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

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The Independent Culture
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.