Archives for posts with tag: documentaries

Reality TV is, to me, a very broad term that encompasses a lot of different types of show with very different audiences. Even within each sub-genre there are massive contrasts – for example the brash and loud The X Factor lives in the same branch of programmes as the genteel Great British Bake Off, although heaven forbid a fan of the latter should find themselves tied to the former.

The biggest boom in this genre is the observational documentaries. Channel 4 has cornered the market in this with great success. 24 Hours In Police Custody, One Born Every Minute etc., etc., etc. One of my favourites in this genre is the Educating… series. The Yorkshire series was a particular delight, and created accidental heroes and starts out of its participants.

Currently the spotlight is on Cardiff and Willows High School. The opening shots make it look like the entire school is feral, as kids swarm over dinner tables and kick pigeons. Lord of the Flies with tarmac and plastic chairs is the best way to describe it. Yet this is quickly exposed as an unfair picture, as 99% of the time the school appears to be run efficiently with disciplined staff who are able to reign in even the most destructive of teenagers.

Each episode follows roughly the same construction: two kids of the same age but with different problems are followed, as is the teacher who has to manage both of them. In episode 1 these were Leah and Jessica, two Year 11’s on the cusp of adulthood. Leah had a problem with attendance and behaviour. Jessica was the perfect student but had low self-esteem and was baffled by the social aspects of school. Mr. Hennessy, who comes from the old-school of work hard and reap rewards later, was tasked with solving their problems.

There were some heart-breaking moments. After weeks of trying to get through to Leah, Mr. Hennessy received a text from her in which she confessed to all her problems. She didn’t see the point of coming to school because nothing would change where she felt she was heading, which was down. Hennessy’s stony exterior broke as he faced a tough choice: give up on her and let go down the path she was heading, or sacrifice even more of his time and try to rescue her. Meanwhile, Jessica was put in charge of the school newspaper, but internally was flailing as she struggled to handle interacting with other students. As someone who has social phobias myself, I felt for her and wished for the breakthrough she needed.

Balancing this high drama were moments of sheer joy. Both students achieved what they needed to, and the time put in by the staff was rewarded. Leah found that by putting a bit of work in, she could give herself options. Jessica, meanwhile, became confident and happier.

At the centre of this though is a question: to what extent does these programmes reveal the success or failure of a government’s approach to education? Certainly, the successes seem to stem from teachers who are innovative, passionate and dedicated. At no point is the government referenced in what support, if any, they give schools. Is it therefore a clarion call for the government to be more appreciative of the work teachers do, and not make them bend to the whim of the minister who is in charge at the time? Or is it praising the growing independence that the government is introducing in the education sector? Perhaps in order to answer these questions, the show needs to tell the teachers’ stories as well as the students. Or perhaps it’s not meant to answer these questions.


A good observational documentary has at its heart the same ingredients as a work of fiction. Engaging, complex characters, a well-told narrative and the ability to create a variety of emotions in its audience. Educating Yorkshire demonstrates this perfectly, whilst also shedding light on that political football that is the education system. Every aspect of school life has been repeatedly tinkered with by governments and education secretaries prioritising their own ideological agendas over the needs of children for decades, and neither the political left or right can be judged as particularly shining examples.

The producers have chosen not to take a direct political line, but instead spent the first episode telling the story of three particular students, and in doing so perhaps told us more about the realities of childhood today than any manifesto driven programme could. First, Bailey, full of teenage girl swag, wearing several layers of make-up and generally being a bit bolshy. ‘Ugh, how ridiculously dolled-up she looks’ was no doubt everyone’s first reaction. But in a lovely tender moment, she explained to the camera why she painted herself: she was attacked by a dog as a small child leaving her with facial scars. Even in the age before Heat magazine and the like this would have left her feeling awkward, but no this was almost a social death sentence. In an loving cut-away, two teachers discussed Bailey’s issues, showing genuine concern about a lack of inner confidence that could be her undoing. If only that outward energy could be channelled into being a role model for the younger girls instead of being disruptive. Sadly, Bailey’s hopes of being made a prefect were dashed by her own behaviour, that left the viewer wondering if her inner demons would forever lead her to self-sabotage.

Another student facing demons was Kamreem, a mixed-race student who it appeared was never given the right start in life, although the exact details were kept private. Forever butting heads with other students, sometimes literally, he was becoming a regular fixture in the head teacher’s office. His mum seemed a sweet sort who wasn’t entirely sure what to do with him. He broke down in tears when he realised the consequences of weeks of his misbehaviour, but was quick to say no-one ever listened to his side of the story. This wasn’t entirely true it seemed, at least not as regards Mr Mitchell, but again the viewer was left with questions that this documentary couldn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, answer. Who did Kamreem have at home to look up to? More importantly perhaps, should teachers be social workers and child psychologists, stepping in where parents have failed? Would we as a society let them intervene if they were able to?

Amongst these two stories full of shade came a ray of sunshine in Ryan. Sweet, good-natured and a little cheeky in a way that 12-year-olds should be (asking his teacher if she was going through the menopause was the second funniest moment in the show, beaten only by the Head of Year 7 being flummoxed by ‘sexting’.) Like Bailey, he too wanted to be a prefect. His speech came from the heart – like so many of the kids, he only wanted a chance. He wants to become an actor or a policeman, wanting to either entertain or help people. One teacher suggested he could be prime minister. If he does become a politician, I hope he becomes education secretary at some point. Having seen teachers keep going despite being driven to the edge, he is better qualified than anyone else to know what schools need.

There are some genres of television that I watch with trepidation, for instance adaptations of novels I loved, or those highly praised US imports like Damages or Homeland, neither of which I have watched yet for fear of it all going over my tiny little head and sounding like a numpty when discussing it with fans of the shows.

The genre I most fear to watch is TV history. Which is odd, as history is a great love of mine. A well-written article about any era or topic grabs my attention, and if forced to make a list of 10 favourite books at least 3 would be history, most notably Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians. So why do I dodge televised history programmes like the plague?

The reason is consistency. I have missed many a no-doubt-amazing series fronted by Mary Beard or Lucy Worsley after a few traumatic experiences at the hands of other programmes. Because for every series that is impeccably researched and beautifully presented, there seems to be about a dozen dodgy relatives clogging up the schedules. The biggest cardinal sin is the need for mainstream history to be presented by people who aren’t historians, but rather by minor celebs who have a passing interest in a subject and then front a documentary, or a segment on a magazine-type show, about it. Sophie Dahl’s exploration of the life of Mrs. Beeton last year was one example of this. We were distracted from a fascinating biography of one of the most important women in history by Dahl’s insistence on throwing a Victorian dinner party for all her friends. Yet that is a piece of academic virtue compared to shows like Britain’s Hidden Heritage or National Treasures: Live, which seemed to have as its sole aim to make everyone at home go “Oooh, isn’t Britain lovely?” whilst Larry Lamb or Paul Lay dragged us round something-or-other.

So should TV history be left to academics? Well, actually, no. Sometimes, if exactly the right person is picked, you can give a non-academic a challenging brief. Ian Hislop bridges the gap between the two worlds perfectly. This is because, and I think this key to anything to do with history, he has a genuine passion for it. Stiff Upper Lip, exploring how Britain became stoic and unmovable, and if we are beginning to reverse that trend post-Diana, is a wonderful account, with an engaging main narrative and little side-stories. It’s hard to pick one fact of choice, such is the feast we are offered. Maybe that Mary Wollstonecraft’s wish for women to be seen as rational as men was undone by a series of, shall we say, misadventures with men and suicide attempts. That Wellington’s icy nature held Victorian imagination’s more than Nelson’s passion, to the extent where the latter’s dying words had to be changed to prevent him sounding too fey. Or maybe that the fashion for ‘sensibility’ was kicked into touch after a few revolutionaries went a bit mad in France.

There are some quibbles I have. Hislop opened with one of my pet hates, which is vox-poxing the public on the topic. We also had a scene where for some reason he was surrounded by silent schoolchildren, that looked like a boarding school equivalent of Children of the Corn. But these are minor issues in what is otherwise a brilliant programme. I await parts 2 and 3 with expectation, but, rather appropriately considering the topic, a quiet, resolute one.