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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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis