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This Week in British TV: "Jamie's Dream School," "South Riding," "Friday Night Dinner"

By Caspar Salmon | TV | March 11, 2011 |

By Caspar Salmon | TV | March 11, 2011 |

Spoiler alert: I’ve got a killer segue lined up for the transition from “Jamie’s Dream School” to “South Riding”! You’re going to love it. That being said, on to the programmes.

Jamie’s Dream School


The prog that everyone’s talking about right now in Britain is “Jamie’s Dream School”, a title that puts the ‘moron’ in ‘oxymoron’. Indeed, the weird establishment staffed by celebrities for drop-out students, under the watchful eye of the Naked Chef himself, is so far from being a dream school that I caught myself humming ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ halfway through the first episode.

So the idea of “Dream School” is that Jamie Oliver, drawing on the experience that saw him revolutionise school dinners for ten minutes back in 2005, gets some cool slebs to sort out the youngsters and inspire them and turn their lives around, or something like that. So he has David Starkey, the famous(ly pompous and creepy) historian, giving history lessons, and Simon Callow teaching English, and - er - well, that certainly looks like McNulty in the promo pic, but I’ve watched two episodes so far and he hasn’t shown up. What’s he going to teach? And what’s Cherie Blair going to learn ‘em when she turns up? Please, let it be PR. Gosh, the kids are going to hate her. That’s going to be a treat.

The kids, whom I’ve quite warmed to, seem to hate or be bemused by pretty much everyone. The whole idea of the exercise appears to be to get celebrities to inspire the youth, but the youth have never heard of any of these people. Did Oliver expect the kids to rise to their feet in unison with a beatific grin and scream, “OMG, the guy from Four Weddings! He’s going to teach us about Shakespeare?!” As for David Starkey - the show’s break-out star, for he has somehow revealed himself to be even more of a prick than anyone had imagined, which makes for excellent car-crash TV - well, the children treat him like a slightly sad and bizarre alien who must be humoured and pitied and occasionally upbraided. In the first episode, Starkey called one of the kids fat in what was perhaps an ill-judged attempt at street-style braggadocio. This went down badly. Then this week, he reappeared in order to assert once more his adorable view that everyone who is not himself is a disgusting little oik who should be shot at dawn, and to have another stab at drumming some sense and knowledge into these kids’ thick, rude skulls.

David Starkey has to be seen to be believed: with his Mozart-like comb-over and small piggy eyes behind tiny tortoiseshell glasses, he looks like an exact cross between a badger and Uncle Monty from Withnail and I. Which is fine, because he is not a model but a historian who knows his shit (although I despise his arch-royalist take on history) - but dude shouldn’t have strayed into name-calling with looks like that. His second lesson was a bit more friendly, but I wish he’d stuck to his guns and decided to base the class on insults - except insults drawing on historical examples, like, I don’t know, “Yo mama so old, she signed signed the Magna Carta in 1215”, or “Yo mama so fat, the guillotine would’ve bounced right off her neck if she had been a Jacobin in the French Revolution, know what I’m saying?”, or “Yo mama so stupid, she thought the Hundred Years War actually lasted a hundred years and shit, ‘stead of being a series of battles over an extended period of, like, time.”

Anyway, the whole programme is a bit silly and no-one can or should take it seriously, beyond the point that it makes about certain young people being seriously disaffected. Why anyone thought celebrities would magically succeed with their miraculous aura of fame, where hard-working and qualified teachers had struggled, I have no idea. And what sort of ‘school’ is this, anyway? What’s going to happen to the students afterwards? Why the heck is Jamie Oliver even remotely the right figurehead for something like this? I found it very frustrating, and was saddened - particularly so since I come from a long dynasty of teachers - to see teaching so belittled. Not everyone can do it. It’s hard. Now back off.

South Riding

SOUth riding.jpg

“South Riding” is also set in a school. See? What did I tell you about my magnificent segue! As I have said before, knock my views as much as you like, but boy oh boy can I ever pinpoint a theme.

Warning: actual spoilers ahead. I usually mention spoilers only as a joke, but I just can’t discuss the programme at all without mentioning the story, so if you give a nun’s fart about Andrew Davies’s latest programme, look away now. Anyway, “South Riding” wrapped up over the weekend, with a third episode in a somewhat hurried series closing off the story of the headteacher Sarah Burton (played by Anna Maxwell Martin) and her ill-fated passion for local rapist David Morrissey. I had been upset in episode 2 to learn of the sex crime committed by his character, Robert Carne, and see that he was seemingly not going to be meted out narrative punishment for the rape of his wife. In episode 3, he died in a landslide - fair enough - but it was still treated as a hero’s death, whereas I would rather have seen him repent for his past or have his nastier character revealed in some way.

Meanwhile, the winsome Douglas Henshall declared his love for Sarah in a brilliantly Scottish moment during which he actually said “och”. I think his words were, “Och wum’n, cannae ye see I lovv yu?”, or something like that. Why she didn’t fall for it, god only knows; perhaps because she was still grieving for the brooding rapist, played by that man who really shouldn’t have appeared in Basic Instinct 2. None of it made much sense.

Overall the series wasn’t too bad, with some rather fine acting by almost everyone, a nice line in feminism, decent production values and a fairly interesting story with glaring parallels to our own times - but it was also a little heavy-handed at times, burdened with a diabolical score, and as rushed as Rush Limbaugh on speed.

Friday Night Dinner

friday night dinner.jpg

And so to “Friday Night Dinner”, which will have to do without a segue today, unless it would suddenly like to turn into a programme set in a school. Would you like to turn into a programme set in a school, “Friday Night Dinner”? Would you? Thought not. No segue for you.

I’m sad about “Friday Night Dinner”, because I am besotted with Robert Popper, its creator, and had hoped that he might write something a little more fresh and original than this rather standard-issue family comedy. In a blatant rip-off of Simon Amstell’s “Grandma’s House” from last year, the prog is about two young people who go home to their eccentric Jewish parents in North London on a Friday night every week for a family meal, only for shenanigans to predictably ensue. The premise is already not especially rewarding, but Popper - the genius creator of “The Timewaster Letters”, a book I found so horrifyingly, chokingly, brain-meltingly hilarious that I nearly gave myself a breakdown reading it on public transport and trying not to scream with laughter - still doesn’t milk it to its full potential, giving us a slightly uptight mother character, an eccentric dad, and two sons who call each other things like “pus-face” and send each other prank texts from their mother’s mobile. I know.

The worst thing is that the talent is so wasted. They’ve got Tamsin Greig (who, although I love her, is spreading herself a little thin right now) and the rather marvellous Paul Ritter - but they don’t feel at ease in this show, and something about everyone’s timing and phrasing seems a little off. Mark Heap from “Spaced” is also in it! For goodness’ sake! But the main kid is played by the annoying one from “The Inbetweeners” and I find him smug and unlikable as ever. The whole thing has a really flat, stagey aesthetic, and is struggling to find its comedy voice, alternating between a slow, spacey vibe and attempts at slick modernity. It needs to delve far deeper into Popper’s weird, absurd, dark imagination and forget this silly comedy of manners rubbish immediately.

Caspar Salmon didn’t especially enjoy the Charlie Sheen show, and was therefore glad to see Spider Man The Musical claw back some shameful limelight this week with the hilarious sacking of its arch-perpetrator Julie Taymor. Long may it flounder!

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.