BBC Radio 4, 4 June, 2.30-4.00
It is the “little platoons”, according to the 18th-century political theorist Edmund Burke, that form “the first link in the series from which we proceed towards a love of our country and mankind” - and so make up David Cameron’s “Big Society”. Steve Waters’ painfully sharp satire on educational policy and middle-class angst premiered at the Bush Theatre in London earlier this year. Jeremy Mortimer has now adapted it with the same cast for Radio 4.
Rachel de Witt’s partner Martin may have left her and “found refuge in the arms of a sexy young lawyer”, but they are united in pursuing every ruse to secure their 12-year-old son’s educational future. Whether that means coming up with a “sob story about Sam’s overlooked special educational needs”, a “sudden admiration for Cardinal Ratzinger” or “a viable Huguenot ancestor”, they are only too willing to do whatever it takes. The one school they know they don’t want to send him to is the former Attlee High, now the Mandela, where Rachel has long been a music teacher.
Perhaps Michael Gove could be their saviour; perhaps she should join the Shepherd’s Bush Free School Initiative and recapture some of the idealism that took her into teaching. Yet when she attends an organising meeting, it turns out to consist only of another dysfunctional couple, Nick and Lara Orme, and an Asian web designer, Parvez Akhtar.
Lara “went to a bog-standard bog standard” but “got into Cambridge to my teacher’s disgust, confirming their thesis that I was a pushy little cow”, and is now a corporate lawyer. Nick says he is “an elitist, in the strict sense of favouring elites of talent, not social elites”, despite being “unemployable, unteachable, verging on 50, nothing permanent to my name”.
Pav is a former pupil of Rachel’s she has forgotten, whose only memory of Attlee High is “getting kicked up the ass every break by this white kid from Acton…When Saff (Pav’s daughter) got her place with that school, no word of a lie I said I’d torch it, ‘cos there’s something in the bones of that place, in the bricks.”
So are they just a group of smug posers who believe their “children are better, do things better, deserve better” - or could they be the shock troops of an educational revolution? And what does it mean when the civil servant responsible for free schools starts telling them that they need to be “rather more embedded in your community”, and that they could “hardly be said to represent the whole of Shepherd’s Bush”?
Waters’ sharp ear for the hypocrisy, euphemisms and jargon surrounding this touchiest of subjects makes Little Platoons as entertaining as it is uncomfortable.