I’m a fan of Jack Whitehall, and an ex-teacher. I don’t mind telling you that I approached this first episode of BBC Three’s latest comedy series with a great deal of caution.
At Abbey Grove School in Hertfordshire, 23 year old history teacher Alfie Wickers (Jack Whitehall) is in personal trouble. As if his Monday morning hangover wasn’t enough to contend with, Head Teacher Mr Fraser (Mathew Horne) has his sights set on the object of Alfie’s affections, biology teacher Miss Rosie Gulliver (Sarah Solemani). Professionally, he’s not much better off – Deputy Head Isabelle Pickwell (Green Wing’s Michelle Gomez) wants his GCSE classes’ mock papers marked by the end of the day, or his students fail automatically.
With education and the quality of teaching and learning hot issues in today’s political world, Whitehall has his work cut out for him. As with all comedies, certain clichés must be observed: the teachers variously try to be friends with their students, resent them altogether, use their time inefficiently and/or show signs of alcoholism. Similarly, the students are a Glee-like cross-section: the smart Chinese girl, the flirty girl, the effeminate boy.
Finally, some of the situations are pure stock, such as an overweight asthmatic boy calling Alfie ‘Dad’ accidentally. Luckily, this is where the black humour kicks in. The boy, Joe, is readily ridiculed by a cooler classmate – who is shot down by a disdainful Alfie reminding him that “At least Joe knows who his Dad is.”
The stereotypes are all here – but they are presented as real, three dimensional, (dys)functional people. It takes a few minutes to get used to, and it’s a brave move for the comedy.
Whitehall’s writing doesn’t just play with the education debate – it eviscerates it and irreverently plays with the remains. Abbey Grove School is what scaremongering media reports and histrionic parents believe modern education is really like. That is not to say the script is a political polemic, but it confronts modern notions about education and, arguably more importantly, educators.
The good news is that the trailers have not stolen all the best jokes, and that the script is quite darkly witty. In line with the later timeslot, there is some blue, racist and sexist humour, but we’re laughing at the ignorance creating the humour, not at the target of the joke. The content and humour are spread well between the characters, with even the straight-woman Pickwell getting some blisteringly bizarre metaphors.
Alfie’s non-romance with Rosie, as well as Mr Fraser’s interest in her, is an update of Cyrano de Bergerac, with Alfie’s obvious immaturity substituted for Cyrano’s nose. Even here though, the trope is flipped: Alfie is proud of his ways, and Fraser is a completely gullible sap instead of dashingly heroic.
Meanwhile, the marking plot comes to a head as Alfie has to tell each set of parents that their child has failed their mock history exam, hinting at the other classic to which Bad Education owes at least a tip of the hat. Alfie is the teacher version of Basil Fawlty, and the BBC have once again been brave enough to feature a comedy protagonist whose methods appal us, whose practices outrage us, who rightly loses out at the end of the episode – and for whom we still feel the affection of the underdog.
Whilst there are some problems with characterisation (Fraser’s guileless gullibility is a tad too convenient), this does not detract from the fine performances of all involved. The direction has been well judged: different locations have a clear style to emphasise the characters therein, and special mention must be made of the way that Alfie’s character-establishing entrance is shot.
Bad Education is a show I enjoyed far more once I’d finished watching and mulled over it. Alfie’s actions, and those of the other staff, are not praised or condemned, demonstrating a respect for the audience to make their own judgement on what they’ve just seen.
Aired at 10pm on Tuesday 14th August 2012 on BBC Three.
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