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Bad Education - review

A school sitcom that is bound to annoy the po-faced.

Bad Education

This is interesting. Or do I mean outrageous? Jack Whitehall, the baby-faced young comedian who attended the Dragon School in Oxford and Marlborough College, has written a sitcom, Bad Education, about an inner-city comprehensive school.

It’s not a very good comprehensive school. The teachers are demented and the children are feral. Wander the corridors alone and you will be mugged for your trainers – or at least this is what happened to Whitehall’s character, a hopelessly lazy teacher called Alfie, in the opening episode (broadcast 14 August, 10pm), with the result that he had to spend the rest of the day in a pair of purple Crocs purloined from the school’s lost-property box. (The walls of these corridors, incidentally, are lined with drawings of Anne Boleyn and Diana, arranged beneath a sign that reads: “Hot babes through the ages”.)

It could so easily have been offensive – the last time I saw so many stereotypes dished up in a single half-hour, I was watching It Ain’t Half Hot Mum – and truly, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the BBC3 commissioning meeting at which Whitehall pitched his idea. But blow me if it wasn’t really affectionate and funny. If you have a childish streak, if you’re the kind of person who still misses The Inbetweeners, then this might be for you.

Am I that kind of person? Yes, unfortunately. When Alfie was woken up by his nemesis, Miss Pickwell (Michelle Gomez) as he slept off a hangover at his desk – and covered himself by shouting, “And that, class, is how quiet Anne Frank and her family had to be to evade the Nazis!” – I’m afraid that I sniggered like a 13-year-old. Alfie, who is as posh as his creator, teaches history and he’s about as bad at this as it’s possible to be. His idea of a lesson on the Second World War consists of him getting his class to act out scenes from the movie Pearl Harbor. One of the students, Jing, has a Chinese background and one of the running jokes of the series is that Alfie has convinced himself that she is Japanese. Tying a Japanese flag around her head, kamikaze pilot-style, he said: “The emperor will be proud of you, my lotus flower.” (Yes, I laughed at this, too.) Later, at parents’ evening, he met Jing’s mother and father. “Serious question,” he said as they sat down. “How long until the pets we have will be robots?” (Ditto.) Basically, he puts all his energy into chasing the beautiful but slightly wet Miss Gulliver (Sarah Solemani).

Alas, on this score, he has a rival: the headmaster, Fraser, who is played by Matthew Horne of Gavin and Stacey fame. Fraser, a complete berk of the kind who adds the suffix “-age” to every other word (as in: “Shall we go down the pub-age?” – said with a long A), is the only bum note in Bad Education. The kids are all fantastic, especially Joe (Ethan Lawrence), who feels sorry for his dumbo teacher and is always losing his dignity on his behalf.

Gomez is superb, too: a crisp, 21st-century update on St Trinian’s Miss Millicent Fritton, with a dash of Miss Jean Brodie thrown in for good measure. But you take one look at Fraser/Horne – he wears Farah-fit trousers (or something closely resembling them) and a wig that makes him look like Terry Wogan – and you think: no, too over the top. Poor Horne. He’s so desperate to be in another hit.

My guess is that Bad Education is going to make a few earnest types mildly cross (assuming that they see it; most earnest types wish BBC3 would explode, and soon). Ignore them. I love the state education lobby as much the next person but it has to be said that you can’t always rely on its members to be in full possession of a working sense of humour.

More to the point, I remember my years in state education: they were mayhem a lot of the time. My German teacher was just like Alfie; we spent his lessons doing Rubik’s Cube competitions. What I love about Bad Education is the way that it cheerfully clasps this anarchy. It’s the kind of embrace that allows for the possibility that things will turn out all right in the end.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide