BBC 1 drama Silk

Maxine Peake and Paul Hilton in Silk

I have been watching something else, besides Prof Brian Cox and Jamie’s Dream School, and that is Silk, the BBC 1 drama starring Maxine Peake as a barrister applying to become a QC or ‘silk’.

As I’ve said before, I enjoy watching Peake in just about any role and this was another good one. I haven’t got that much to say about the drama series which finished last night except that all the loose bits of pink legal ribbon tied up in the end. It was convenient that she lost the baby at the hands of her creepy stalker con (Paul Hilton) right at the end, before walking womanfully back into court for the climax of the biggest case of her career. But these things are hard to write and Peter Moffat, who I believe has legal experience of his own, did a good job of mixing the highs and the lows of a professional and personal life in what must be one of the highest octane environments there is: London’s criminal Bar.

A solicitor friend I talked to after the first episode of Silk had aired back in February found the drama too close to the truth for comfortable viewing. He’s a criminal lawyer whose cases have included a nasty serial murderer and a man found trafficking people into this country except that, when he arrived and his van was opened, 58 of them were dead. The two who survived did so because there were some tomatoes giving off a minute amount of oxygen in the otherwise sealed van.

I hope that solicitor’s view makes the writer, cast and crew of Silk extremely proud of their work.

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Jo Brand looking back in hunger

Jo Brand autobiography

First volume of Jo Brand's memoirs

I’ve just finished reading the first volume of Jo Brand‘s autobiography, Look Back in Hunger, and found it laugh-out-loud funny. It’s episodic, as you’d expect from a stand-up comedian, and full of hilarious stories from her life as a schoolgirl, a nurse and her early attempts to break into comedy in the late 1980s.

For me there was so much to identify with; we went to same school, Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar School, although she’s 14 years older than me so she was there in the 1970s while I enjoyed TWGGS in the 1980s. And there are plenty of experiences of Brand’s that I cannot identify with, such as the psychedelic drugs. In my day we’d learnt to “just say no” courtesy of those kids from Grange Hill.

Amazingly we had the same Latin teacher, Miss Polmounter, “not a name you’d really want to go into teaching with”, as Brand says. Particularly at an all-girls school. Brand remembers Miss P as “a sweetie” but fails to mention her amazing diction which drew the phrase “puella parva” out into the longest, most vocally vacillating 10-second phrase you can imagine.

The only thing Brand doesn’t go into great detail about in the book is her weight. There’s the book title and references to her not being “big” when she was a girl or teenager; at one point she calls herself a “loser” and she says a couple of times that the weight piled on when she went on the contraceptive pill as a teenager. I’m not convinced. Autobiographies are often as interesting for what they don’t say as for what they do.

From my reading of this book, Brand is a savvy, well educated woman with the driest of wits. I don’t know why she didn’t explore issues of body image in the book. She certainly looks lovely on the cover and I was a big admirer of her back-combed hair in the late 1980s. Perhaps the second volume Can’t Stand Up for Sitting Down holds more truth on this subject.

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Arse about face

A quick post because I am writing about Jamie’s Dream School again. And surely one of the points of writing a blog for no financial gain is that I can write what I want when I want rather than constantly having to review whatever is “new” on TV this week.

I watched the fourth episode of Channel 4‘s Dream School last night and was just as uncomfortable as before as some of the scenes unfolded. These kids do not behave nicely at all and it makes me despair for the prospects of my own children and their peers if standards of behaviour in the schools they attend break down to the extent they have among the Dream School children. There, that’s middle age speaking.

But seriously I have come to the conclusion that Jamie’s Dream School is as much about the teachers as it is about the pupils – about the ability of certain adults to engage with young people and share some of their knowledge.

As we learnt in the first programme with historian David Starkey and saw again last night with poet Andrew Motion, it doesn’t matter how knowledgeable you are. It isn’t enough to be posh and expect respect simply because you are educated. You have to get down and dirty at a disengaged child’s level if you want to share some of what you have learned with them. Motion did this in last night’s episode and that was the one uplifting moment of the hour-long programme.

The rest involved desperate stories of a teenage mother dropping out of Dream School because her child had chicken pox and the emotional unravelling of the headmaster himself. His own fear of failure, based on his experiences as a child when he was chucked out of  three schools before finally engaging with education, was thrown into sharp relief as he confronted more and more challenges from the misbehaving Dream School kids.

I stumbled upon an article by musician Jazzie B, one of the Dream School teachers, in an education magazine that was posted through our door the other day. Jazzie B concluded by hoping that viewers come away from Dream School “as I did, with renewed respect for what teachers do”.

This surely is the point of Dream School. Respect for what teachers are expected to do. A newly qualified teacher will earn about £25,000 a year, rising to £35,000 in some subjects with some experience. A head teacher in London will earn up to £90,000 a year. What do you think of that, media folk earning £90k+?

We are, as Julie Birchill and many others have observed before me, in a situation whereby people are paid in inverse proportion to their perceived value in society. So teachers and nurses don’t earn enormous salaries but they are expected to deal with real, almost intractable social problems that affect us all. Those who provide entertainment and distraction – footballers and other celebrities – earn an absolute fortune. It’s enough to make you think the country has gone to the dogs, and that is middle-aged thinking.

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More Dream School

Alvin Hall

Alvin Hall, mathematician and Dream School teacher

I think it was the third episode of Jamie’s Dream School which aired on Channel 4 last night. So far, Alvin Hall has been amongst the most sensible adults on the programme and the most able to teach others, while also being an expert in his field (maths and economics).

Hall analysed the ugly confrontation involving a girl called Harlem correctly, in my view, by saying the head should have excluded her from the room much sooner when she exploded into a rage challenging the head’s authority. “Mr Hall” (a “proper teacher”, in the eyes of one Dream School pupil) then said the unsayable about the pupils in the programme. He wondered aloud whether the US and the UK have different definitions of the word “bright”. People keep saying these students are bright, mused Hall, himself an American. But Hall thought that some of the kids were clever, some were wily and some had emotional intelligence. He wouldn’t, he said, use the word “bright” about them.

The education system may have failed these unqualified young adults but they in turn may have problems that go beyond learning: emotional incontinence, extreme disrespect, short attention spans and anger when someone attempts to assert authority over them.

Is Dream School in danger of scoring an own goal by suggesting that, far from the education system being at fault, there is a wider problem with a society that throws up some people who may never be ready to learn? I hope that is just fleeting pessimism on my part.

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The wonders of fresh air

I feel duty bound, after that last very long post, to a) write something much shorter and b) let you know that I fell asleep during last night’s second instalment of Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe. So much for profundity.

I have always found the periodic table immensely boring and unfathomable and even Brian Cox with an aerosol can could not bring it alive for me.

Anyway, it had been a tough week, I’d been out in the fresh air for while yesterday and then I’d had a glass of wine. That’s enough to lull anyone to sleep on the sofa. But, thanks, Brian; you helped get me off to the land of nod very happily last night.

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Jamie Oliver and Brian Cox

TV's Brian Cox

Brian Cox, presenter of BBC 2's Wonders of the Universe

Jamie Oliver and Brian Cox are both presenters who I love. First up, last Wednesday but for me on Friday on the iPlayer, was Jamie’s Dream School in which he attempts to do for failing pupils and teachers what he did for failing parents and cooks in Jamie’s Ministry of Food. In the Ministry of Food he showed people who thought they couldn’t cook how to do so, and how to cook things that are relatively cheap, wholesome and most importantly made with your own two hands in your own kitchen.

In Jamie’s Dream School Oliver is trying to save a state education system that is creaking under the weight of great expectations and minimal or misdirected resources. He is also, I believe, trying to help young people otherwise known as pupils. Oliver or the programme makers cannot be particularly concerned with teachers, otherwise why ask a bunch of experts in different subjects to teach when all the evidence is that teaching is a profession in its own right, with rules and training and its own particular expertise not least in classroom discipline. In other words, David Starkey may be a good historian (although Ben Miller’s skit on a reverent TV presenter arsing up priceless objets d’art is much better) but on the basis of last week’s Dream School, Starkey is terrible with people and is not a good educator of half-interested teenagers. He merely insults them.

I guess education is about consensus: willingness to teach and willingness to learn. Nipping things in the bud; if the class feel they can muck about, talk amongst themselves and use mobile phones then they will do those things. If the class never feel they can do those things they won’t or not to the same extent. When I was at school we only had pens and paper and eye contact to distract us but we did muck about. We still got qualifications, though.

Which brings me to my final point about Oliver’s Dream School. Channel 4 has made the same mistake it did with Gareth Malone who started out on TV in The Choir teaching children to sing as a way of combating various frustrations in life, none of which originally had anything to do with singing. Malone ended up trying to teach boys how to read and write better and was, to my mind, out of his depth. We will see how the Dream School narrative develops but I suspect it will not directly affect average achievements levels in schools. It has got us talking more about achievement in state schools and that is partly what television is for. But with reference to a previous C4/Oliver campaign, for better quality chicken in our supermarkets, I cannot resist noticing that Tesco were selling chickens for what looked like about £1.24 last week for a whole bird. So much for the drive for organic meat reared with love and understanding. Supply still tends to meet demand.

Elsewhere, on Sunday, Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe concluded with the popstar Prof’s personal theory that life represents the universe attempting to understand itself. A thought so profound that even my partner sat back momentarily in admiration. Up to this point my partner has only sneered at Cox’s looks and palpable success as a qualified professor and TV science presenter. So Prof Cox’s statement about life and the universe was pretty profound. To understand it you’ll have to watch the Wonders of the Universe programme and CONCENTRATE. I brushed against understanding and some burrs of information stuck to me on the way. I gathered that the odds in favour of disorder or things falling apart vastly outweigh those in favour of order or things magically coming back together again. But I could have told you that based on my experience of household appliances breaking in quick succession in the last few months and their inability to repair themselves without external help i.e. money.

I also learned from Cox that in a random universe that has existed for 14 billion years (long time) there comes a millisecond and a miniscule chance of something like life developing. That moment is now. We are right in the mix, folks, as the most knowing, mobile, communicative species on our planet. The nature of time and overwhelmingly chaotic odds mean we’re all moving towards apocalypse in, did he say, 6 billion years’ time. But for now – and these are my thoughts – we owe it to each other and ourselves to make the best of our lot on this craaaazy world which has been around for about 4 billion years and which can only exist while the sun still shines. Not too hotly.

In other words, our “forefathers” were onto something when they said: “Make hay while the sun shines.” Carpe diem, for those who took Latin at school.

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