How's this for nerve? You launch the first episode of your new sitcom with a plot which includes an embarrassing dead body, a health inspector and a dead rat in the water system. What's more, the body language and vocal style of your chief character, a splenetic deputy-head teacher, owe more than a little to John Cleese (an impression further confirmed by memories of that actor's performance as a headmaster in Michael Frayn's comedy, Clockwise), and the long-suffering female lead even bears a teasing resemblance to Connie Booth. It's little short of amazing, then, to report that Chalk (BBC1) isn't crushed to dust by the comparison it virtually begs you to make. If it isn't quite another Fawlty Towers (how likely was that?), it is more than promising and delivered with a degree of craftsmanship which regularly-burned audiences have learnt not to take for granted.

Chalk begins with the introduction of a new staff member into Galfast High, an institution which blends a vaguely realistic setting with a surreal liberty in its action - the headmaster, for example, is first encountered conducting a religious studies lesson from inside a cupboard, as a kind of practical demonstration of the invisible authority of God. Unfortunately, his class, which he believes to be unusually well-behaved, has long since decamped, having locked the door first. He is thus forced to conduct his induction interview with the new recruit through a skylight above the door - a fact which undermines some of the conventional cliches of welcome: "If you have any problem, of any kind whatsoever, my door is always open," says John Wells's headmaster blithely, his nose scraping on the lintel. In other words, if you were hoping for a wry comic treatment of the real issues afflicting the nation's schools, you had better go elsewhere; this isn't a pedagogic version of Cardiac Arrest.

What is heartening about it, though, is that the machinery all works, without any of the gimcrack bodges that have become so familiar in British sitcoms. Steven Moffat's script is not just capable of good lines, but also knows how to milk a few extra laughs from them. "Right, sit there and make a plasticine model of God," barks Mr Slatt (David Bamber) at an errant pupil, "and you'd better get it right!" The joke returns later, but so glancingly that if it fails, it barely matters - the repeats are offered as background details of character rather than centre-stage gag lines. Other staples of the sitcom form, such as the cross-purpose conversation, are offered in versions that don't actually gape at the seams, as is so often the case in mediocre comedies. Faced with the distraught neighbour of an English teacher who has died at his desk, Mr Slatt is under the impression that he is placating a health inspector worried about rats. "Look, the good thing is he's no longer poisoning the pupils' water supply," he replies, puzzled by the woman's inexplicable tearfulness. But what was he doing in the science lab, the woman asks. "I don't know," Bamber replies with mounting exasperation, "I expect they were doing experiments on him or something." Within the logic of the farce - a realm which has nothing to do with the real world - the misunderstanding is juggled from hand to hand without a fumble.

It helps that the series is strongly cast, with performers who can make comic exaggeration look controlled rather than merely pleading, but the solidity of the construction is what really makes it work. The script is even capable of rescuing an apparently duff conceit. When he needs to smuggle the deceased teacher out from under the noses of his pupils, Mr Slatt orders them all to close their eyes and pray, a slightly unconvincing solution to a plot problem. But when one pupil peeps and shrieks out the truth about the rigid Mr Humphrey, the device is redeemed. "Right!... who prayed for that?" bellows Mr Slatt, going on the offensive in a moment of lunatic inspiration. The ghost of Basil Fawlty definitely looked on at that moment - and he seemed to be smiling.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living