Last night's viewing - The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese, BBC1; Bad Education, BBC3
The days when programme-makers got to the end of an edit and spent days wrangling over a witty name for their labours are gone. This is the age of the Ronseal title: one that does exactly what it says on the tin, the more baldly sensational, the better. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, The Man with the 10-Stone Testicles, My Gastric Band Ruined My Life etc. You know what you're getting with these shows – a fascinating, prurient glimpse at a real-life oddity. They are the TV equivalent of a spread in That's Life! or Bella magazine, only with better editing and an emotive soundtrack.
The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese is one of the more classy examples of the genre, even if its title is misleading. Sarah Colwill was not reincarnated, she just woke up one day with the voice of a Chinese person – or, worse, the voice of someone doing a poor impression of a Chinese person. In 2010, Colwill suffered a migraine so severe she was hospitalised. When she came round, she was paralysed on her left side and her native Plymouth accent had been replaced with halting, heavily accented English. In the three years since the "stroke-like event", she has regained movement in her left side but never her voice. She is one of just 150 confirmed cases ever of foreign-accent syndrome (FAS), a neurological condition doctors can neither explain nor treat.
The documentary started from a standpoint of comical fascination with Colwill filmed ordering a Chinese takeaway, being quizzed by a hairdresser ("But where are you from originally?") and being asked to say "chopsticks" by her speech therapist. There was an oddly touching moment when she met a fellow FAS sufferer, Kay Russell, a Gloucestershire woman who speaks with the French flourishes of a female Antoine de Caunes.
Largely, the tone was tragic. Colwill's odd accent is just the audible side-effect of an illness that results in 10 debilitating migraines a month, a loss of vocabulary and physical pain on trying to write English. Not to mention the intolerable pressure that speaking "like a foreigner" has placed on her marriage. Here the film raised interesting questions of how far identity, and attractiveness, are tied to one's voice but in trying to answer them it fell prey to journey-itis, the television-maker's desire to trace a satisfying arc. So it was, after six weeks of speech therapy, Colwill had "come to the end of a journey" and learned to accept her alien voice. I hope it was the happy ending that it seemed, but it felt suspiciously like imposing narrative logic on a story that, by medical definition, had none.
Bad Education, Jack Whitehall's enjoyably puerile sitcom, has returned for a second series and this time around has to contend with Big School, another BBC school sitcom in which the main joke is that the staff are no more grown-up than the pupils. For my money, Whitehall's Abbey Grove edges Walliams' Greybridge in the comedy league tables, thanks mainly to its youthful anarchy. At 25, Whitehall is barely out of short trousers after all, and it is his admirable willingness to make himself look silly – often repellently so – that carries the show. He is ably supported in the staff room by an understated and terminally unimpressed Sarah Solemani and an unhinged, livewire Mathew Horne as the would-be trendy Head who wears neon trainers and lives for the banter.
The opening episode was defiantly gross-out, involving a swimming gala, toilet humour, nudity, and a disfiguring reaction to chlorine. Around the edges, it packed in a lot of good jokes, from hair puns to digs at Mumford and Sons. It's scattergun stuff, but the clearly gifted Whitehall should trust his writing and the performances to carry the comedy more. He resorts to off-colour, physical gags too often here, but that may just be start-of-term hijinks. Shows promise.
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