That’ll Teach ‘em

Tuesday, August 26, 2003 by

That’ll Teach ‘em has a one-sentence pitch – make a class of today’s 16-year-olds experience a month of a 1950s O Level education – that belies its huge scope and its capacity for entertainment.

Its “cast” of characters is the key. The staff and students chosen to take part in the project have, from the outset, possessed a reassuring fondness for behaving in recognisable, understandable ways. Like the viewers, they’ve been plunged en masse into alien surroundings, and it’s their strategies for coping with this predicament that the programme makers have wisely placed at the heart of each episode. As such it’s been possible to feel so involved with the fortunes of the pupils at this fictional boarding school precisely because the less palatable concerns of the series – the grisly mechanics of school curriculum, the politics of education – have been smoothly dissolved into the spectacle of ordinary folk struggling to make sense of an extraordinary environment.

And it’s been in the guise of individual responses to the monolithic apparatus of the 1950s school system that the best moments of That’ll Teach ‘em have come. Since the programme began several pupils have contrived to place themselves at the forefront of the action, testing the limits of the staff’s patience while cheerfully applying modern sensibilities to archaic practices. No-one, however, attained the same spectacular amount of attention and disapproval as Joe McCready.

From day one he’d taken great pleasure in chipping away at his teachers’ tolerance levels, then watching them rise to his bait. A sequence of confrontations ensued, each incident fuelling the extent of Joe’s indignation and sense of being wronged while simultaneously allowing the teachers to reassert the coercive principles they had been charged to uphold. This reached a fascinating climax last week, when the most avuncular of the staff, maths teacher Mr Vince, had pointedly tried to talk at rather than down to Joe after he’d smashed a china cup. “I’m personally offended,” Vince declared, echoing the language of countless “approachable” teachers down the ages, “and our relationship has suffered, which it never had to.”

The chance to see this kind of interplay explored further, however, was all too soon curtailed. A ruthless display of discipline was needed – for as narrator John Sessions boomed, in one of many highly proscriptive commentaries, this was the 1950s and totally unlike “… today’s schools [which] bend over backwards to accommodate disruptive children.” At the start of this week’s episode we’d seen a great shot of the entire school singing during assembly, and as the camera panned round Joe was the only one to throw the lens, and us, a subtle and knowing glance. Minutes later he’d been told to back his bags.

“I feel like I’ve been picked on by certain members of staff,” Joe was shown declaring afterwards, “and that won’t make me learn anything, that’ll just make me feel bitter towards them.” As it was, in a stroke That’ll Teach ‘em lost its pivotal icon – even though Joe had retained the mark of a classic classroom hero in appearing far more mature and dignified than those who plotted his expulsion.

Joe’s misdemeanours blew up both inside and outside the classroom, but he’s not been alone in falling foul of the school’s strict regime. In fact, it’s been fun to witness almost all of the pupils – just over two dozen in total – end up receiving grim 1950s style punishments, which seeing as how they’re all A and/or B grade GCSEs students in real life has led to a lot of shame-faced toadying. The camera has had a fine time framing issues of conflict all over the school grounds. Admittedly dramatising the clauses of an O Level syllabus is somewhat more unwieldy from a programme-makers point of view than a straightforward bit of dormitory chicanery. Still, there are a few moments in front of the blackboard when the camera has pushed in close to pick up on a single student’s behaviour, sometimes siding with the teacher in gamely laying them open to ridicule, sometimes – more interestingly – siding with the pupil, such as when we saw one of the girls cheat in a mock exam, an incident that presumably was never passed onto the staff.

One sequence where the camera had little to do but simply keep rolling, but which was sympathetically filmed entirely from the pupils’ perspective, was a wonderfully bungled attempt by the boys at collective responsibility. Nick Hall, a student who’d got into trouble on the first day for brazenly stashing a packet of jelly babies and a large cake under his bed, had prided himself on the non-discovery of a biscuit tin he’d tucked away in the laundry room. But when this too was finally unearthed, all the boys decided to pitch in and present themselves at the deputy head Mr Perry’s office together. A marvellous scene ensued with Mr Perry insisting on receiving only one boy into his room, who turned out to be amusingly hopeless at spinning even the simplest of lies, while the others had to wait outside, frantically agreeing “same story from everyone” – an instruction which, in one final twist of fate, was uttered in full earshot of the deputy head. Eventually Nick admitted responsibility, grovelled shamelessly (“I’d like to apologise to your personally, sir” – a display he later memorably labelled as “sick-making rubbish”), and insisted he had no more contraband.

He was lying, of course. A bag of sweets ended up in Mr Perry’s possession, which according to the packaging had been bought in Bury. There followed an even more charming and illuminating episode, when Nick persuaded roommate and fellow Lancastrian Matthew Sweeney to take the rap for him. Matthew, a reticent, uncharismatic coin-collecting swot, actually performed brilliantly, his hesitancy disarming Mr Perry completely. It all ended happily, with the deputy head totally fooled and the hapless Sweeney escaping with a mild punishment. A satisfying escapade, cleverly edited and quite properly served up for the viewer to make of it what they wanted to.

Throughout the series such lively and colourful clashes of character and personality have formed a neat counterpoint to occasionally dry and pedantic explorations of a 1950s school syllabus. For the most part the programme remains impartial, but there are moments when you wonder if it’s necessary to have so many emphases on how much harder the curriculum of half a century ago stands compared to today. As much as French teacher Mr Warner – also currently appearing in Rule the School – rants on about there being “something wrong with the system,” the fact that kids of today have trouble taking seriously his ludicrously complicated French dictation is, you feel, only to their credit, especially when its delivered by Warner in such a pompous and partially incoherent way. Nobody in France talks the way he does.

Even so, having followed the students so far and heard numerous candid admissions (“GCSE French is a right doss”), it’s both humorous and yet frustrating to see them do so badly in class. Their lamentable performances in their O Level Maths mock exam this week prompted Mr Vince to proclaim, speculating on their likely real exam results, “The realist in me says we’re looking at massive, haemorrhaging style failure … but the romantic and bright-eyed optimist says we can make it!” Seeing the same group of fallible teenagers pull together for the faintly ludicrous requirements of the school’s Foundation Day was heart-warming. They gave the occasion the due majesty it required, crisply parading around in army fatigues and looking suitably meek in the presence of special guest Lord Norman Tebbit.

Scenes where we learn of the teachers’ concerns are perhaps in short supply. It would be interesting to hear more of their struggles to implement a 1950s curriculum and its limitations compared to today, rather than, as is almost the case, give an impression of a profession bursting with people revelling in the chance to play ogre in front of a blackboard. Still, each of the staff have their own clear personalities, from the rakish history teacher Mr Rockell (also the programme’s producer) with his patented turn of phrase (“Have pens poised, and brains in gear!”) to the fussy Mr Perry, whose greatest moment so far has been reprimanding the boys for the “beastliness” that led to “sticky sheets” in the dormitories.

Other moments leave an impression thanks to being so ostensibly ridiculous but instantly resonant. When Perry appeared at the start of one assembly to announce the headmaster had been taken ill, all the kids started giggling. Including this scene didn’t serve to illuminate anything at all about the programme’s central premise, yet it added immensely to our appreciation of the pupils as human beings. Laughing at something for no reason is part and parcel of school assemblies. Such a throwaway, incidental moment of insight actually did more to personalise the project and so turn the programme into something universal. After all, who hasn’t fought back the urge to start corpsing at the most unlikely of things in front of an audience of your peers?

There’s one unforgivably bad touch, and that’s the naff idents that punctuate the programme with a series of unnecessary and badly acted stereotypical classroom incidents (such as a buffoon teacher in ultra-close up declaring “Wake up you numbskulls!”) But it’s the only one, and that’s within a set-up which you feel could so easily have ended up drifting into an unsubtle and dogmatic one-sided rant about the failings of contemporary education. Instead we’ve got a bunch of incredibly mature and wise students, who, in the words of Norman Tebbit himself, are “just as good as the kids who were going through this 50 years ago.”

That’ll Teach ‘em has taken a contentious, topical idea and stripped it of much of the dreary debate it traditionally attracts in the media spotlight, so that instead it’s become a hook for an inspired marriage of textbook fly-on-the-wall documentary-making and an innovative throw of the reality TV dice. The result is a showcase of all the best qualities of the small screen, from how to humanise erstwhile lofty theories and arguments to how to inject entertainment into the dusty corners of factual TV.


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