Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Class of Miss MacMichael (1979)

The Class of Miss MacMichael the third and final film to feature the pairing of Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed (following Women In Love and The Triple Echo) is a deeply flawed, muddled affair that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be and ends up being rather a mess. 

The story depicts the efforts and different approaches of the teaching staff at an approved school full of rowdy delinquents in innercity London in the late 1970s. Glenda Jackson is our titular heroine Miss MacMichael, a rather frumpy committed educator who is happy to share the jokes and laugh along with her disruptive pupils rather than curb or at least manage their ill behaviour. Quite why she is so respected by her charges is a mystery to me and the film makes no effort in explaining either. It's all very strange as she just comes across as a wet ineffectual type who such kids would run rings around and make just as much fun of in normal circumstances. Her style of teaching, or rather her opinion of the kids given we see precious little teaching, is markedly different to the school's head, Mr Sutton, a haughty martinet played by Oliver Reed, largely several yards over the top. 

The general consensus in any review seems to be that Reed's broad playing is so farcical that it scuppers the film, but to be honest I'm not sure that criticism is all that correct - and tellingly, in his autobiography Class Actor, Phil Daniels claims that though it was clear for all to see Reed was determined to clownishly mug for all his worth during filming on reflection today he thinks he likely had the right idea for this material. Some would have you believe that The Class of Miss MacMichael was an earnest attempt to depict the harsh realities of reform school and that the reason why it was not a success was because Reed refused to play it straight, but in all honesty this film from director Silvio Narizzano seems to have precious little interest in realism and plays more like a very juvenile broad comedy, a vibe that is enhanced with the jolly score from Stanley Myers and the pranks the kids play. This tone is also evident in the US posters (seen at the top of this review and below this paragraph) which claim it "Makes Kotter and his sweathogs look like kindergarten", a reference to the US sitcom of the time, Welcome Back Kotter, which means nothing to me and perhaps nothing to UK audiences. 

It's also interesting to note how, at the time, Miss MacMichael's style was seen as liberal whilst Mr Sutton's was seen as boorish and discipline heavy, because in many ways the latter's determination to keep a difficult child with learning difficulties and arrested development at the school can be seen, rightly or wrongly, as a progressive and before its time attempt at the inclusion strategy and much more open minded than MacMichael etc's belief that the child should be taken to a mental institution. And is there really anything to benefit from letting problem children run riot, drink, smoke, have sex and take drugs in school, - which is what Miss MacMichael does? As Martin her American boyfriend says at one point, being a pushover to the kids isn't really helping them.

They may be singing from different hymn sheets here but Reed and Jackson are really the only main characters of any interest here and let's face it, even when they're not at their best they are the kind of actors you struggle to take your eyes off. The film was made in the UK but funded by America which perhaps explains the presence of Michael Murphy as MacMichael's aforementioned whiny, wine swilling middle class American boyfriend and Rosalind Cash as her colleague and best friend, a teacher from America. Both are terrible, dull and an ill fit in these surroundings. Perhaps the best enjoyment that could be had here is spotting young actors like Phil Daniels, Perry Benson, Patrick Murray (Only Fools and Horses Mickey Pearce) and Gabrielle Glaister (Blackadder's Bob) to name but a few, whilst Daniels' band Renoir play over the credits. 

Overall, this is the kind of turkey that leaves you frustrated and wondering what on earth they were thinking at each and every turn. Perhaps it's best viewed not as a To Sir, With Love or a Grange Hill and more as Carry On (Reform School) Teacher!


  1. Glenda Jackson. The War Rani. http://solanas.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/an-alternate-history-of-female.html #DoctorWho #TheRani

    1. Haha! Great line up. I'm a big fan of most of those you name, inc Diana Rigg and Daniela Nardini. I'd like to suggest Pauline Melville actually, she'd have been great against McCoy!