Archive for April 7th, 2006

Not Quite Too Sexy for…..

You Belong in Milan

Stylish and sophisticated, you want to enjoy a truly European life – away from tourists!
Milan fits you perfectly. Great shopping, high quality food, lots of culture… with very little hype.

I’m cool with that.

Ta to Sicilian Notes.

Swan Vista

I read this review of Yeats in today’s Guardian from 1919. It is rather interesting in that it waffles on inconsequentially about beauty, rhyme and craft, but doesn’t mention anything about Ireland or its politics.

Loo Roll Call

Last night I watched Waterloo Road.

From the makers of Footballer’s Wives, the show is set in a North of England comprehensive, which numbers among its staff two former residents of Coronation Street and at least one Eastender. The school is failing, and a public school toff arrives to instil a programme of discipline, and in so doing dramatises tensions related to the north-south divide, the class divide, and the public debate about the successes and failures of British comprehensive system. The bog standard northern grit of previous representations of British education (see, for example, Kes) is preserved, but updated with the odd flash of Wives-style Wolf Blass glamour.

Watching the characters interact, it feels as though the writers consciously sought to use cartoonish archetypes to get their message across: so among the staff you have, among others, the blokeish corduroy-wearing head and his nemesis, a matronly figure of gentle reproach; the ditsy languages teacher; the intransigent and blunt Northern bully who despises his pupils; and the aforementioned stuffy public schoolboy. You get a sense that the actors are enjoying themselves in these roles, and whilst much of the dialogue can come across as scarcely adulterated cliché, it seems delivered with a certain knowingness and flourish.

Among the student body, the foremost male pupils are an amalgam of Wayne Rooney and Timothy Winters, and the female pupils range from catty tomboys to maladjusted April Lavignes. Almost without exception, the pupils have a heart of Terry’s All-Gold beating beneath their prickly exterior. And, as seems usually the case with TV dramas dealing with this subject matter, it is the pupils who deliver the lessons to the teachers, and not vice-versa.

The central character is the Darcy-like Mr Treneman, an authoritarian with an Oxbridge education, recruited to rescue the school from impending doom (see meet one’s Waterloo) at the hands of the local education authority. It is through his character that public questions on the supposed failures of the British education system -lack of discipline, incompetent and intrasigent staff- are posed, and the answers are delivered, via the other teachers and chaotically energetic students, to him.

As with all high-minded chaps who descend among the oiks in such drama, Treneman is a fundamentally decent cove, and his rather cold Victorian persona is gradually chipped away as he encounters the reality of life at the chalk face. For good measure, he even seems to undergo a sort of sexual awakening.

The subtext to this is that high-minded educational dogma, in large part a product of the British empire and its system of administration and control, is of limited use nowadays, and may have contributed in a large part to the current vista of demoralised staff and pupils without hope. As a result, civil servants and policy makers with Oxbridge educations must shoulder responsibility (See, for example, Tony Crosland, Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker, and latterly, Ruth Kelly).

Nevertheless, the scriptwriters seem to think that there is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and that the restoration of some practices to the comprehensive system – the house system; a focus on discipline – if administered appropriately, can serve to harness the energies of students in what the league table system introduced under the Tories has identified as ‘failing schools’. It is through the transformation of people like Treneman, then, that the students’ lot can be improved.

A possible problem with Treneman, however, is that he is a bit of an anachronism, and his relevance to the present is questionable. Present-day products of Oxbridge are unlikely to be as unworldly and grim-lipped as he. The approximate character in reality would be more likely to over-compensate in their efforts to communicate with their working-class charges. The stern and impassive exterior, cultivated as a means of controlling one’s subjects, may still be a staple of Working Title films, but it has crumbled somewhat in recent years, to be replaced by a rather convoluted form of mockney. This, far more than the stiff-upper-lip, can serve to conceal a real contempt for the working class. It would be interesting to see a TV drama dedicated to this, but as mockney is the lingua franca of the present British élite, we might have to wait some time. Nevertheless, Waterloo Road is a curiously entertaining stab at cramming a lot of complex educational issues into a popular format.

(As an aside, it beat the crap out of the show that followed, The Family Man, which was a ham-fisted and ham-infested attempt at dramatising the issues surrounding fertility treatment and embryology.)

In sum, A-star for effort, B+ for attainment.

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April 2006