The "as represented" is important, because the two films could hardly have been more different in their approach to the raw material - one sceptical and on the lookout for trouble, the other completely under the spell of the school's passionate and dedicated headmaster. Both films were textbook examples of how documentaries can write their own version of reality by choosing where to look and what to show.
Penny Woolcock's film was, among other things, an essay on authority. Gordonstoun was founded by a refugee from Nazi Germany, to offer its pupils "the moral equivalent to the war" - in other words, dawn runs, mountaineering and an ethic of community service. Recently, a new headmaster has been appointed with a less bracing attitude to the spiritual virtues of goose-bumps and physical pain. Corporal punishment has been ended, and the traditional icy plunge off the school yacht is now voluntary, to the evident dismay of the sailing master, who stood on deck in his bathing togs muttering sadly about decisions made "by people sitting in chairs".
He was a comic gem, but the headmaster didn't fare much better, his coiling anxiety not to come down hard satirically contrasted with the cheerful misdemeanours of the pupils. "What I am particularly keen is not to get any sort of guarantee out of you," he said to a girl who had repeatedly been caught smoking, and this was actually his version of getting tough. Woolcock encouraged your sense of his absurdity, contrasting bare-faced denials of incidents you had witnessed yourself, with his trusting acceptance of the lie. But then she made you think again. His refusal to expel the fifth former who had attacked a younger boy, leaving his face badly swollen, seemed to tip liberalism into evasion. A few weeks on, though, and the bully seemed to have reformed, even to have been accepted back by his peers. An education in compassion and forgiveness may not please the cold-shower brigade (just as it didn't please the students who tried to overturn the merciful sentence), but it isn't to be lightly dismissed. Anyone with pounds 4,000 to spare might still hesitate though - the children clearly have a ball, but academic advancement barely figured in this account of privileged delinquency.
Richard Denton still has another five programmes in which to add a little shade to his glowing account of Francis Combe school, so he can hardly be convicted of wilful falsification yet. In any case, his genuinely touching account of the struggle to maintain standards had its heart in the right place - a determination to show that ordinary schools can still be a home for the best instincts. There are sour truths too - Francis Combe used to encourage all its pupils to stay on for A-levels, but increasing competition for pupils means that it may have to actively discourage academic stragglers in order to improve its percentage of passes. A case of denying education to all, to save it for a few.Reuse content