See me - Simon

Television - Andrew Billen likes the realistic touches in a new series, but it's not top league

Teachers (Wednesdays, 10pm, Channel 4) is Down With Skool for the common room, a schoolboy fantasy in which the beaks are more delinquent than the kids. At Summerdown School, it's the teachers wot run riot. When one candidate for the post of head of year is interviewed and asked how she would deal with offences of drugs or violence committed in the school, she has to ask if the governors mean offences by staff or by pupils.

This conceit has at least as much going for it as the assumption of the BBC's Hope and Glory that teachers selflessly place children and education first, or of Dead Poets Society's lie that all rebel teachers are good teachers. It is more original than Lindsay Anderson's vision in If . . . of public school masters as a fascist elite. Most of us remember realising that our younger teachers had more in common with us, in age, culture, even income, than with the headmaster. It is not a new insight. The first episode of the ITV sitcom Please Sir! in 1968 had poor John Alderton, wrapped in his college scarf, sharing a rowdy school bus with the hooligans he would be teaching. But while Alderton, as Bernard Hedges, levered himself away the necessary distance from his Fenn Street charges, Andrew Lincoln as Simon, the Molesworthian hero of Teachers, makes it clear he would prefer to be their side of the classroom.

Simon, which is what all his pupils call him, is not the only delinquent teacher at Summerdown, but he is the ringleader, neurotically afraid of selling out by growing up. He rides a bicycle to school. He smokes in the bogs. He dodges doing his homework - or, rather, marking his pupils' homework. Later in the series, he'll probably have a snog behind the bike sheds. He still lives at home with his father and cannot commit to a girlfriend. All women are reduced to their "arses" (there is a huge emphasis on the callipygian).

In the first episode of eight, Simon and two colleagues broke into the school at night to deposit a sheep and liberate a bust of Shakespeare. In the second, he shared an illicit smoke with a pupil. When the boy was busted, and Simon realised he had actually smoked a spliff, he bribed the boy into silence by offering him straight A grades and persuaded the head to let him bring his occasional girlfriend, a police officer, in to talk to the school, rather than press charges.

Lincoln, who was the naive, trusting, unfocused Egg in This Life, is a charismatic actor, but he is not so engaging that we forgive him his immaturity this time round. We do not need him to be Mr Chips, or even the enlightened teacher whom Colin Welland played in Kes, but we want to believe that Simon is genuinely on the side of his pupils and, therefore, of learning, too. But he is only concerned with preserving the maximum personal freedom for himself. His Romeo and Juliet lesson looked pitiful, amounting to little more than asking the children to imagine wanting something very much indeed. I was on the side of the boy who wanted to get down to the text, and who resented yet another day when his essay had not been graded. But the script ridicules his aspirations. He is an overweight swot, and he looks slightly older than Simon's 27 years.

I also had time for the strict psychology teacher, Susan Gately (Raquel Cassidy). She is Simon's bete noire, and we were meant to be relieved on his behalf this week that she missed out on being appointed head of year. Her only crime is to maintain order in her classes and stick to teaching methods of which Chris Woodhead would approve. Yet she is demonised and referred to, with a bold lack of originality, as Cruella. The only obvious reason for this hatred seems to be Simon's curious attitude to figures of authority. His hate fantasies about her have a distinct tint of S & M: Cruella dressed up in leather and waving a whip; Cruella dragging a short-trousered Simon about by the dog-collar.

Teachers, which has the sort of gloss that Channel 4 dramas have lacked in the past, is a cheerful, brightly lit comedy. Its dialogue and fantasy sequences aim for the sophisticated flippancy of Ally McBeal. Like it, Teachers is about professionals for whom work is a distraction from the real business of getting laid. But not only is its IQ too low; its imagination is too limited to be in the Ally league. Its surrealism is second-hand, but does not acknowledge that it is second-hand. Every day, Simon cycles to school by the same route and every day, in the background, a wailing police car passes in the distance from right to left. You think Groundhog Day or The Truman Show, but you're not sure if the director, Richard Dale, did.

Teachers, in short, fails its Ofsted inspection because it makes an original idea predictable. Even Simon himself seems to have been traced from the character of Egg, who in This Life had to contend with not only a sexually active father, but also a housemate who had a one-night stand with a WPC. If Simon does not end up in bed with Cruella, I'll stay behind and write out 100 times: "I must not judge programmes on their first two episodes." I think I'm safe, though.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.