Last Night's TV - Excluded, BBC2; This Is England '86, Channel 4; 71 Degrees North, ITV1

They've really done their homework
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The Independent Culture

Why can't Waterloo Road be more like Excluded, Brian Fillis's part-improvised drama about a novice teacher at a troubled inner-city school? You'll gather from the phrasing of the question that the comparison favours the latter, but not all the answers to that question are necessarily discreditable ones. Waterloo Road, after all, is going out on the BBC's most mainstream channel, smack in the middle of the schedule, with other programmes hoping to ride its slipstream. It's hardly surprising that it's going to soap up its account of modern education with a string of narrative lathering agents. Not very surprising either that it won't have much time for the politics of secondary education or the unsatisfactory half-resolutions that life so often delivers. It isn't really supposed to explore what it's like to go to or run a school now. It's supposed to make you want to watch next week's episode. Excluded, which doesn't have an episode next week or in the foreseeable future (unless a commissioning editor feels there's space for a different kind of school drama), can afford to withhold all kinds of shallow satisfactions.

All the same, it would be nice if Waterloo Road could be just a little bit more like Excluded, which, while not being perfect itself, at least took you a little way into the tangle of competing ambitions that modern education creates. I was reminded more than once of season four of The Wire, a comparison that, almost inevitably, favours HBO over BBC Cymru, but which wasn't entirely implausible here. Season four, devotees may remember, was the one that exposed how the very systems designed to lift children out of educational poverty in Baltimore might actually work to keep them there, and there was a rough equivalent here in the zeal of the school's headmistress to achieve Academy status. With it, she believed, would come the status and the funds that might allow her to turn some of her pupils' lives around. But to get it she might have to compromise on those very principles.

The heart of the thing was the relationship between Mark – a troubled and troublesome pupil – and Ian, a fresh-faced idealistic maths teacher who wanted to make a difference. You braced yourself initially for the death of hope, as Ian struggled with his disruptive class. But Excluded was headed in a slightly different direction, looking at the ways in which difficult students can fall down the cracks between different kinds of good intention. Ian – with an ease that was never explained by the drama – recovered control of the low-level riot in his classroom and actually got through to Mark, who proved to be perfectly bright and poignantly in need of paternal command.

Unfortunately, he treated some of the other teachers as the idiots they actually were – a neglect of one of the sustaining fictions of school hierarchy that led to him being considered for permanent exclusion. And here you braced yourself for another familiar narrative trope – the institutional injustice – and were again deprived when the ambitious headmistress came down on the side of principle and against immediate expediency, by giving Mark another chance. Excluded had its faults. It was occasionally over-explicit in telling you things and unconvincing in its psychology (would a man really spill out his staff-room anxieties while in the middle of a pre-natal class with his wife?). But it also moved and illuminated, and had lines that seemed to come from a teacher's desk, not that of a television dramatist. "They're little bastards," said an old hand at one point about Ian's class. "But they're target little bastards, that's the problem." You wouldn't hear that in Waterloo Road.

This Is England '86 continues to be a slightly unsettling mixture of drama so good that it doesn't seem to be trying at all and comedy so broad that effort is almost the only thing you can see. It is often funny, it's just that you can see the gears of the comedy turning – its calculation of what will work and from which angle it's going to come in at your funny bone. And then, without much in the way of warning, it will spring something utterly horrible on you, like the rape that ended last night's episode, a grim, eruption of sexual violence that was the dark flip side of the sexual comedy earlier, such as the moment when Michelle tried to help Shaun over the primal trauma of catching his mum at it with his boss ("Wipe that thought of Mr Sandhu riding your mum out of your mind," she counselled, not entirely helpfully). Half the time you don't believe it at all – as when Gadge was groomed into history's least likely Clark Gable lookalike by the lovesick Trudy – but then it does something so unforced or compelling or quietly true that the question of belief doesn't arise at all.

71 Degrees North is one of those celebrity torture shows, in which a group of B-listers and ITV2 presenters have been sent off to have a hard time in the Arctic Circle, in an attempt to stave off career hypothermia. It's fine if you like that kind of thing I suppose, though I am a bit worried about Gavin Henson. As I understand it, one of the effects of extreme cold is to slow down brain function, and he doesn't look to me like a man who has a huge margin of safety.

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