new term, the same old rules, the same old places, and only the faces have changed.

Wisely, perhaps, the production team have resisted casting this series according to antecedent. None of the “teachers” are re-treads of characters or personalities from previous years, and as such each brings something original and unexpected to proceedings. Headmaster Fraser is far more outspoken and impulsive than his immediate predecessor James, as seen by how quickly he ditched the nice guy spiel for that of benevolent dictator when greeted with a choreographed display of rudeness and irresponsibility during the as-ever tumultuous opening assembly. “You’re just making fools of yourself,” he thundered, as his audience tittered and shouted and blithely chewed on great gobs of gum. “This isn’t cool, this is immature. There’s a difference” he continued. Some of the adults had already confided to camera their intention to mess about – one of them boasting proudly of how she was “going to be really really naughty” – but the knowledge that their tomfoolery was pre-meditated actually made them look even more hapless. How could they have forgotten that the most memorable and imaginative forms of misbehaviour are spontaneous, and cooked up in the spur of the moment?

With his students refusing to play by the rules and affecting ever more extreme forms of naughtiness (even answering the invocation “Who rules the school?” with an oblivious “We rule the school!”), the head teacher blew his top. “I can smell mint!” Fraser yelled into the face of Helen, self-appointed ringleader of mayhem. Sent into the corner and ordered to “turn around”, she began rotating a full 360° while doing a stupid dance. The rest of the staff could only sit, mouths agape, appalled.

“It was immature and stupid – no child behaves like they do,” Fraser reflected later. The whole affair set the tone for the rest of the episode, with the teachers approaching their debut lessons voicing stern determination to bring everyone into line and declaring themselves amazed at such exaggerated unruliness. The adults, meanwhile, professed ignorance and insisted they were only acting as they thought real pupils would. This conflict of observation has already made the entire series worthwhile. Does such a gulf of perception exist in real life? Did every single one of the real-life teachers seriously believe they were indulging in an accurate impersonation of the average school kid – or was something more subtle and suggestive underway? Presenter Jake Humphrey stepped in with a timely piece of insight for the adults: “Don’t make the mistake of being childish children when you should be cool kids.” It was an inspired intervention, a world away from the kind of empty platitudes often voiced by hosts of primetime reality-based TV efforts. It also helpfully and succinctly nailed one of the key themes of the show, and nudged the viewer towards the process of forming their own conclusions about what was going on, and why.

When the lessons began, so the focus shifted back on to the rest of the staff. Here again was confirmation that personalities and obsessions new to the series had been carefully selected to offer the both the pupils and the viewer a cunning mix of styles and vocations. Troy briskly led everyone through their first faltering dance steps, and was impressed by their commitment (mirroring her own commitment to turning the show into a personal platform for “showing off my dancing to the public”). The brilliantly moody Hannah had a hell of time attempting to teach “cred”, which found the adults back behind desks and back to no good. “Put all the tables back where they were please,” she pleaded, seconds into the lesson. A few minutes later the humming started (“We all knew that was coming” grinned one of the grown-ups later). “Don’t click your fingers at me, I’m not a dog,” Hannah continued. The entire class was a shambles from start to finish. “They were really proper rude,” was all she could gasp later.

There was just time for an induction into the world of DJing from the tirelessly enthusiastic Jordan. Having finally mastered his uniform, and having struggled gamely through the business of shuffling to Beyonce, Des now had to take his place behind the decks. “Hello, Top of the Pops!” he mugged through the microphone, having the time of his life. Back in the staff room, our exhausted coterie of educators swapped experiences and vowed to work even harder to bring their quarry to heel. Utterly serious about their duties, yet equally determined to enjoy them to the full, it was clear upon whose terms the remaining episodes of Rule the School were to be played. Fraser’s “game” was well and truly afoot. Fittingly, the last words went to the head. “We’ve got an eye on them,” he warned with relish. “We’re onto them.”


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