Educating Essex, C4, Thursday
Fresh Meat, C4, Wednesday
Heartwarming and hair-raising, a secondary school documentary outperforms a student comedy
Sunday 25 September 2011
From Grange Hill to The Inbetweeners there has been no shortage of TV programmes based in schools.
But flippin' 'eck, Tucker, nothing that has gone before can prepare you for the reality of the modern secondary school as seen in the opening episode of the new "fixed-rig" reality show Educating Essex. The logistics are impressive: 65 cameras fitted to walls and ceilings in offices, classrooms and corridors; 150 hours of footage per week over a seven-week shoot; and all for four one-hour episodes.
"The main thing I worry about with this documentary," says Passmores Academy's deputy head Stephen Drew, " is that people watching will just think we're a bunch of spineless idiots." Freeze-frame on Passmores' head teacher, Vic Goddard, doubled up with laughter as the programme cuts to a commercial break. There were many such touching, telling and funny moments in Educating Essex. There were also moments to chill the blood of anyone who lives or works with children.
Drew is part David Brent, part Captain Mainwaring, and as such was the ideal character to anchor the first episode. That the programme's final section showed him being (falsely) accused of assault by a female pupil, showed what he – and by extension our education system – is up against. Namely, mobile-phone-obsessed, uniform-flouting kids with don't-care attitudes who can't be expelled as Passmores has a "no-fail policy".
But if you can't throw trouble-makers out, doesn't that mean the pupils win, an invisible interviewer asks Drew. "We want them to win," he replies, an uncomprehending look on his face. The problems, then, are complex. Drew points out that if you do permanently exclude a young person, the chances are they will turn to crime and their adult lives will be ruined. Instead, Drew will do his darnedest to turn things around using a combination of dad jokes, tough love and soul-saving sarcasm in the face of "new levels of challenging". How did things get this bad? Drew puts it thus: "These young people have been failed by their parents and society; they've never learnt the idea of 'no'."
So it falls to teachers such as Drew to help these kids succeed, and we get to watch their triumphs and traumas. The only complaint? Aside from the odd venting of pupil vernacular, the Essex part of the title is irrelevant. In the early days of this type of fly-on-the-wall documentary, the programme would have simply been called The School. Had the programme-makers insisted on such, its impact, surely, would have been wider.
And what happens to these kids once they leave the sixth form? If they're lucky they become "fresh meat for the grinder", in the words of the tutor in Channel 4's new "comedy-drama" by the writers of Peep Show.
Fresh Meat's premise: six students with nothing in common forced to share a house in Manchester. But while the early publicity focused on the fact that the show stars Joe (Simon in The Inbetweeners) Thomas, anyone who saw Chickens will know that his presence is no guarantee of quality, so focus has shifted to Jack Whitehall's acting debut as the hip-hop-loving public schoolboy tosser JP.
Rightly so, because while Simon (sorry, Kingsley) has the will-they-won't-they love interest – and gets to do plenty of that scrunchy-eye, shaky-head, "I wish I'd never said that" thing that Thomas's characters are destined to do for the rest of his acting days – JP gets all the best lines.
"High motherfucking threadcount," he declares of his conquest's bedsheet. And when he's not showing respec' to his Tupac poster or dusting off his beloved bongos, JP is mainly getting drunk to enable him to bed girls so he can phone up his friends and tell them afterwards.
He's funny because he's a recognisable type, but Fresh Meat is rather too full of those and, at almost an hour, should really do more in terms of both comedy and drama. Perhaps Robert Webb's geology lecturer will provide these as the series develops. Though it's unlikely he will prove as enduring or endearing a character as the real-life Mr Drew.
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