Big School left me po-faced

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

How did our comedies become so sad? BBC1’s new sitcom Big School (Fridays) opened with a scene that would probably tickle the ribs of many, but I, in my usual humourless way, found it depressing. Chemistry teacher Mr Church, played by David Walliams, hoped to excite his morbidly uninterested pupils about the effects of dunking a bottle of cold liquid nitrogen in warm water by using hundreds of table-tennis balls to dramatise the resultant explosion. But the bell rang, and his students filed out of class radiating boredom and contempt, leaving Mr Church gazing forlornly at a thousand ping-ponging shells.

A similar sense of vulnerability permeated Boom Town, BBC3’s ‘structured reality’ series featuring a host of real-life eccentrics doing eccentric things in partly choreographed set pieces. (There’s a wannabe fashion designer, who tries to sell her dresses made of sanitary pads, a man who thinks he’s a witch, and so on.) A couple — we never really know how aware they are of being made fun of — think they’re terrifically good actors and the camera shows them rehearsing shudderingly amateurish scenes that are made all the more excruciating by the couple’s apparent sincerity. I laughed, but my laughter was hollow.

The sense of bleakness that creeps into these shows is sometimes intentional, sometimes not. Big School belongs to that now-familiar subset of the Comedy of Embarrassment, where people very much like you and me, adults who should know better, are shown making asses of themselves, fumbling in situations such as offering a ride home to the new French mistress in one’s sputtering Austin Maxi. These people are funny not so much because they are stupid or clumsy or evil, but because they are that most terrible of things — uncool.

This is fine as far as it goes, I suppose, but in Big School a complication arises: the series needs to feature minors in the form of secondary-school students. It would be harsh to make fun of young teens, even though these teens do terribly grown-up things, such as sending text messages with photos of their genitalia attached and imbibing hard liquor. They escape detention by bullying hapless teachers. Big School deals with this by involving the schoolchildren as little as possible in the main plotlines, so that they appear only in sequences where their delinquency is used to garner laughs at the expense of the adults. What arises is a show where the kids ride roughshod over clueless grown-ups, where the remorseless light of irony and introspection is shone on the bumbling professors, while the students emerge as unruly but frighteningly hip.

In this way, Big School inadvertently treats pupils the way the state school system is sometimes accused of doing — of mollycoddling, of turning away almost apologetically rather than facing hard facts and enforcing some structure, some rules. Surely setting standards for our disaffected youth (who, by the way, can catch the sitcom at 9 p.m., although they might prefer to consume porn or drugs, or both) would be good for them, in the end?

I know — I’m taking this way too seriously, like a drab, disciplinary teacher. There’ve always been teacher-student funnies where naughty kids emerge triumphant, although to this I would argue that aiming a pebble at your headmaster with a catapult (in a cartoonish way in Beano) is very different from advising your science teacher to send images of his penis to the woman he fancies because all the kids are doing it (in an ‘edgy’ TV programme). Or perhaps this schoolyard dystopia is all part of Big School’s clever message, which I have flatfootedly missed. Or maybe the series plans later to deal with its dysfunctional students in the same way it does with its dysfunctional teachers. All I know is, I saw the first two episodes and, while I chuckled a few times, I was left despondent about certain aspects of the education system. That’s just how uncool I am. I’ve suffered from severe mirth deprivation since birth. My face has always been po.

Moroseness was also high during Boom Town. BBC3 has picked 12 madcap individuals — ‘real’ people, it keeps reminding us — and shows them in situations that are allegedly partly spontaneous, but that look suspiciously well crafted. There’s Roger and Rebecca, ‘Knight Warriors’ who dress up as superheroes to defend Salford; Joel the trainspotter, whose quiet, uneventful sequences contain a not unbeautiful melancholy.

How much are these characters hamming up for the cameras? Are they being exploited or are they exploiting us? Aren’t we the real weirdoes, lolling on the sofa, deriving entertainment by sneering? In such freak shows, the biggest freaks are us. That is the saddest thing of all.

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Show comments
  • Tony Toynton

    Watched the first episode what a load of rubbish I thought it was better suited to CBBC but even that audience would cringe

  • Ellie Holgate

    I thought it was funny. Yes cringing, but all in all a sweet light hearted comedy. These days I only watch one or two English comedies but this I am certainly going to continue viewing. It’s nice to see a slightly different comedy, coming from a slightly different point of view than others on at the moment.

    And can I just say the idea of putting it on CBBC? With all of that foul language is shameful. I feel as an avid fan of comedy tv shows, I can rightly say it is perfectly at home on BBC 1.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Teenagers are, in the main, unhappy, conformist, unpleasant, overweight acne-pitted, remorselessly foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed and mind-bendingly boring. The only thing to be said dor the little gobsh*tes is that they eventually grow out of it.

    • pedestrianblogger

      Some do, some don’t and some make a living out of not growing out of it.

  • RBcritique

    Absolutely spot on. Why is Walliams lauded at all ? He’s never actually made me laugh, except perhaps when he nearly died swimming the Thames, like some self-parody of the pathetic.

  • george

    Or maybe, Ms Tan, you are somewhat intelligent and sensitive, and the shows you are reviewing, which are beneath you, are not.

  • Rod Coe

    The show is terrible. But I just watched two Youtube videos by Dorota and Atonu. They say that Atonu wrote the scripts but BBC Three heavily truncated their scripts and omitted punchlines, thus creating a poor image of their acting skills and no justice to the scripts. Here are the videos:

  • Rod Coe

    This is regarding BBC Three serial Boom Town. I am Atonu Pal
    and my wife is Dorota Lopatynska-de-Slepowron. We both are in Boom Town. We
    have several comments to make.

    The producer is out of touch. The golden rule is to make the
    first episode the most attractive because first impression is the key to
    success and to sustain public interest. Most sadly, the first episode was awful
    because of tasteless vulgarism, obscenity and other crude scenes which were unnecessary
    to make it a comedy. The result was disastrous because both the press and
    public lost interest in the following episodes.

    Regarding our contribution to the series, we were never told
    that it would be a comedy. Had the producers told us that it would be a comedy
    serial, then we could have written one script with multiple episodes, with
    elements of comedy, drama, and suspense to keep the audience interest sustained
    so that people can’t afford to watch the next episodes to find out what will
    happen next?

    Instead, we were told to showcase numerous emotions and we
    wrote multiple scripts for each emotion and the producer had a problem to fit
    them all in this comedy Boom Town. How could a grief scene contribute to any
    comedy? Moreover, they truncated our
    scripts damaging the impact of the script and our acting. We were shocked to
    see several episodes where they tried to make Boom Town a comedy at our
    cost. Boom Town used unprofessional and
    unethical tactics to make us look ridiculous and silly to make people laugh.

    Both camera and lighting was sub standard. Dorota was over-exposed and I was out of the
    camera in many scenes. In the Vampire scene they used my awkward moment of
    handling the Dracula teeth, in the Dirty Dancing scene they showed when our
    dancing was interrupted because of their
    faulty CD, they used all other possible awkward moments during rehearsals – in
    short, we were not aware that they were using our private talks, rehearsals and
    other mistakes to make us look awkward to make it a comedy. This is
    unprofessionalism and this is cheap, bad taste and a crude way to turn sincere
    acting into pieces.

    I wrote the whole script for each scene in Boom Town. But
    they purposely made us look funny by not giving the whole context of the
    scripts and by using the worst moments to put us in bad light. We were directors, actors and script writers.
    We had no idea how we were acting because we were never shown the filming.

    Dorota has many talents including painting and singing. If you are interested, you can interview us
    and you can see Dorota’s personal site at

    Kind regards

    Dr Atonu Pal, PhD