What Musharaf in Educating Yorkshire taught us about the teachers' strike

Ordinary, unscripted teachers do what no amount of professional PR ever could in this unexpectedly brilliant programme.

A week after some of our teachers went on strike in protest at their changing terms and conditions and the continued onslaught on their professional selves by Michael Gove, Channel 4 showed the last episode in their fixed camera series, Educating Yorkshire, filmed in Thornhill Community Academy, near Dewsbury.

The series had a mixed reception, and that was just from me. Word has it that the production company approached a lot of Ofsted-rated ‘good’ schools across the country to be filmed, hoping maybe that ‘good’ would be an indicator of interesting times ahead. But who on earth would put their staff and students through that? Who on earth would want their teaching methods held up to scrutiny, their pupil behaviour offered up to a critical and negative public, and their exam results turned into spectacle? Well, clearly an egotist or an idiot  - which they found in the form of headteacher Jonny Mitchell. Of course he is neither (maybe he is a bit of an egotist) but the series was exploitative, outside the school’s remit of care, not in the pupils interests, nothing to do with education, damaging, I thought after the first episode.

But I wasn’t quite convinced by my own reaction, so I watched sporadically (by which I mean, on Twitter at the same time) for the rest of the series. And by this one, wasn’t going to bother – I have the last episode of Breaking Bad ready to go, and really? This going to trump that? And then they introduced Musharaf. If you didn’t see it, this is what was going on for Musharaf.

A Year 11 student, Musharaf had a debilitating stammer. It shut him up so completely at times he looked as if the words he wanted had done a total runner. You wouldn’t have known from his demeanour, but it was so frustrating for him, this inability to say what he wanted to say, that he typed at one point about how he wanted to smash his head in with a hammer. He’d been bullied at the start of his school life (hot news: kids can be cruel) but had made it up to prefect, until a stupid Facebook incident had seen him stripped of that green prefect jumper. Now Musharaf was facing his final hurdle at the school: the speaking section of his English GCSE. His teacher was Mr Burton, who’d taken the inspiration for his haircut from his namesake, Tim,and is an assistant head at the tender age of 30. Mr Burton is one of those teachers who read things out in funny voices and stand on the desk and get mock-annoyed when the kids think he’s actually 40 (see hot news, above).

Mr Burton and Musharaf were going nowhere fast, and the exam deadline was getting nearer. Musharaf had some small techniques like tapping a rhythm which sporadically helped him, and there were speech therapists and classroom assistants in the background so obviously plenty effort was being expended on his behalf. But nothing was sticking. Nothing nudging his words out. Once they were stuck, they remained resolutely stuck. And he couldn’t pass his speaking exam if he couldn’t speak. Watching Musharaf struggle, and watching the efforts of everyone quietly engaged in helping him, was very moving. From my sofa, I was leaning forward to will those words out, the same physical reaction you might get watching a race.  And then Mr Burton watched The King’s Speech.

They did this thing in the film, he told Musharaf, where the king listened to music and it helped him talk, let’s try it out. We watched from a corner of the room, one of them had a phone and the other had headphones and Musharaf put them on and tried again on a poem that he had not even got the first word out, last time round. And Musharaf read a poem. Musharaf read a poem. Out loud. It was a eureka moment, amazing. They stared at each other, neither could barely believe it, if they were other people they might have hugged. It was a triumph, we all cried and whooped. 'I have a voice!' Musharaf told his friend in the corridor, afterwards. ‘I’m the Musharaf Whisperer,’ Mr Burton told his colleagues.

I’ll declare my hand here: I’m a script editor and writer – how to tell stories interests me. A good chunk of my family are teachers and I have kids at state secondary school – education interests me. It goes some way to explain why I found this episode so effective. When shows like this work well, when the characters are compelling and their narrative grabs you, then it really pulls you along, and this one pulled me along with tears rolling my face. It was beautifully paced, emotional and funny in equal measure, elements of conflict, self-realisation, moments of pathos followed by relief, and thankfully a happy ending. 

But the timing is important too; it helps make a wider point. Last week, the teachers were on strike, it was a ‘disgrace’, they were a disgrace,  children were ‘suffering’ because that’s the hyperbole when teachers strike, everyone ‘suffers’. If you’d taken the temperature, it would have been pretty cold towards them. We’re ALL struggling, was the common retort, why shouldn’t YOU? If my life is shit, why shouldn’t your life be shit too? It’s not new; the denigration of teachers has gone on for years, and to ice the cake with the idea that unqualified teachers in free schools might in some way be superior to our trained professionals is massively derisory.

And then. Then you actually see a teacher at work. Not a celebrity teacher flown in for the sake of the teevee but an ordinary one, in an ordinary classroom, with ordinary kids, yours and my kids. A gifted and charismatic teacher, actually, but ordinary nonetheless, he’ll be doing his job whether we’re watching or not. The programme gave us all that skill, that care, that passion and compassion – not just from him but from all staff around him at work – and it’s boggling. Because for a while it dammed the flood of shit that’s spouted against teachers, and just showed what they do. Not by flashing big arrows at Mr Burton and his colleagues – WATCH HOW GOOD THEY ARE – it quietly let them reveal themselves. And yeah, daily badinage sometimes went wrong; punishment sometimes felt wrong, teachers sometimes said things I wouldn’t have done, because when you’re not scripted, that’s what happens.

That’s why this series is ultimately so good, maybe even important. It sets the record straight. Sets out that we owe Mr Burton, and the majority of teachers who do similar, a debt of impressed gratitude. They do this every day! For our children! I defy any one who watched it to still think that our teachers are a disgrace. And I challenge Michael Gove to watch it and call them the ‘enemies of promise’. They’re the creators of it. Ask Musharaf.

Teachers can't put on a show with pupils. They have to be left to quietly reveal themselves. Image: Getty
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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue