Tales Out of School on DVD
Tales Out of School is a quartet of plays by David Leland concerned with the role of education in society, and the conflicts between pedagogical approaches that gradually evolved in the wake of the 1944 Education Act. That sounds like a recipe for unimaginable boredom, but in fact the four films that comprise Tales Out of School are compelling, challenging and, at best, downright thrilling pieces of television. The full quartet of films has only been repeated once (on Channel 4 in 1985) since its initial showing two years earlier, and to a large extent the final film, Made in Britain has overshadowed the rest, largely due to the fame of its remarkable director Alan Clarke, and its subsequent repeats and multiple DVD releases. Only now can we finally see Made in Britain in context, among a group of films that were transmitted on Sunday nights on ITV, a fact in itself that takes some swallowing in the current environment where challenging Sunday night drama involves wondering how loudly Trevor Eve is going to shout in tonight’s episode of Waking the Dead.
The films have their genesis in the strange and wonderful turn of events that took place when ATV, the regional television company for the Midlands, went through a traumatic franchise renewal that resulted in its emergence as the renamed Central Television with a new emphasis on the region, and an intent to provide drama that was less enraptured with ITC fantasy worlds and more engaged with social concerns in the local area and the UK. Margaret Matheson, already a veteran of BBC and the Play for Today strand, was made Head of Drama at Central and this led to brief but striking flowering of new drama such as Muck and Brass, Trevor Griffiths’ Oi for England, and, of course, Tales Out of School.
For someone living in the Midlands at the time (like this reviewer), it was as if a bomb had gone off, with the tell-tale new Central ident heralding one great programme after another. Matheson was aided and abetted in her work by Central Director of Programming Charles Denton, another figure who deserves great credit for transforming the output of the company. Ironically, both Matheson and Denton became hate figures to die-hard Crossroads fans, as they blamed the two of them for the sacking of Noele Gordon and thus instigating the long, drawn-out death of the programme. Alternatively, some would say that was all of a piece with Matheson and Denton’s commitment to quality drama.
Birth of a Nation, the first of the films, and the only one set entirely in a school, is directed by Mike Newell who went on, via Four Weddings and a Funeral, to some success in Hollywood. It stars an unfeasibly young-looking Jim Broadbent as Geoff Figg, a recently appointed comprehensive school teacher who sets himself against prevailing teaching methods and, particularly, the schools’s systemic use of corporal punishment. This film made a big impression on those schoolchildren who managed to see it at the time but unsurprisingly their interest was focused on the violence and the pupils’ revolt that flares up at the story’s climax, as well as the scene where Figg tries to teach sex education to his class in a way that will actually engage them. These scenes are still great, and the riot scenes are a bit like If… only without the guns and the posh accents. But the interesting thing about seeing Birth of a Nation again is how unafraid Leland is to open up both sides of the argument, even if it’s obvious where his sympathies lie.
Figg is no wide-eyed idealistic. He has come into teaching and decided to take the fight to the authorities by any means necessary, including leaking the school ‘punishment book’ to the local paper. However, despite his good intentions, he has no long-term commitment to teaching, and when he argues about his course of action to Vic Griffiths (Robert Stephens), the well-meaning veteran teacher, you can feel Leland has some sympathy for the older man who believes that Figg is effectively just a tourist passing through. The tragedy of Griffiths is that through his attempt to achieve change by working within the system he has become part of it, as is vividly illustrated by his almost symbiotic relationship with the giant model of the school timetable.
Both these characters are well-realised but it’s another teacher, Twentyman (Bruce Myers), who lies at the heart of the story. He has taken a different route: his pupils control the direction the class takes; he refuses to test them; and he encourages them to treat the classroom as a place they can bring their enthusiasms. Although stubbornly resisting the headmaster’s attempts to change his methods, he is under no illusions that he will lose out in the end, but unlike Figg, Twentyman is a career teacher and in it for the long haul. Birth of a Nation was a deeply controversial film on first transmission, and it’s still a powerful dramatisation of how rigid educational systems can actively undermine pupils, and it also successfully conveys the violent undercurrent of a time when unemployment was booming and school-leavers were thrown on the scrapheap. But it’s the gentleness of the film that prevails, and the final images are of Twentyman’s classroom and the objects left by past and current pupils which reveal the impact of a good and sensitive teacher.
The second film, Flying into the Wind, starts, like its predecessor, in a school classroom, but here it’s a place from which a young pupil, Laura Wyatt, has to escape. Her violent, almost allergic reaction to the school causes her temporarily to lose her hearing, and as a result of this Laura’s parents eventually decide to educate her at home. Leland uses this initial part of the story to contrast with sudden forward jump of 11 years to the homely, but hardly bucolic, country setting where the parents, Barry (Derrick O’Connor) and Sally (Rynagh O’Grady), are making a meagre living while bringing up both Laura and her younger brother Michael. Much of the rest of the film is concerned with the Education Authority’s attempts to force the Wyatts to have Michael educated in school and the subsequent court case. Ultimately Judge Wood (the wonderful Graham Crowden) visits the Wyatt’s unconventional home to judge Michael’s situation for himself.
The original idea for Tales Out of School arose because Leland knew a real-life couple who were educating their children at home, and so its curious that Flying into the Wind is probably the least successful of the films in dramatic terms as it employs rather heavy-handed symbolism and a somewhat disjointed structure. But it has some wonderful moments, particularly when Michael and his father find a body in the lake because the boy was using a makeshift viewing tube to examine the fish and other creatures. This is Michael’s way of learning, and it continues when he asks the police and a doctor to explain what happens to a body after death. Barry allows his son to see the body of a drowned tramp, and hear the gory details, because like Twentyman in the earlier film he is allowing the child to be educated by letting him follow his interests. As in the other films, Leland refuses to give simple answers, and it isn’t easy for the viewer to decide what would be best for Michael. But the power of the state is generally seen to hinder rather than help, as is epitomised in an earlier disturbing scene where the older Laura, in the witness stand, is forced to prove she can read aloud.
The grim nature of that scene is in keeping with RHINO which is easily the most harrowing of the four films. It tells the story of Angie (Deltha McLeod) who during the film’s opening sequence registers at an even more violent and confrontational school than the one featured in Birth of a Nation before leaving and returning home to look after her brother’s baby daughter. We hear later in the film that Angie was previously a good pupil, and it’s clearly the need to look after the baby that has changed her priorities. This information is filtered through a series of miserably depressing, but brilliantly written scenes involving visits from her Educational Welfare Officer, and grim meetings between the social services and school teachers.
Angie is slowly drawn through the meat mincer of local government, and because of her passivity – she will scarcely engage with the process – there is no escaping her eventual transfer to a secure unit despite her bewildered plea: “If you left me alone I could manage. I don’t understand what you’re trying to do”. Leland doesn’t really have any villains in this piece, just harrassed and worn-out officials, running around to meetings and ending up showing more concern about whether or not there’s a parking space than the care of the child. RHINO stands for “Really Here in Name Only” and Angie’s passivity makes her at times feel like an absent character, although her one act of defiance leaves her humiliated and completely vulnerable. It’s an amazing but gruelling piece of drama, which you probably won’t want to watch too often.
What’s immediately striking about the final film, Made in Britain, is its similarity to RHINO. In one of the extras accompanying this set Leland described the two films as “twin stars” but while it’s true that the two main characters follow the same trajectory, Trevor is the opposite of Angie. He may end up in the same place, but he makes a point of getting a reaction from everyone he encounters on his way down. So many things have been written about Alan Clarke’s direction and Tim Roth’s performance over the years that further comment is almost redundant, but despite the familiarity and the passing of time Made in Britain is still a very uncomfortable film to watch.
It’s almost impossible at times not to root for Trevor – his energy and his “sod you” approach to the job centre are compelling – but then his poisonous racist diatribes make you almost physically recoil. Few people were indifferent to Trevor – in The Times the day after transmission, Dennis Hackett commented “He [Trevor] rejected us all and that was the message. I reject him – and that’s mine.” – and Trevor’s capacity to get a reaction is as strong now as on the day he made his entrance. Leland is unapologetic about the ambivalence of Trevor’s character and actions. He firmly states in the extras that “it’s for the viewer to sort out the contradictions” and there are enough contradictions in Made in Britain to have kept it burning brightly for nearly 30 years. The celebrated scene where the Superintendent (in a magnificent cameo from Geoffrey Hutchings) sketches out Trevor’s future on a blackboard is emblematic of Tales Out of School as a whole: individuals trapped in a closed system; making choices that lead down a predetermined route; and there’s no escape.
This release is magnificent enough on the strength of the main features which are available to buy on either Blu-ray or DVD formats, but Network have also made two accompanying extras which feature on both sets: ‘Digging for Britain” is predominantly about Alan Clarke and the making of Made in Britain; and ‘Twice Told Tales’ which is an overview of Leland’s interest in education and the genesis of Tales Out of School. There’s also a characteristically well-written and comprehensive booklet by Dave Rolinson which tells you everything else you need to know about the creation and transmission of the four films. Additionally, there’s a photo gallery of shots from the final, unused scene of Made in Britain. It’s great to see this, but it’s hard to see how it could have improved on the transmitted ending. That final shot of Trevor, with his unreadable expression, is far more haunting and memorable.
Tales Out of School is a welcome reminder of a miraculous time. Leland recounts in “Twice Told Tales” that Margaret Matheson called him up one night because she was interested in commissioning a drama about education. After a couple of hours conversation she commissioned Tales Out of School – six hours of peak-time ITV drama on a Sunday night. When Leland expressed his concerns that the content would make the films unbroadcastable, Matheson simply said “It’s your job to write it; it’s my job to get it shown”. Think of it: an individual writer given the freedom to express himself at length on a difficult subject and see the results on screen without a two year interval for filming, compliance and sixteen rewrites by diverse hands. This is why television was better back then.
Tales Out of School is available from Network on Blu-Ray and DVD