Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Theme Time : Belle and Sebastian - Teachers

So my bedtime viewing for this past month or so has been Teachers, the Channel 4 comedy drama that ran for four series from 2001 to 2004 and starred, amongst others, Andrew Lincoln, Adrian Bower, Navin Choudhry, Raquel Cassidy, and Nina Sosanya (pictured below)  

This has been an enjoyable way to spend an evening as Teachers was a series that pretty much passed me by at the time. Being in my early twenties at the turn of the century meant I was out more nights than I was in. I do vaguely recall catching some of the first series, but at the time I found it to be a pale imitation of Andrew Lincoln's previous hit series This Life (which I loved) like it was just 'Egg Becomes a Teacher' and promptly didn't bother with any further episodes.

Watching it back, my opinion hasn't changed all that much about the first series. Aside from sharing a leading man, the show was also executive produced by This Life's Jane Fallon (Ricky Gervais' other half) and shared much of that series comedy/drama balance in its depiction of twenty-something's, on the first step of the ladder career wise, juggling their lives and loves. Much of the debut season rests on Lincoln's shoulders; he plays probationary English teacher Simon Casey, a teacher more interested in impressing his unruly pupils than he is actually teaching them anything. He's a teacher simply because he hasn't figured what else he could possibly do with his degree. He's still living at home with his dad, who is about to remarry his attractive younger girlfriend and spends too much time down the pub with his mates, PE teacher Brian (Bower) IT teacher Kurt (Choudhry) and Psychology teacher Susan (Cassidy) lusting after chilly English colleague Jenny (Sosanya) even though he has a sensible girlfriend at home, WPC Maggie (Zoe Telford) 

Things improved in the second season, with the show finding its identity more. For a start, it realised that although the show was called Teachers it needn't actually be about teaching, so out went the focus on the schoolkids that featured throughout the first series (actors like Kara Tointon, Phoebe Thomas and the irritating James Corden had all appeared in Simon's English class, and would go on to bigger things immediately after leaving) as the show concentrated fully on the core ensemble which was beginning to grow; joining Simon, Brian, Kurt and Susan in this second season were new probationers JP (Shaun Evans) a confident young gay man from Liverpool, and Penny (Tamzin Malleson) a beautiful but deeply manipulative character who it soon becomes clear trades on her looks to get anything she wants. In this series Jenny also became part of the group, rather than an outsider who stirred conflicting emotions in man-child Simon, and other characters such as demon headmistress Claire (Gillian Bevan), the dragon-like secretary Liz (Ellen Thomas) her incomprehensible boss-eyed sidekick Carol (Ursula Holden-Gill) and the pathetic head of English Bob (Lloyd Maguire) also began to have more to do. The show became much less straighter, and altogether more stranger with surreal sightgags such as a donkey wandering the school corridors without explanation, or a band of dwarf dinner ladies manning the canteen. Towards the end of the series, Simon left to go travelling which saw James Lance's Matt arrive to replace him and instantly begin an affair with Penny, behind his wife's back.

On paper, you'd expect the third series not to work. Not only have you lost your leading man in Andrew Lincoln, but between the end of the second series and the start of this third one, Raquel Cassidy, Nina Sosanya and Shaun Evans had also jumped ship, with no explanation made as to where their characters had gone. Cassidy's leaving was especially troubling as Susan was the patient glue of our little band. However, in came Vicky Hall as biology teacher Lindsay, a girl who could outdrink and outbelch what was fast becoming the best comedic double act on TV, Kurt and Brian.


Yet for me, the third series is actually the most enjoyable of the show, though that's not to say it isn't without its faults and I do seem to be in a minority here as a lot of people online seem to claim things went downhill from series three onwards. It does seem a little uncertain in whether or not it should place too much emphasis on Kurt and Brian, as the last remaining characters from the original gang, the series brings the likes of Bob, Liz, Carol and Claire even more to the fore, with mixed results. There's just something wrong about seeing our little group now including the likes of sad Bob (now dumped by his wife in favour of the satellite installation man) or Liz and Carol, down the pub. The whole point of Teachers in that first series was this was a little clique who viewed themselves as the misfit outsiders to the rest of the school, embracing these other secondary characters betrays that original purpose. I particular had trouble with Liz, a loathsome character who was downright awful to so many people yet never gets any comeuppance whatsoever, whereas Bob reminded me of the kind of tragic middle aged bloke I used to work with in the civil service at the time, who desperately wanted to reclaim some of his youth and inveigle his way into a much younger set. 

What really does work though is the fact that this ensemble is actually even stronger than the original team. James Lance and Vicky Hall are inspired additions and the latter teaching Tamzin Malleson's character the error of her ways, rehabilitates Penny enough to allow her to take her place in the gang. Her affair with Lance's Matt peters out rather early on, and over the thirteen episodes something slowly develops between Matt and Lindsay that culminates in the pair realising they have feelings for one another in the last episode.

But the real triumph in this third season is Kurt and Brian, the most sexually frustrated men in Bristol - and possibly the whole of the UK! In the hands of Bower and Choudhry, these characters transcend the Men Behaving Badly like trappings lesser actors could have contentedly and successfully mined  to approach something akin to the most glorious of double acts like Morecambe and Wise or Laurel and Hardy. They're both loveable idiots (though they'd probably be much less loveable in reality - Kurt especially!) but they never seem totally aware of how idiotic they are, with Kurt in particular being totally oblivious to his own faults and flaws.

Even Simon comes back for three episodes, and it still works, with Andrew Lincoln also appearing behind the camera as a director for some of the best episodes later in the series. OK, it's far more outlandish and more sitcommy than the comedy drama of series one, but I still think it's the most enjoyable of the lot.

When I bought the DVDs a couple of years ago (and yes, I've only just got round to marathon-watch them) I actually only thought Teachers ran for three series, so imagine my surprise only yesterday when glancing through the All4 boxsets on my Sky+, I saw that there was actually a fourth series too. How did I not realise this? 

Maybe I shouldn't have?

I should point out that at the time of writing, I haven't actually watched any of this fourth and final season. But I have heard a fair bit about it online. Many view it as a mistake and a disappointment and cite one more cast reshuffle as the reason why this flopped. Certainly Channel 4 do, claiming the changes saw viewers turn off, leading to the low ratings that saw the show get axed and the channel perhaps push all its resources into Teachers most likely successor Green Wing, which made its debut the following year.

I have no idea why Adrian Bower, Navin Choudhry and James Lance decided not to return to the series after the third season, but to write them out in the opening moments as having died in a car crash strikes me as being particularly bitter (ETA: I've just watched the opening scene which sees Lindsay, Bob and Penny visit their graves and proceed to urinate on them! What the fuck?! OK Penny doesn't want to piss on Kurt's grave, despite Lindsay pointing out 'he'd've loved that' which is quite amusing, but it's still a deeply wrong scene that makes me think the production had issues with the three actors leaving). Losing the inspired double act at the heart of the previous three seasons is always going to hurt, but losing James Lance's suave and devillish Matt, just when he realised his unlikely love for Lindsay, throws away everything that series three worked towards. 

The setting for the series also changed for this final run, with the school having merged with another in the area. Joining the cast are Lee Williams as English teacher Ewan, Daon Broni as Food tech teacher Damien and Matthew Horne as RE teacher Ben, leaving Lindsay and Penny as are only link to the past. I've read that Bob becomes even more central to this series, becoming even more tragic in his attempts to be young and rejuvenate his life, taking to wearing a toupee and ordering a Thai mail order bride, Ping. 

I will watch the fourth season for completist's sake, and because I really like the characters of Lindsay and Penny, but I'm going in with very low expectations. It's a real shame the series didn't just end on the high of the final episode of series three, directed by none other than Andrew Lincoln.

The theme tune was an instrumental stretch from The Boy With The Arab Strap by Belle & Sebastian - beautiful song....

Of the three DVD's I have each has an amusing Making of featurette of each series, which suggests a very happy team behind the scenes.

And if you have Sky boxsets, you can download series 1 to 4 now.

1 comment:

  1. Oh dear. I watched the first episode of series 4 last night and I don't know if I have the will in me to watch the rest. It was just lamentable and terribly ill conceived. The new characters have zero personality and placing Bob front and centre makes it a completely different show. It wouldn't be a particularly bad idea to explore the mid life crisis of a foul mouthed sad desperate middle aged teacher, but it just isn't what Teachers is about and surely takes it away from its previous 20-30something demographic? I actually recall now either catching a few minutes of one of these eps back in 2004 or at least reading about it in the Radio Times or something and being totally surprised at seeing Lloyd Maguire essentially fronting the show now. It's just another example of how a show should call it a day when the majority of its original and much loved cast members up sticks and leave.