Last Night's TV: Jamie's Dream School/Channel 4
Attenborough and the Giant Egg/BBC2
Thursday 03 March 2011
It's the great and the good versus the bored and the badly behaved," said Jamie Oliver, giving us the elevator pitch for Jamie's Dream School, another of Channel 4's attempts to turn a social policy paper into primetime entertainment. They've had their successes, most notably Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recent publicising of the folly of fish discards. But after Heston Blumenthal's silly and insulting attempt to tackle the problem of hospital catering last week, you can't help wondering whether the marriage of celebrity and social activism isn't beginning to get a bit out of hand. What next? Dick and Dom challenged to run a rural bus service in order to tackle economic exclusion? Nicky Haslam presenting a four-parter in which he restyles a Midland sink estate to improve community spirit? There is always a faint odour of the quick fix about such affairs, a suspicion that the gleaming new facade will start to crumble and fall apart about 10 seconds after television has declared a victory and headed off back to London. Having said which, Jamie can fairly claim to have made a real difference with the genre before – in his series on school food – so perhaps we should approach with an open mind.
Which unfortunately wasn't something many of the 20 educational drop-outs and also-rans Jamie had assembled for his student body appeared to possess. All of them, in the favoured rhetoric of these things, had been failed by the education system (a formulation that charitably exempts them from any culpability in the matter). So now, Jamie, a GCSE failure himself, had assembled a group of inspirational figures in the hope that their passion for self-improvement – never a blowtorch flame – might be rekindled. Simon Callow was going to teach English, David Starkey was tackling history and Robert Winston was going to do science, steering well clear of any formal curriculum and charged only with blowing the spark of curiosity into life. It was not an auspicious start. In fact, it appeared to be an experiment to find out how quickly a group of teenagers can make an idealist lose his cool.
The first teachers up were comically guileless about what they were walking into. Simon Callow had the job of introducing them to the joys of Shakespeare, or "the man from Stratford" as he described him. "Oh my God!" shrieked Angelique, "I live about an hour away from Stratford!" Sadly, it was the wrong one, a fact the class only established after several minutes of simultaneous shouting. A vein began to pulse on Simon's forehead. "Just focus a bit, please," he said plaintively. "SHUT UP!" yelled a girl on the front row, trying to help him out. "Don't be telling me to shut up, right!" one of her fellow pupils snapped back. "Disciplined is not a word that comes to mind," said the shaken Callow, as he staggered from the lesson. Angelique, though, thought it had all gone rather well. "I think he thinks we were mint," she said, "He weren't stuck up or nothing... obviously he can't help the way he talks." Not every theatregoer agrees with you, Angelique, but let that pass.
If Simon Callow wants to feel better about his performance, he only needs to look at how David Starkey got on, unwisely assuming that he could win the class over with a combination of home truths ("You are all here because you failed") and Anglo-Saxon "bling". It took about a minute before the noise got to him ("It's wasting your time and it's wasting mine," he said testily, falling back on the classic cliché of the struggling pedagogue). And not long after that things got even worse, after he'd insulted one of his pupils by calling him fat. Pupil, outraged, took up the challenge. "You're about four foot tall, mate. Have you always been that tall?" Starkey – the terror of Question Time, Torquemada of The Moral Maze – was reduced to red-faced silence and refused to return for another lesson until some old-school discipline had been enforced, which was rather missing the point. Robert Winston brought in a dead pig, in the hope that some hands-on dissection would tame the beasts, but succeeded only in making one girl vomit and adding another example to the programme's growing collection of euphemisms for "shut up". "We can't proceed if we all talk at once," he said, straining to remain equable. It's just a thought, but there may be a reason that good teachers have to be trained to do the job.
In Attenborough and the Giant Egg, the world's best biology teacher returned to a film he made 50 years ago – a Zoo Quest programme during which he'd acquired one of his most treasured possessions – an elephant bird egg, which he used here as the narrative MacGuffin in a film about extinction and the intricate connections between a habitat and the species who live in them. Cameras and lenses have greatly improved over the intervening decades, but other changes gave this programme the edge over the first one he'd made. Madame Berthe's mouse lemur, a cotton ball with giant eyes and grasping hands was only discovered 10 years ago, so wasn't available for filming first time round. And though the sifaka was, the fact that it was hunted for food made it very shy. Now they're protected and one cautiously came to take food from Attenborough's hand, leaving his eyes gleaming almost as brightly as they did during that famous encounter with gorillas. I think even Jamie's delinquents might have paid attention.
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