The high road to disaster... The learners from hell grip the nation

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The Independent Online
Last night almost one-fifth of the country's population sat down in front of their televisions to watch a group of learner drivers reverse up kerbs, fail to stop and generally frighten the life out of their teachers.

Driving School, the latest in a series of "observational soaps" on BBC1, has, been so successful that one subject, Cardiff cleaner Maureen Rees, yesterday achieved national prominence for passing her driving test at the eighth attempt.

Mrs Rees's driving lessons, aided by her long-suffering husband, Dave, have become something of a national obsession. Her terrifying exploits have helped push the viewing figures for Driving School up to 10 million - placing it fourth in the ratings, just behind Coronation Street, EastEnders and Emmerdale Farm.

The audience tuned into the documentary series to watch Mrs Rees, 55, swerve into the path of a vehicle in the fast lane, argue incessantly with her husband and even run into him with their car, a Lada called Betsy.

While surprised by the series' success, its BBC producers believe they have hit upon something of a winning formula. There are two more observational soap series in development: Vets in Practice, a follow-up to the equally successful Vets' School, and Holiday Reps, which follows a group of holiday reps in their first season in Minorca and Lanzarote.

"It's about having characters that people can latch onto," the executive producer of the series, Grant Mansfield, said. "There's an element of the underdog there, someone destined to fail but who passed at the end."

Trying to explain the success of Driving Lessons, he added: "There's also the obvious thing about rites of passage and universal experience. Everyone can remember their own lessons."

Martin Arnold, spokesman for the British School of Motoring, agrees. "It's something that touches everybody's lives in one way or another. There's also a mentality among drivers that we all think we're the greatest. We're all very critical of other drivers. And it's funny watching other people," he said.

The series has been attacked by some driving instructors, who believe that their profession has been made to look foolish. But Mr Arnold says that the most important thing it highlights is the importance of finding a good driving instructor.

"Learning to drive and taking your driving test are two of the most stressful things in people's lives. Things are different from when mum and dad learned to drive," he said.

"To people who want to take driving lessons, BSM's message would be `don't be fooled by what you've seen. It can be a lot more straightforward. And make sure you get the right driving instructor. You've seen the nightmare that can happen if you attempt to do it with a relative'."

Approximately 1.5 million people are currently learning to drive, with 1 million driving tests taking place annually.

Maureen Rees's test day will be screened in two weeks. Drivers in the United States should take note: Mrs Rees plans to celebrate with a fly- drive holiday to Florida.