Opinion: School's Out for Easter, but School's in for Sitcoms

David Walliams

Interesting news today that David Walliams is to star in as well as co-write a new BBC1 sitcom, Big School, alongside Catherine Tate, Philip Glenister, Joanna Scanlan from Getting On and Daniel Rigby from those BT ads.

Walliams will play the chemistry teacher Mr Church, but it remains to be seen whether the formula will work. The prospects look good though. Sitcoms set in educational establishments have been a staple of television for more than half a century. The sit seems tailor-made for a com for all ages. Naughty children smoking behind the bike sheds, dysfunctional teachers and the hapless head like mum and dad trying to keep the young 'uns in check and failing miserably – a school is really just a giant nuclear family.

The earliest class-based grinfest of note was probably Whack-O! in the 1950s starring Jimmy Edwards as the hopeless head of Chiselbury School trying to keep order back in the days when getting caned meant something bad, not something good. But the old series that is most fondly remembered is Please Sir! with John Alderton teaching a class of scruffs and oiks who seemed to be the same age as him and, by the time the show stopped, certainly seemed well past school-leaving age.

More recently the spotty spods of Grange Hill seemed to be corner the market in schools TV and things got a bit issue-based and earnest. But in 1997 there was an attempt to bring laughs into lessons again with Chalk, starring David Bamber as the Fawltyesque master in charge. The series, however, written by a young Steven "Sherlock" Moffat, fell firmly into the "must do better" camp.

Yet recently school has returned to the comedy curriculum with a vengeance. I blame The Inbetweeners. Since that runaway clunge-obsessed hit we've had the gloriously wonderful latterday whitehallfarce of Bad Education co-written by and starring Jack Whitehall (right) and BBC3's gobby female answer to The Inbetweeners, Some Girls. And although it is more lecture room than classroom, the brilliant Fresh Meat with, who was it again? Oh yes, that man Jack Whitehall.*

In real life there tends to be a rival school around the corner. On TV the rival school is on another channel. Walliams' Big School is going to be up against big competition, and I mean big. Greg Davies, who is a former teacher and has already played one in The Inbetweeners, is currently working on his own C4 vehicle, Man Down, about the travails of a (very tall) teacher. 

Maybe after these two terms there should be a summer break before there are any more sitcoms in the same location. It looks like we are in danger of classroom overcrowding as it is. If any more writers pitch the same idea I've got a bit of advice for all you commissioning editors out there that you may have heard before. Just say no.

*Just after this piece was posted it was announced that the actor Richard Griffiths had died. Among other notable appearances he famously played the teacher in The History Boys and, coincidentally, was Jack Whitehall's godfather.

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