After watching Bad Education, Big School is as embarrassing as watching your dad trying to DJ

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

You know you’re getting old when TV starts getting nostalgic about eras during which you were already feeling old and nostalgic. Take Pogs, the subject of one of those ‘Whatever happened to them, eh?’ moments in Badults (BBC3, Tuesday), an amiable sitcom about twentysomething flatmates. Pogs were these collectable discs originally made from fruit-juice bottle caps (passion fruit, orange and guava) that were a massive fad in the mid-Nineties. Tragically, though, the reason I know this is not that I played with them myself but that my stepson Jim the Rat did.

How depressing is that? What it means is that even the generation below me, Jim’s, is already beginning to feel sufficiently past it to start lamenting its lost youth. I look at these late twentysomethings of Jim’s age, now fully formed, and opinionated, with a reasonable amount of life experience and their wilder moments behind them and plans to settle down, and I think, ‘At 48, I’m old and screwed and it’s all over, basically, is it not?’

About the only consolation is watching others being shafted by the same cruel process. David Walliams, for example. I’m old enough to remember when David Walliams was still the coming thing, back in the days of the first tech bubble when he played Jake in Attachments (that slightly poor man’s This Life about an internet start-up company) and even before that when he had a cameo role in Spaced as a pretentious artist called Vulva. There was no guarantee back then that he was going to become as famous as he did. But then two years after Attachments, Little Britain happened and the world became his lobster.

So how must he be feeling now, I wonder, about Big School (BBC1, Friday), the new all-star sitcom he has written in which he plays a prissy chemistry teacher? It really ought to have been a total winner, containing as it does — via cast members Philip Glenister, Frances De La Tour and Catherine Tate — the distilled magical essence of Life On Mars, Rising Damp and ‘am I bovvered?’. But it feels tired, flabby, a bit obvious and not that funny — certainly when compared with its younger, zappier, rap-soundtracked, groovily-edited rival Bad Education.

And therein lies its problem, I think. Viewed in isolation, Big School would make a perfectly agreeable half-hour’s entertainment, with the running gags about Mr Church’s frustrated chemistry experiments and the quite-amusing ‘Don’t mention the war’ scenario, whereby the staff fail to deal sensitively with the boy whose mother is having it off with a Maasai tribesman. Watch it after Bad Education (BBC3, Tuesday), though, and suddenly it’s as lame and embarrassing as watching your Dad trying to DJ.

Bad Education, see, has got Jack Whitehall in it and Jack Whitehall is sick. (As I believe young people are wont to describe things of which they violently approve.) Whitehall (born 1988, the bastard!) is someone you might certainly wish to hate if he weren’t so utterly charming, enormously talented and disarmingly honest. He went to Marlborough (he’s the son of an actress and a leading theatrical agent) and one of the things that’s great about him is that he makes absolutely no pretence that he’s anything other than a smug, louche, overprivileged, desperately middle-class public school tosser with a weapons-grade sense of entitlement.

Whitehall has built his career on playing thinly-disguised versions of himself, whether as the eyelash-batting school tart flirting outrageously with susceptible prefect Stephen Fry on QI, or as swaggering Old Stoic JP in Fresh Meat or, in Bad Education, the spectacularly useless, impeccably middle-class, Mumford & Sons-loving Mr Wickers.

There is lots wrong with Bad Education, starting with the fact that it has nothing whatsoever satirically insightful to say about the failings of sink comprehensives like the one in which it is set. And how come the class sizes are smaller than you get in many private schools? And how come the kids, even the supposedly delinquent ones, all have hearts of gold? In truth, Bad Education would work just as well on a spaceship, or in a jungle village, or in the lodging house shared by three priests on a remote Irish island…

Just like Father Ted, though (which of course gave us little insight into the Catholic Church), Bad Education transcends its obvious limitations by simple virtue of being naturally funny. From the way it’s shot to the way it’s acted, it oozes the cocky, infectious confidence of a winner.

It doesn’t matter that the jokes are hit and miss. When they work, you love them, like the one where the white headmaster, who has already upset a black parent with the insensitive use of a racial term (‘Perhaps, with hindsight best left to rappers. Eh, bro?’), decides to open the school swimming gala as if it were an Olympic ceremony. He does so in a white bathrobe, lighting a candelabra of torches which unfortunately collapses to become a flaming cross, even as the pointed hood on his robe sticks up and he dances in embarrassment as the black parent looks on in horror. Totally contrived; utterly ludicrous; but a gag that will stick in the memory like the rude vegetables scene  from Blackadder II.

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