Tuesday 13 September 2011

Hope and Glory

I recently watched the school-based BBC drama Hope and Glory again for the first time since it was shown in the 1990s. I was pleasantly impressed and it was well worth the fiver it cost on amazon. Obviously a show about teachers doesn't sound like a promising idea for interesting drama, and it seems even less promising when you realize it features the standard school-based story. A bunch of work-shy, no-hope, delinquent dropouts (and the pupils aren't much use either) in the worst school in the country are helped to find their full potential by a brilliant, charismatic new headmaster. Luckily it's more enjoyable than that sounds, mixing drama with gentle comedy while just about avoiding becoming a soap opera.

The charismatic teacher in question is Ian George, played memorably by Lenny Henry. I was again amazed that this show didn't lead to him taking on more straight acting roles. Lenny was a popular comedian in the 1980s, but his old-fashioned style of comedy became outdated quickly. As a funny man I doubt anyone has laughed at his material in decades, but as a straight actor he's a revelation. His character is compelling and unusual, but always convincing. Ian is a high-flyer in the education world, who turns down a government post to become a headmaster and nothing will stop him turning his school around. He's arrogant, bossy, self-absorbed, brilliant in bursts but also prone to terrible mistakes, and he's awful with relationships, treating his several girlfriends through the show badly just because being nice might interfere with schoolwork.

Most of his teachers provide the same sort of complexity with characters that are flawed but likeable. His deputy Phil Jakes was my favourite. Played by the dependable Chris Russell, Phil is paranoid, melancholic and frequently out of his depth, but he's also had his dedication beaten out of him by decades of disappointment. At times he's the hero of the story and at other times he's the villain, making his character arc interesting to follow. The same is true of the full-blooded villain Jan Woolley, a teacher who fails to get swept along by the new headmaster's reforms. She's always the last to arrive, the first to leave and she has no interest in bonding with the little darlings. I found myself rooting for her.

The other main teacher is Debbie Bryan, who probably is an interesting character. Unfortunately she's played by Amanda Redman and she uses exactly the same voice, mannerisms and responses as she does in New Tricks, so I was frequently left confused wondering why Sandra Pullman was now pretending to be a teacher. There are also surprisingly good performances from a variety of stage school brats pretending to be tough inner city yobs, while the rest of the cast are made up with stereotypes such as the macho PE teacher and the insecure trainee. These two embark on the most underwhelming romance I reckon I've ever seen, but these minor problems don't detract from the well-played drama, for series 1 anyhow, in which the classy feel is helped by the musical score, which extensively uses familiar classical pieces.

For the first series alone the show is worth watching, although sadly it's downhill after that. The classical music ends and one by one the original cast leave, usually after falling out with Ian George, and every time they get replaced with less interesting characters. Woolley gets replaced by the annoyingly perfect Kitty Burton. Debbie gets replaced by the usually dependable actress Phyllis Logan, except her role doesn't have much to do, and Phil Jakes gets replaced by a posh and annoying new deputy. Worst though, the stories settle for providing the expected formula for a school-based drama, which the first series avoided through clever writing. So every week a new problem pupil is on the verge of being ejected, but luckily they have an as yet undiscovered talent for English, music, sport, art etc and so the dedicated teachers help them achieve their goals and avoid getting expelled. On the plus side, every week you can play spot the problem and spot the special talent.

One other thing that amused me was that the first series featured an entertaining blokey friendship between Ian George and his best mate outside school. Series one ended with the not unexpected amendment to the format of Ian employing his mate as his new deputy, except when series two starts his best mate is nowhere to be seen and he never gets mentioned again. I presume the actor left at the last minute as, with no build up, Ian's best mate suddenly becomes the school janitor, who he never spoke to in series one, and curiously all of the janitor's dialogue provides observations that his previous best mate would say.

Towards the end the show improves and breaks free of the shackles of the weekly formula story until it ends surprisingly with a dramatic final episode that restores faith in the show and makes it feel that it was a journey worth taking. If you're minded to see the show and don’t want to know how it ends, don’t read on.

The dramatic ending chosen for the show is an unusual one, although it was flagged up in the first few minutes of episode one. Either way it is effective. Having devoted the whole show to demonstrating that Ian George will do anything to help his school, he pays the ultimate price when he ignores his health warnings to avoid all stress. The actual circumstances leading up to his death are a bit weak and start when a new teacher on the edge punishes his pupils by keeping them in for five minutes after the bell. Back in my day this used to happen at least once a week, but apparently these days this is too traumatic for the little darlings and it sets off a chain reaction of events. The last few minutes are emotional and tragic with hardly a line of dialogue uttered, thereby providing an odd ending that gives not a shred of hope for the future, which is odd for a show that was all about hope and less about glory.

I was pleased to see that youtube has a classic moment from episode 1 in which Peter Davison as the outgoing headmaster loses control in his final school assembly. Hands up if you reckon we wouldn't have so many riots if we had fewer touchy-feely Ian George type headmasters and more straight-talking Peter Davison type headmasters!

No comments: