TV reviews: Fresh Meat & Educating Essex

Campus comedy may be stuck in the past but the school hall is full of innovation, says Gary Day

September 29, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

Fresh Meat

, Channel 4's latest attempt to produce a campus comedy, was infuriating (Channel 4, Wednesday 21 September, 10pm). It's hard to believe that this story of students in their first year of university is the brainchild of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the creators of Peep Show, a genuinely groundbreaking and cruelly funny exploration of the relationship between two thirtysomething men. The same sort of ruthless humour is on display here, but it has a stand-alone quality, as if it's disconnected from the characters.

Did I say "characters"? I'm sorry. That was a slip of the fingers. The choice of housemates - a mean Scotsman, an upper-class twit, a streetwise black girl, etc., must have been sponsored by Save Our Stereotypes. There was certainly no other explanation for the portrayal of Professor Shales. Naturally, he was from the English department, naturally he was lecherous and naturally he was unorthodox, tossing his students' assignments on why they wanted to read English into the bin, which is where much of this silliness belonged.

Of course, it could just be that I am an old git who has completely lost touch with his own undergraduate days and so can't appreciate the hilarity of lines like "the quim in which we swim". But I think my ire is more to do with the remoteness of Manchester Medlock University from the real world of higher education. There's no sense of crisis, there's no mention of fees, and what male lecturer is ever going to address his female students as "missy"? Laughter doesn't come from fleeing reality but facing it.

To be fair, there is the odd note of truth among the tinkling. Kimberley Nixon as Josie, the Welsh representative, nicely captures that rising tone, so common among teenage girls, which turns every statement into a question. There are also lashings of "like" and "really", without which the young would probably be incomprehensible to one another. But it's just not enough. David Lodge created the template for the campus comedy back in the 1970s with novels such as Changing Places (1975). A hell of a lot has happened since then, but the format has remained the same - the only real difference is that the jokes have got cruder.

One thing that has changed in schools is that "the boundaries between adults and young people are not as solid or secure as they used to be". Or such, at any rate, is the opinion of Stephen Drew, the deputy head of Passmores School in Harlow (Educating Essex, Channel 4, Thursday 22 September, 9pm). I immediately warmed to this man, and not just because the big box of Maynards on his desk showed that he shares my love of wine gums. Far more impressive was his determination to make sure that every child fulfilled their potential, even if, as in the case of Charlotte, they were going to fight you every step of the way. "All teachers think they're right," she pouted. "It does my head in." She spends a lot of time in Steve's office because of her refusal to be parted from her mobile phone. "She's intelligent, she's just unable to make the right decisions," beamed Steve, whose approach to discipline can be described as that of teddy bear with teeth. He looks cuddly, but don't push it.

There was a wonderfully unwitting riff on Catherine Tate's famous "Am I bovvered?" sketch when Steve repeatedly asked Charlotte whether she thought he would be amused to see her on report again in an attempt to get her to come up with an answer different from "I don't know." They are probably still at it. But as Steve rightly pointed out, Charlotte will "never come up against people who are so calm and patient" with her as teachers. And Steve is a good teacher. "He really makes you want to learn," said one of his pupils. There was a shot of Steve in action. "I'm a wealthy person in 1840 and I don't want to pay tax for you poor people because you smoke, drink, have too many children and don't work hard enough." It's history, folks, but not as Michael Gove knows it. Steve worried that viewers would think him an idiot. Definitely not. More like an inspiration.

For some reason, government policy on education came to mind while watching Up in Smoke (True Stories, More4, Tuesday September, 10pm). Slash-and-burn agriculture destroys forests and soil fertility while producing more carbon dioxide than all the planes, trains and automobiles in the world. Mike Hands thinks he has a solution that will allow the farmers to remain in one place and grow sustainable crops. Sometimes it's better to stand still than to be constantly moving forward. Modernisers, please take note. But not in everything. Campus comedies, for instance, need a good push forward.

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