17 August 2002 | alanbriscoe
Learning To Laugh
Normally the words "ITV sit-com" are enough to strike fear into viewers. However in the past ITV did produce some good comedies and this is one of them. It is not a great one but it was very entertaining and deserves more recognition.
It is one of very few sit-coms to have been set in a school. Like all sit-coms though, the situation isn't that important - the humour comes from the characters and their relationships, although the school setting provides a nice variation from the usual domestic comedies. It follows the travails of a group of extremely mature-looking fifth-formers and their hard-pressed teachers.
The pupils are a motley bunch: the dominant Eric Duffy; tarty Sharon; slow-witted but endearing Dennis; cocky Peter Craven; god-fearing Maureen who has a crush on the teacher; and fantasist Frankie Abbott. They are the nucleus of the "class from Hell" 5C - most of whom silently sit in the background. However they all have hearts of gold and their behaviour is surprisingly good - certainly comparing well to what many real students and teachers experience. They are lovable rogues. All work well from a comic viewpoint with the exception, I feel, of Dennis where the humour seems to rest almost entirely on his stupidity. All the actors are clearly well beyond school age, and could easily have been playing teachers!
Much of the success of the series lies with the staff characters. John Alderton played the central character of Bernard Hedges, teacher of 5C. While apparently mild-mannered, he actually has few problems managing his class and has a good relationship with them. However his indecisiveness and determination to stick up for his pupils often leads him into humorous scrapes.
He has often fractious relationships with the Head Mr. Cromwell (Noel Howlett) and Deputy Doris Ewell (Joan Sanderson). These are tremendous characters and splendidly played. The Head is quite out-of-touch, a misguided liberal, pretentious but capable of engaging in quite juvenile behaviour. Miss Yuell is a haughty disciplinarian whose harsh exterior only relents in the presence of the Head, with whom she is infatuated. Joan Sanderson often played such roles, and always to perfection.
Price (Richard Davies) is another superb figure - a cynical, sarcastic professional Welshman with little affection for teaching but great affection for beer. Again a great acting performance. Finally there is the doddering, ancient Mr. Smith, devoted to his wife and again capable of some very juvenile behaviour, usually in his conflicts with the Head. The interplay between all these is very funny.
However for many viewers the favourite staff member was Mr. Potter, the caretaker (Deryck Guyler). Potter was an ex-soldier, obsessed with the war, with ideas above his station. He as constantly at odds with everyone in the school except the Head. He received his deserved come-uppance regularly in the series.
Obviously the show is of its time, and not just in the fashions such as the remarkably short skirts. Some of the humour might be seen as very innocent in today's more cynical age. The language used was quite strong for its time, but still acceptable to a family audience. It would seem very tame by today's standards. There are some occasions when the show borders on the politically incorrect. However the show stands up much better than many others from that period and the 1970s. For example in one episode an Indian student joins the class. Typically for the time he is played by a white actor and wears stereotypical Indian dress. However he is shown to be intelligent, polite and articulate, with committed parents. His classmates avoid the prejudice of their parents. Liberal ideas generally are given a sympathetic airing, particularly by Hedges. They are though less effectively expressed by the bumbling Head. "I would rather resign than be forceful," is one example.
The show avoided becoming a one-joke, innuendo-laden affair unlike many others. The humour chiefly comes from defective people, defective relationships and defective situations, as most comedy does. The show still lives on, in video format and also on satellite channels. It is well-worth checking out, whether you remember it originally or, like me, are of a younger but curious generation. I feel you will be pleasantly surprised, and satisfactorily entertained.