Hard labour at the chalkface

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The Independent Culture
IN THE early Eighties, your critic arrived at a London comprehensive to start teaching practice. I had it all figured out. The kids, obdurate at first, would soften then buckle like a Geller fork. Truth. Beauty. All we know on earth and all we need to know, right? But Keats had never run into 4B. I sat and observed as Marjorie, 4B's tutor, gave a wispy reading of Emily Dickinson. The class painted their nails, exchanged loud confidences about sexual favours and dozed. Heroically vague, Marjorie was undeterred. "Important to show you the ropes." I nodded; ropes would clearly be useful. One to cordon off the illiterates, another to wrap round your neck when the time came. Down in the staff room, the teachers measured out their lives in coffee spoons. Personal coffee spoons. ("No, dear, that one belongs to Eileen.") I smiled that first day at their operatic pettiness. A term later, wounded and exhausted in the futile battle for Hearts and Minds (C4), I understood how a successful campaign to keep control of the Nescaf might count as a precious victory.

Around that time, another student teacher was going through it in a Liverpool comprehensive. It's an era away now, but the shock Jimmy McGovern felt then came up as livid as a new bruise in the first episode of his four- part series. Drew (Christopher Eccleston) has packed in his factory job (as McGovern did) and is training to teach English. A cultural convert, Drew envangelises for the word. If the natives are hostile, all the better to prove his missionary zeal. "I want to do somethin' with disadvantaged kids," he says. "I'd like to do somethin' to them an' all," snarls his jaded colleague. Early on, we see a desiccated master give a limp lesson on iambic pentameter. The camera pans slowly to the back of the class - one boy in headphones, another asleep - and then we come to Drew, stiff with disbelief. When it's his go, Drew turns rap artist, pounding out the beat on the desks till the kids join in. "This is rhythm, right? Poetry!" Poetic licence, certainly: Sir makes a complete tit of hisself and inspires solidarity not sniggers? Gerroff. And yet the scene has imaginative force; Drew needs to feel heady with possibility before the impossibilities gang up to wipe the smile off his face. To lure the kids into literature is a true wish, not a false hope.

Like fellow Liverpudlian Alan Bleasdale, McGovern quit teaching but left his heart in the classroom. The impulse to educate lends passion to his work, but sometimes the didactic strain is so great it threatens to rupture the drama. In Cracker, McGovern exercised your sympathies so strenuously at times you felt like strudel dough. Here, he is not content to leave us to gather that Drew's school is a shitty place. He has to put a fresh turd in the corridor. Also overstated is the innocence of the children - at the expense of the poor teachers. Still, compared with the romantic fantasies of To Sir With Love and Dead Poets Society, Hearts and Minds is the real thing. You could almost choke on the fug of failure in the staff room. And I broke out in a cold sweat during some familiar moments: Drew being ticked off for using "History's" coffee, the teacher circling a job ad for a prison warder (spot the difference). The series should teach us a lesson. Audiences are obsessed with medical and cop shows: less sexy and amenable to solution, schooling has been ignored, although it is arguably the most important subject of our age. G K Chesterton said that education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another: McGovern asks what will become of that society when its soul is handled so roughly.

An impossible child is the star of Arena's trilogy, The Peter Sellers Story (BBC2). Part two was a lot like part one. Your view that its subject was a retarded man with a spooky ventriloquist's gift was confirmed at some length. Is there really that much to say about Sellers? No, but Arena had got its hands on 15 hours of his home movies, so we were going to hear it anyway. The 16mm footage was lovely - those limpid pastels soothing family irritations like a wash of calomine lotion. And you saw how by filming everyone obsessively, Sellers kept himself at a glassy distance. But the profile lacked any critical punch. Peter Hall's contention that Sellers was as great an actor as Alec Guinness went unchallenged on screen, although there was much screaming in our house. What was clear from the clips is that Guinness, a remarkable man, can be as self-effacing as the Cheshire Cat and disappear into a character with a smoky smile. The metamorphoses of Sellers, who didn't have a self to efface, are much less profound. Pity to devote three hours to a subject who is diminished the closer you get to him. When Spike Milligan was told the length of the tribute, he snapped: "But he didn't live that long."

Spike, who emerged as the unsung hero of The Peter Sellers Story, happily got a rousing chorus all his own. "Spike Milligan, This is Your Life!" yelped Michael Aspel on BBC1. "But I've been dead 10 years," objected his guest. The show relies on its star acting like a bedridden monarch: supine and dreamily gracious. Instantly bored, Spike set about deconstructing it: "Terence Alan Milligan, you were born into a military family in Poonah." "Was I?" Relatives who had emigrated to Australia (somehow the word `fled' kept coming to mind) were greeted with outrage: "How much did this cost?" Aspel has a tight little smile and it got tauter as he struggled to regain control. "I didn't write that poem." "Yes you DID!" We got no nearer to the source of his lunacy, but whatever frequency loops through his brain, it certainly throws up some great jokes. The reclusive J Paul Getty turned up proudly bearing the framed pound note Spike had sent him. It bears the legend, "In the event of bankruptcy break glass".

Still in the crazy world of goons, the BBC brought out a humungous brochure. People and Programmes is one of those strategy documents which involves abstract words being thrown on the table. A man is paid a great deal of money to see how many combinations he can make; the order is unimportant - Major, Challenge, Grasp, Must, Revolution, Dynamic (see also Committed Management), Leisure, Opportunity, Accessibility, Standards, Relevant (to Lives, Concerns, Needs, etc). I am going to have this document buried with me, so I can show it to Lord Reith in Heaven (see New Marketplace).

Does it occur to John Birt that it is a gross insult to tell his staff that they "need a bond of understanding with our audience"? Or how hard it is to nurture talent and ideas when aims change with the tide? Two years ago, BBC producers were told they should concentrate on attracting the middle class. As of Wednesday, it's pater the bourgeoisie and hello Latvian cobblers in Bolton.

"People and Programmes" cost £2m. The licence-payer would have got better value if it had been spent enlisting, say, John Travolta to shimmy through the Queen Vic during the richly deserved 10th-birthday celebrations of EastEnders (BBC1).

David Attenborough's sensational Private Life of Plants (BBC1) ended with copper tresses of algae trailing in a jade sea as if a fleet of pre-Raphaelite maidens had gone overboard. Remarkably, the presenter managed to bond like crazy with the audience without the benefit of reading "People and Programmes".

And finally, a tragedy. You thought you were ready to handle it. Been bracing yourself for weeks. Then he walks down the stairs so calmly and he lifts his face and sees Sipowicz bellyaching over something and he smiles his lovely mild smile as if to say, "You'll be just fine". And then he walks out of the station house like it was the end of the shift - not the end of the world. David Caruso left NYPD Blue (C4) for the money. A mistake his character John Kelly would surely have talked him out of. Caruso's first mooted movie is the promisingly titled Kiss of Death. We can only hope. Whaddya mean, did I cry? Well, maybe in the part where you realised that James, the rookie cop, had absorbed Kelly's formidable gentleness and made it his own. The best teachers can transplant hearts and minds without even trying.