Big School, S01E01

by Joshua Gaskell

By David Walliams, Andrew & Steve Dawson, and Tim Inman
BBC Comedy Production and Bert Productions for BBC One
Friday, 16th August 2013

Big School is set in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The big school of the title is Greybridge, a name which connotes its middling, overcast, slightly ashen character, but also the connection to hope and colour that all but the most darkly satirical comedies must provide.

Big School is not darkly satirical. ‘Hurrah! An old school sitcom: No wobbly cameras or vile language – just real characters and good jokes,’ says Christopher Stevens of the Mail. The jibe at programmes like The Thick of It is misplaced, but Stevens is right: this is a heavily trailed, primetime, family-friendly BBC One sitcom from David Walliams (late of Britain’s Got Talent). And (yet) it’s good.

That’s despite the fact that the first joke (and a recurring one) is about how state education to some degree sucks: that is, it is the joke. The opening scene is the Chemistry teacher Mr Church (Walliams) doing an experiment with nitrogen for his class; they’re all completely bored, and – ho-ho – walk out as soon as the bell goes, thus missing the explosion. ‘I’ve long been aware that the pupils here at Greybridge have zero interest in education,’ Church says in the staffroom, ‘but it seems the teachers have even less.’ And the headmistress Ms Baron (Frances de la Tour) has less again: she is an even more bored and apathetic headteacher than Greg Davies’s Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners, at one point commenting that ‘if you can find any talented pupils at this school I’d be very surprised.’ Indeed the joke at the expense of state education was The Inbetweeners’ bread-and-butter, with the implicit contrast between Will McKenzie’s old, posh school and his new, crap one built in to the setup in Episode One. I’m not necessarily saying that what’s depicted isn’t realistic (I’ll come to realism), only that in Big School, as in The Inbetweeners, it’s sometimes difficult to laugh when the joke is told without any sort of comment or critique; without even any light satire. Is it right that we laugh straightforwardly at bad education? (Incidentally, I actually think Jack Whitehall’s sitcom of that name does so less.) With de la Tour in mind it’s hard not to think about the eponymous History Boys at Alan Bennett’s Cutlers’ Grammar School.

So as I said, it’s not a satire. And to some degree the bad-education humour is needed as Church’s foil. He sets himself up not so much as the one to stop the rot (he says himself that he’s one of the longest-serving teachers), but as an old-school bastion. He conspiratorially tells the new French teacher Miss Postern (Catherine Tate) that ‘the teaching standards at this school are at an all-time low.’ And we’re made well aware that he is old-fashioned, through his tweed jacket, and his belief that his mobile phone is for his own convenience.

The comedy comes (of course) from the gaps that the viewer gets to observe between this idea Church has of himself, and the reality. The very first scene and its unobserved nitrogen experiment leave us in no doubt about whether Church is any kind of bastion. And his lax attitude to his phone leads to a funny moment where he is the only one not to know about the death of a colleague. The payoff to this is a short scene in which Ms Baron’s assistant (Jocelyn Jee Esien) mentions that she didn’t see him at the funeral. He replies and says that he ‘was one of the first to know’ about the death, then gets back at her by making up a story about going to a special service for relatives and very close friends: ‘Obviously there was no administrative staff invited.’ Moreover, not only is he snobbish in this respect, he’s also petty-minded: note the lecture he gives to Miss Postern about there being no such thing as a hundred-and-ten percent. (Though he’s right. It always used to annoy me in the Rayman games that you could ‘complete’ them beyond a hundred percent.) The one thing I find slightly odd about Church is the fact that he’s so pathetic with the children, and yet so assertive and forthright with his colleagues. In the face of his ill-disciplined charges he’s almost as wet as Richard Herring’s Mr Harris in TMWRNJ (‘tmwrnj’), but in the staffroom he acts like cock of the walk. Maybe this ambiguity in his character will develop as the series proceeds.

Episode One does its job with concise, well-executed introductions. This is achieved by means of each character being brought onstage along with their associate joke. If Church is a wannabe bastion who’s not, Miss Postern is a French teacher who’s never been to France; Mr Martin is a Music teacher who refers to ‘Mozart’s tracks’ and prefers the Kaiser Chiefs (though he hasn’t heard ‘I Predict a Riot’); Mr Barber (Geography) is a bald Welshman – making his name funny twice (‘baa-baa’) – who claims (unintentionally meta) to be having ‘a textbook nervous breakdown’; Mr Gunn (PE) confirms Woody Allen’s line in Annie Hall ‘that those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym’; and the most prominent pupil, Manyou (geddit?), says that if he wanted to get a girl to like him, he’d ‘send her a picture of me knob.’ The only disappointment is Mr Hubble, the ancient Physics teacher, whose associated joke is simply that old people lose their marbles, which isn’t that funny.

Countering all this is the dust-dry Ms Baron who, when told by Miss Postern that ‘I was making a joke,’ replies, ‘Well don’t.’ That said, in the scene set in the assembly hall (the original meaning of big school, by the way) Ms Baron sort of ends up competing with Miss Postern for laughs, with the children serving as the studio audience. This kind of routine unprofessionalism is one of the slightly niggling examples of slipping realism, others being the fact that Miss Postern seems to have her interview the same day as she starts work and doesn’t know where her own classroom is, and the odd reference at the end to ‘London Airport’ (possibly for the benefit of foreign viewers?). Of course there are no rules about having to be realistic. Except the ones that writers choose for themselves.