TELEVISION REVIEW / Swotting up with the fly on the classroom wall

EVERY year, when I was at school, the headmaster would go into purdah and, with the help of senior teachers and a chart the size of a small garden, would construct the following year's timetable. Masters would tell us, in hushed voices, that reconciling the differing requirements of pupils and pedagogues was an intellectual challenge of such ferocious complexity that the headmaster's sanity hung by a thread.

When the completed document eventually went up behind glass, a small crowd would gather, gazing at it with a mixture of awe and foreboding. I can still recall the murmur of consternation that greeted the revelation, one dreadful year, that the only way he had finally been able to square the circle was by inflicting a period of Triple Physics on my class, an act of mental cruelty which I think was unprecedented in the school's history. Even the masters were shocked.

Some boys contemplated an appeal to Amnesty International, others resigned themselves to getting their heads down and serving their time. Since then, though, Triple Physics has been my benchmark for inescapable, dutiful tedium and it returned vividly to mind during High School II (Saturday BBC2), by the distinguished American director Frederick Wiseman. At three hours and 50 minutes, his film made the Dimbleby interview with Prince Charles look shamelessly rushed.

The Radio Times described it as 'uniquely detailed', which is a diplomatic way of putting it, I suppose. On the same lines, you might describe the London telephone book as a 'uniquely detailed' account of the city's social and ethnic tapestry. Certainly, in High School II, you had the feeling that the floor of Wiseman's cutting-room didn't need much sweeping at the end of the day. You got everything, in a succession of long scenes which presented the daily life of Central Park East, a Harlem public school with a reputation for excellence at odds with its locality.

Whether you would have known this if you hadn't been told it before you started watching, I'm not sure. There was no helpful voice-over, no screen captions to help you judge the seemingly endless succession of limping conversations (literally endless in my case - I confess I couldn't go the distance). The pedagogic method most favoured seemed to be that of education by an act of willed belief; 'That's an interesting theory,' said a teacher with grave caution, in response to some halting, barely articulate answer from a pupil. 'It's very interesting - I hadn't thought about it before today,' said another, soothing her students' embarrassment at their own ignorance with a wash of white lies.

Apparently this gets results, though the revelation that several of the students who go on to college spend their early years taking remedial writing and reading qualified your admiration a little. As did the eyelid-challenging patience of the director, who sat without a murmur as teacher after teacher attempted to insinuate knowledge into their bored, cud- chewing charges.

More memories elsewhere. The rerun of the first programme from the first series of Monty Python last night (BBC2) reminded me of returning to school after a long foreign holiday to find that a new language had been invented in my absence - an incomprehensible blend of silly names and surreal connections which had become indispensable to all social intercourse. And the Wimbledon coverage recalled that there was once a time when the men's final offered more drama and skill than the women's and that, if you wanted a commentary studded with speedometer readings, you watched a Grand Prix.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick