Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Summer Heights High - The Final Reckoning

Last night Summer Heights High (BBC3) reached its triumphant conclusion with a final episode that was everything one could have hoped for and more.
I didn't think anything could eclipse the opening of Mr G's excruciating musical but I was wrong. It was Jonah who stole the final episode, a rare case of an actor upstaging himself since Chris Lilley plays both Mr G and Jonah.

This isn't a show that has mixed pathos with comedy - not until this final episode. The Guardian's Sarah Dempster described Jonah's expulsion as "a masterclass in bitterweet understatement". It was also one of the most heartbreaking things I've seen for a very long time.
This is a bizarre comparison but when Jonah was dragged from the remedial English class it was almost as painful to watch as the scene in Cathy Come Home when Cathy's screaming children are wrested from her by social services. In vain did I tell myself that this was a comedy, that Jonah was a fictional character being played by his comedy actor creator.
I won't give away the ending but Jonah had the last laugh and left his mark on the school all too literally. Good on you, Jonah, one felt and then realised that was, according to every conventional social norm, completely the wrong reaction. Or was it? At one level, behaviour that no "right-thinking citizen" could condone but at another level the triumph of the individual over the rigid and uncomprehending system. So those final shots were strangely moving too, at least to an old anarchist like myself.

All the "behaviour contracts", "pathway programmes", and "extreme behavioural problem student management strategies" had totally failed Jonah. His favourite word was 'bullshit' and he was ultimately swept out of the school and back to Tonga by a tsunami of bullshit.
The only person who could reach him was his remedial English teacher. This was because she liked him and wanted to help him, not change him. When he told her to fuck off she smiled and fucked off.
Not rising to the bait is often the best tactic. When, during my limited experience of teaching, I said that Milton Keynes was the fastest-growing town in Britain, a boy said: "Yeah, they never stop fucking in Milton Keynes!"
I paused for a moment and then said "Yes, that might well have something to do with it." It got a big laugh and seemed to gain me more respect than an angry reaction would have done. (Apart from that, I was not a good teacher and detested it).
There are parts of Summer Heights High that could be used on teacher training programmes. The young, inexperienced mainstream English teacher provides an example of how not to do it. But God, how one feels for the poor woman.

My favourite minor character was the boy who was Mr G's original leading man in the musical. I doubt that we see him for more than 20 seconds in the entire series but he made me laugh as much as anyone.
He's very slightly camp and his performance is stage school cheesy which is probably why he reminded Mr G of a younger version of himself. The brief clips of 'Anything Goes' in the first episode are some of the funniest in the series. Mr G's camp little sideways kicks in "I Get A Kick Out of You" are something to treasure forever. And in those scenes, Matthew is always a couple of seconds behind Mr G's moves. Unfortunately, there's a falling out and Matthew is never seen again, with Mr G telling the other pupils that he was a prick and will never be in any future show.

This might surprise you but I think the brilliance of Chris Lilley's Mr G persona is that it is slightly understated. On the camp-o-meter I would put it at 7 or 8. A less clever actor would have taken it up to 9 or 10 and then it wouldn't have been so believable or effective.
It may be significant that Chris Lilley is straight. It takes both a bad actor and a gay actor to go sickeningly over the top and mince like a turbo-charged sausage machine. (See Sean in Coronation Street).
Like all good actors, Chris Lilley uses his eyes to terrific effect and they seem different with every character. We see less of his eyes in the case of Jonah because like a lot of teenage boys he is usually staring at the ground or looking up resentfully from lowered eyelids. The attention to detail in Chris Lilley's performances is incredible.

The most uncomfortable scenes in a show that often shocked at first viewing were of 16 year old Ja'ime forcing 12 year old Sebastian to be her boyfriend and her date for the Formal. As always with Ja'ime, this was done solely to draw attention to herself. But Sebastian was a small and quiet 12 year old, still in short trousers and Ja'ime, being played by Chris Lilley, was a hulking, predatory Amazon of a girl. The squirm factor went off the scale.
Ja'ime intended to take a lesbian girl to the Formal, again to focus attention on herself, but when the girl discovered Ja'ime wasn't really a lesbian she pulled out. Ja'ime then reverted to Plan A and took a bewildered-looking Sebastian. "I'd rather be a paedophile than a lesbian", she said. I nominate that as one of the most extraordinary comedy lines ever written.

The supporting cast were exceptional. My favourite was Rodney, the science teacher who helped Mr G with the musicals and played the keyboard. He's Mr G's only friend amongst the staff and it seems to be the attraction of opposites.
Rodney seems starstruck by Mr G who treats him as his poodle. I won't say he's Mr G's bitch because there's nothing sexual in the relationship and Rodney is married. But we do learn that Rodney sometimes goes to dinner at Mr G's house and then they watch a DVD together.
Poor put-upon Rodney is the only person in the world who believes that Mr G is "professional industry standard" and has the "triple threat" (can sing, dance and act). Every self-obsessed prima donna needs a Rodney as a willing and self-effacing myrmidon to their fantasies.

When I first wrote about Summer Heights High on the basis of seeing two episodes, I mentioned the double satire on attitudes to the Special Needs kids. But it's actually even more complex than that.
The way that Mr G talks about them is often offensive and it's a bit rich for a gay character to be contrasting them with the 'normal' kids. Yet in another respect he is more egalitarian than the school establishment. He refuses to make any concessions to their disabilities, pooh-poohing the idea that they should be treated any differently and being brutally honest about their shortcomings in performing. "It was your dancing that let you down", he dismissively tells Toby, the boy with Downs Syndrome. (For complicated reaons, Toby eventually ends up in a leading role in the musical. I suspect one of the reasons may be that Mr G does not want anyone as good as, or better than, himself in the show.)

Toby (Danny Alsabbagh) is one of the stars of the series. It's difficult to write the following without sounding patronising but I'll do my best. One of the great things about the series was the way you grew to like Toby as a person on his own terms. You didn't stop noticing his Downs Syndrome because that's an integral part of who he is. But you saw beyond it to a warm person with a sense of humour who was enjoying his role in the show.
There are several remarkable scenes with Mr G and Toby sitting on a bench talking. Some didn't make the final cut but are on the DVD and on YouTube. It's impossible to know how tightly scripted these were and there's always a point where Toby starts chuckling at something Mr G says.
In one, Toby tells Mr G that "Fuck you" is Syrian for "How are you?", something his mother has told him. The opener of the penultimate episode has Mr G talking about bullying and the names, like 'spazz', that Toby gets called. But, as always with Mr G, this is just an excuse to talk about himself and the bullying he endured at school, not least because his real name was 'Helen', "the Greek masculine version of the name."
The propensity of people with Downs Syndrome to throw their arms round people is incorporated as almost a running gag. In one eyebrow-raising scene, Mr G ingenuously demonstrates to the camera the appropriate and the inappropriate ways to touch Toby ("This is fine. This is not fine"). Like much else, it sounds worse in print than it actually is.

A reviewer in The Times (Hugo Rifkind) wrote: "I'm still waiting for a comedian to explain to me when or why laughing at "special" kids in "special" schools became such easy, light-hearted fun". I marvel at the fact that someone so obtuse should be let loose reviewing TV programmes. For at no time have I felt that I was being asked to laugh at Toby or any other of the other special needs kids. I was laughing at a clever and complex portrayal of the muddle we get into when dealing with any kind of difference.
Being 'politically incorrect' for the sake of it and to get an easy laugh is Ricky Gervais' department. Chris Lilley is doing something that is superficially far more shocking but is actually groundbreaking, admirable and thought-provoking - to anyone with half a brain to see it.

I'll end, as I did before, with that super, gorgeous, utterly brilliant tracking shot on the opening titles. Closer inspection reveals two, possibly three, edit points. The jury's still out on the third one. But only purists will object to those. The structure and composition of this shot is damn near perfect (as is the music, written by Chris Lilley. Is there anything he can't do?). It's the flight of steps that lift it into tracking shot heaven.
And guess what? The final episode ended with a reverse angle of the boy running out of the school just to surprise us and bookend the series. To those who appreciate such things, this was another piece of genius.

No, on second thoughts I'll end with the coincidental news that yesterday the King of Tonga announced that he is "voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people". So, as Jonah is despatched back to his homeland he might console himself with the thought that bullshit can sometimes be beaten. Let's hope there's break-dancing (and graffiti) in the streets of Tonga tonight.

For the second time in a fortnight, BBC3 is showing the entire series back-to-back, this time starting at the earlier time of 9.20 pm on Saturday, 2nd August.


At 12:55 PM, Blogger Ranting Teacher said...

I cried a tear for Jonah during this last episode. When we saw him back in his remedial class when he should have been emptying his locker it was just the saddest moment. Not even his final dick-tation made up for what that show did to me at that point!

And you're right, it would be an excellent resource to use on any teacher training course. Here's not how to do it: English teacher. Here's what to do when you stumble across one of the many Jonahs you will encounter during teaching: remedial English teacher.

I was interested to read that the headmistress character is a real headteacher. Also that Chris Lilley is a trained teacher. Can't remember where I saw that; I was probably drunk when I read it. It is the holidays after all. Chin chin!

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

rt: I've watched it twice so I've cried twice, sentimental old fool that I am.

I didn't say anything about the musical: the flying dog and that dreadful line in the finale song, "the smell of life, the smell of children".......

Yes, Chris Lilley was indeed a teacher and he was educated at both a state (public) school and an independent school, which he obviously drew on for Ja'ime.

I read that Jonah's tag has been spotted on the London Underground so maybe he didn't go to Tonga after all!

Have just corrected a mistake in my piece: I used 'both' before a list of three. If you weren't on holiday you could have given me detention.
Anyway, enjoy your holiday.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger Ranting Teacher said...

Oh the flying dog... a cringe moment in a way, because I was gurgling with laughter and somebody walked into the room and saw me laughing out loud at the screen - which appeared to contain just the boy with Down's Syndrome. I didn't know whether I needed to explain myself...

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Fortunately I live alone so my reactions cannot be misinterpreted.

I've worked on West End shows with a lot of flying but I'd never seen a flying dog before. There's probably a law against it in this country. Indeed, had it been made here all the controversy would probably been about cruelty to dogs.

The Guardian Guide said: "The last episode is one of the finest comic half hours to reach British screens in a decade."
Makes my own hyperbole seem quite restrained.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger cello said...

Thanks to you Willie, we recorded the lot on Saturday. Have only watch Ep 1 so far, but it was a joy. Thank God you're out there, finding the relatively hidden treasures on TV.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

cello: like many people I came to it late and was instantly hooked and then had to play catch-up on YouTube, not the best way to watch programmes.

From what I know of you, I think you'll be as moved by the last episode as I was. It was a terrible shock because until that point it had just been comedy.

Use your 'good offices' and connections to get it a BAFTA! There must be a category it could sneak in to.

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Speranza said...

I've come to it even later (DVD as a Christmas present). I work with Jonahs all week, and am often the only person they know who actually likes them.

I cried at the end, but rejoiced at the graffiti.

My God, this man is the genius of understatement. He even managed to understate the theme tune!

My life is better because of this programme. :)

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

speranza: I hope you were given the 3-disc special edition DVD which has about 8 hours of extra footage, including a video of the making of the series. That shows what I always suspected: that Chris Lilley had a big role in the direction although he didn't have a director's credit.
The special edition can be bought through Amazon and is sent from Australia in a few days. It's worth every penny.


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