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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