August 12, 2003
Carry on schooling

I only started watching That'll Teach 'Em (Channel 4 – Aug 12 – 9 pm) because of still needing something to put here after another drainingly hot London day, spent basically doing other things, but oh boy, it's hilarious. The entire show is poised at the edge of a cliff and threatening to plummet towards pure Monty Python insanity.

It's like a brothel, but without the sex. Not very good actors stride about picking arguments with the boys and girls, and the usual procedure would then be for the customers - which is what he would be - to have an orgasm. But this is a serious, or as serious as it is possible to be about such things, to recreate a "nineteen fifties" public school education.

The programme brings out all the snobbery in me, that is to say of a boy who went to a truly posh school, or who thinks he did. Mine was called Marlborough, pronounced Morl-brur. And I remember Marlborough as being a more relaxed, more decadent sort of place. We all assumed that it was only the "minor" public schools (public means the opposite for these purposes – sorry America) who took all this stuff truly seriously.

The teachers at this TV place are, frankly, not as posh as the ones I remember. They have no irony, no humour. Only the tremendously exciting English mistress seems to have the real Posh Stuff. The teachers here do have their virtues, but they remind me of NCOs, rather than officers. They are mostly deadly serious sergeant majors who shout about everything they see that is wrong rather than languid colonels and brigadiers who see much, much more than they can be bothered to complain about.

But we never had anyone like that English mistress.

If you're interested, the best explication on film of sort Iof place I went to is not this programme, but Lindsay Anderson's If, which is outstanding. The weirdest thing of all about these places was the way that they sprayed Christianity all over the Caesarian savagery. They're doing that as well at this TV place. But Lindsay Anderson does that outstandingly. Who could forget the priest who is kept by the Headmaster in his drawer. (You have to see it.)

Still, this is a great show and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

As always when it comes to adapting, the girls are adapting to it all far better than the boys. The girls are enjoying it. They are becoming fifties stereotypes – Stepford schoolgirls. They are knitting scarves for their brothers back home.

The boys - and good for them – are just waiting for it to end. But even they are starting to come round.

Even for them it will have been a learning experience. They will have experienced a very different way of doing things. There's nothing like a shared ordeal lived through. Some of them will be friends for life.

The best thing about this show is that it so very clearly illustrates that such a place would now be unrunnable for real. Interestingly, and extremely importantly, they are not using very much physical violence at this place. But you can't run this kind of old-fashioned totalitarian regime without extremely serious physical violence. Without the ultimate sanction of the cane, or at least some kind of comparably severe torture, these places don't function properly. After all the humour and irony had been exhausted, if I didn't do what those bastards at Marlborough told me to do, then I was physically assaulted. And if that didn't work I would have been expelled, an option which I wish I had explored more thoroughly than I did at the time. (Put it this way. I am often able to startle the ex-victims of Communism with my grasp of the finer points of Communism, what it was and how it worked. How the hell did you know that? – they say, of some weird communist nuance. Easy I say, I went to a British public school.)

In this programme they have contrived a few pretend tortures, basically endurance tortures. But the hardcore stuff? - that they have shrunk from imposing on these children. You simply can't do this kind of thing now.

Which means that the entire pyramid of power crumbles. Everything has to be done differently. The boys on this show are waiting for it all to end. And after all, it's only a TV reality show, not reality. But if there was no end in sight, and if this was for real, they might well have rebelled by now.

And equally important, there simply aren't the teachers any more to run this kind of show. Simply, we don't believe in this kind of regime any more. We look at it, and we can't help bursting into giggles.

Carry on schooling? Like they did in the nineteen fifties? It can't be done.

If we are going to deny ourselves the ultimate sanction, namely torture - and that is precisely what we are now doing – then the entire way that the lives of children are governed is going to have to be painfully re-invented. This is one of the central beliefs of this blog. This process has hardly begun. But at least it has begun.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:49 PM
Category: Boys will be boysHistoryThe private sectorViolence