Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Summer Heights High

Like many people I was amazed to read of the furore in Australia over Gordon Ramsay swearing in his TV show. I thought that Australians could swear for the Commonwealth. I'm even more amazed now that I've belatedly discovered the Australian comedy series Summer Heights High (BBC3) which has a fuck count only equalled by the British comedy The Thick Of It (which is returning. Praise be!). Moreover, Summer Heights High is a mock-doc set in a real school with real school kids as the supporting cast. Maybe the edginess of the humour overshadowed the swearing.

I've always loved the mock-doc as a comedy genre and, contrary to common belief, it wasn't invented by Fatty Gervais. And Summer Heights is up there with the best.
The three central characters are played by writer Chris Lilley: Mr G, the camp drama teacher; Jonah, the 13 year old bad boy; and Ja'ime, a bitchy girl student on an exchange from a private school.

This is a rare case where the term 'satirical' can accurately be applied to a comedy. One of the things it brilliantly satirises is the way that the global bullshit industry has invaded education as depressingly as every other aspect of life.
The school has a 'Peer Mediation Facilitator', a title that I'm sure exists in many schools today, and the mediation works wonderfully up to the point where the students leave the room and resume hurling abuse at each other.
One of the teachers proudly tells us that he's just been on a weekend course in Extreme Behavioural Problem Student Management and immediately implements a mentoring scheme involving Jonah and his gang. The outcome is that the little Year 7 boys that Jonah and friends are mentoring soon appear at the swimming gala with erect penises drawn on their backs.

In the first episode I saw, a female teacher said to Jonah and his friends "what are you doing?" Jonah replies: "Stop fucking perving at us, Miss."
So Grange Hill it isn't. But, to be fair, he did call her 'Miss'.
Jonah has been given a 'contract' to moderate his behaviour. A teacher enthusiastically explains that Jonah drew up the contract himself so "if he breaks the rules, he's only breaking his own rules." This misses the point that Jonah doesn't care whose fucking rules he's breaking because if he obeyed any rules at all that would make him a fucking homo.

A sequence that had me crying with laughter was about sexual abuse. Not a sentence I ever thought I'd write. But there was no actual abuse, just a joke that went too far.
Jonah leaves in the art room an explicit drawing of his father touching him in an inappropriate way (as they say). The art teacher calls him in for a chat. Soon the whole apparatus of child protection policies is activated.
Jonah and his father are called in for a meeting with two teachers. The drawing is produced and the allegation put. There's an explosion of incredulity from Jonah's innocent but brutish father: "What the fuck are you talking about? Why would I want to touch his genitals?........I didn't fucking touch his fucking dick, you fuck!"
When Jonah admits he invented the story, the teachers take a familiar tack: "If your Dad is making you lie, you have to know that there are people who will listen to you."
With the father's innocence finally accepted, Jonah, with a degree of chutzpah that only a teenage boy could summon up, says: "You should apologise to my Dad."
The teachers offer his Dad a cup of tea.
"Stick your fucking cup of tea up your arse!" says his Dad.
Despite his track record for this kind of thing, the possibility that Jonah had invented this for a laugh was never considered. Maybe that's more sensible than automatically believing the adult. My point is that, below the surface hilarity, this is intelligent, insightful comedy.

And so to Mr G the drama teacher (pictured) and his production of the school musical.
Whilst a camp, gay drama teacher may not be a very original idea, he's the most entertaining character, brilliantly written and portrayed by Chris Lilley.
One theme is Mr G's determination to keep the disabled and special needs kids out of his musical. Some of this stuff made me gasp. Here he is complaining about the "special needs nightmares" to another teacher:
"They've had a life of not being good enough. Surely they know it by now............wheelchairs, we're screwed because we'd have to build ramps. Although some of the non-wheelchair ones aren't exactly easy on the eye."

The programme includes two Downs Syndrome boys who are the butt of some of these remarks. One small detail I missed on a first viewing was when a second Downs boy was brought into the rehearsals the first Downs boy walked across and high-fived him. That was both funny and touching. (Like all good comedy, there's more rich detail than you can absorb in one viewing).

Mr G is more than a one-dimesional stereotype because beneath his camp, fluffy, genial exterior beats a heart of pure evil. In his determination to get the Special Needs unit closed down, he plants one of his own turds in the unit in the hope it will be shut on health and safety grounds.

When you've both stopped laughing and recovered from the shock of some of this material, there are some interesting points to ponder.
For there's an ambiguity about what is being satirised here. Is it Mr G's blatant discrimination against the special needs kids or is it the egalitarian dogma that these kids should be included in the musical even if they can't act, sing or dance?
Number 3 in this multiple choice question is: is it satirising both simultaneously? I think the answer is (3) and that's no mean feat.

Apparently, some schoolkids in Australia have been copying the language and behaviour in the series. That's inevitable and if you worried about that you would never write comedy at all. The important point is that the series is based on real-life behaviour and some kids in turn adopt phrases from the series. It's a circular process. It's most unlikely to have taught them anything new. And my researches on the web show that many teachers both in Australia and here adore the series.

I can't conclude without mentioning the wonderful tracking shot on the opening titles. I have a 'filmic fetish' about tracking shots. I absolutely adore them. I will watch some movies on TV just to see a particular tracking shot. Then I switch them off. 'Rita, Sue and Bob Too' is a grubby film that has a fabulous one near the beginning (1986, Dir: Alan Clarke, master of the tracking shot). Somebody please release a DVD of the greatest tracking shots. (Yes, I'm as mad as cheese, but you knew that already).

Summer Heights High continues on BBC3 and on the BBC iPlayer. There are some video clips on the Australian ABC website, plastered in warning messages about content.
I think there's a clip on YouTube of Mr G sniffing the pupils. It's not as bad as it sounds. Well, not quite.


At 8:13 PM, Blogger Vicus Scurra said...

Bugger - looks as if I have found something I ought to watch. Do I have to start at the beginning, or can I join in and get the drift?

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

vicus: I missed the first three episodes myself, so you can easily pick it up.
The most recent one is repeated at 12.30am tonight on BBC3 and the one before that may still be on the iPlayer, which I'm lucky enough to get on my TV through cable.

I owe an apology to Mr G for calling him a drama teacher. He is, of course, Director of Performing Arts.
Two of his acerbic comments in the dance rehearsals:
To a black boy: I thought black people were supposed to have rhythm.
To a fat girl: don't let your weight drag you down, sweetheart.

You may not like it. But then you'll be in the company of the Daily Express critic and you wouldn't want that, would you?

At 2:12 PM, Blogger mike said...

OK, I'm sold. That sounds great.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

mike: there's a danger in writing such pieces that you raise people's expectations to an unrealistic level. But if some bits are less successful than others, there are plenty that are pure gold.

There are actually 40 clips on YouTube, including all of Episode 1

At 8:37 AM, Blogger Ranting Teacher said...

I absolutely love this show. Jonah is my favourite character, although Mr G "adding drama" to fire drill procedures by varying the emergency ("Quick, evacuate the rooms, there's a paedo in here") had me crying with laughter.

Puck you, sir.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Mr G's evacuation drills is one of the clips I often watch on YouTube. But it always leaves me a gibbering wreck.

Jonah is stupid but lacking in any real malice, unlike the self-obsessed Jai'me and Mr G.
And I love the way the teachers and the pupils seem to be living in different, parallel worlds.

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At 5:33 AM, Blogger Lieutenant Caligari said...

Stick your fucking cup of tea, up your ass!

I cannot remember the last time, I laughed so much... I was actually in tears... I had no option but to replay the scene, record it on my cell phone & send it too multiple ppl lol

Funny thing is, the bloke saying it sounds like my dad hahahaha


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