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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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

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