Big School review – Episode One – BBC One

Big School BBCBig School is old fashioned in its comedy approach, filled with clichés and David Walliams’ exaggerated mugging. I don’t think it’s terrible (see below) and unlike with a lot of recent sitcoms I actually laughed a few times while watching, but it is another example of a disappointing current trend in television comedy.

I’ve mentioned on here before that there’s a trend in TV for very old sitcom humour; The Wright Way, Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Count Arthur Strong, Vicious, and on and on. There seems to be a belief in the TV world that this type of humour has been unfairly consigned to the scrap heap, and a frustrated anger is being directed at the conveyers of the newer comedy style.

‘Hurrah! An old school sitcom: No wobbly cameras or vile language,’ is the headline to the Daily Mail’s review of Big School. And you’d expect that from a conservative, middle-England newspaper, but then there’s this from The Guardian’s article on Badults: ‘Making a brand-new studio sitcom is not without its risks. People are notoriously sniffy about them. They talk about tacky sets… after The Office, there’s a sense that sitcoms without laughter are deeper, cleverer, more meaningful, rather than an excuse for getting away with scripts that don’t have enough jokes.’

The newer approach to sitcoms is not about feigning meaning or cleverness though, it’s about offering proper rounded characters that you can care about, relationships you’re invested in, themes and plots you can relate to. And the old-fashioned sitcom approach is unable to do this when its characters are joke-delivery machines, or if the supposed emotion in the show is hackneyed and clichéd, or if every line is accompanied by a hundred people over-laughing on the soundtrack.

Big School is not guilty of that latter problem. It has no studio audience, but it does have characters doing unrealistic things, like Walliams’ Mr Church describing a rude drawing in front of an assembly of children, and it has broad, stupid humour like an ‘ugly’ woman taking her bra off in a cupboard for no reason and handing it to Mr Church.

This first episode introduced the characters, all teachers in a comprehensive high school. The pitiable Mr Church (played by Walliams, who also co-wrote the show) competes with Philip Glenister’s Mr Gunn for the affections of the new French teacher Miss Postern, played by Catherine Tate.

Big School Tate BBCA lot of the show’s characters are clichés. The children for instance, are all bored, arrogant and inconsiderate; they are crude and vulgar and drink lots of alcohol. Mr Gunn is a stereotypical PE teacher; laddish and insulting. He could be worse though, and I at first thought he was going to be a macho alpha male, but he’s actually kind of pathetic, which is different at least.

All the characters are in fact kind of pathetic. And that’s something I can get behind; it does mean that there won’t be anything particularly engaging or intellectual about the show, but there should be plenty of scope for humour.

And this episode was funny in places. Mr Church and Miss Postern passively-aggressively arguing over the possibility of giving 110%, Mr Church giving the names of Henry VIII’s wives when asked to name some past girlfriends, or a scene where Miss Postern gave a speech intended to rouse her students that started with a dismissal of French, only to be cut off by the headmistress before she could get to the positive part. ‘You’ve established that French is boring and I have to wonder why you did that,’ the headmistress said.

And there were some half-decent lines dotted around the episode. But Big School is still very old-fashioned, the type of show that has someone walk into a room unaware that a character has died, and goes off on a rant while everyone – unsuccessfully of course – tries to interrupt him. The type of show that has a character positively state that something won’t happen, and then smash-cuts to that thing happening.

Scenes we’ve seen a thousand times before, jokes we’ve heard a thousand times before, unrealistic character interactions, and a plot that offers nothing of depth, nothing to think about and thus nothing that will last beyond the end of the series. That’s old fashioned sitcoms, and I’d rather we continued moving forward, rather than return to the past because populist sitcoms do well in the ratings and because TV comedy execs are seemingly having a fit of nostalgia.

Choice lines:

  • ‘Why you speaking foreign?’                                                                                    ‘Because this is French GCSE.’
  • ‘Do you know what percentage of criminals re-offend?’       ‘No.’                                                                                                                           ‘Neither do I. Read a piece in The Guardian, can’t remember, but it was surprisingly high.’
  • ‘You better back down sunshine.’ ‘Or what?’ ‘Or I’ll slip you a length.’ ‘No, that’s not what that means.’
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3 thoughts on “Big School review – Episode One – BBC One

  1. I don’t mind old style sitcoms as opposed to the “don’t care” new variety. It’s not the old style of these pastiches that is the problem, the main problem is what you say about unrealistic character intentions. If you think of the good “old style” (I guess you’d call them story-joke-story) based sitcoms- The Good Life, Only Fools and Horses, Frasier) – they might have been made in different eras, but they all have characters with realistic motivations. Problem for me with unrealistic characters (not talking about the deliberately absurd sketches as in Little Britain, or the Airport spoof thing) is that it makes me think the writers didn’t care and then I don’t care.

    • I probably didn’t do a great job of defining ‘old-fashioned’ sitcoms. I wouldn’t really put Frasier in there for instance. I guess I’m talking more about Are You Being Served, those types of shows. Innuendo and slapstick and set-up and punchline gags that would never occur in actual conversation.

      There’s a debate to be had though, and I’m not coming down firmly on one side, arguing that all studio sitcoms are bad or that anything before 1990 is awful. I just think sitcoms have changed for the better and I dislike the current trend of returning to the more old-fashioned approach.

      You’re right though about the real problem being unrealistic character interactions, and I would argue that advocates of the old fashioned approach (The Wright Way, Not Going Out) are more likely to make this error (which I doubt they see as an error). Thanks for the comment!

      • It’s actually difficult to define what is old fashioned when you think about it… I suppose there are (vaguely – things were less fragmented in the old days) two sorts of old-fashioned, the character based (eg The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles) and the stereotype based (Are You Being Served.) And the character based I suppose I would call “classic” and the other type “old fashioned”.

        I’ve never thought about it in such detail before, thanks for making me think!

        I can see what you mean about things almost coming round full circle. As if people have decided to embrace the old and terrible in a kind of ironic way. Not much fun for the audience, although my daughter loves Miranda, as do her friends, so I guess there is a place in the world for Miranda. I’d say Miranda is quite affectionate though, broad as opposed to crude? Which is what the “old fashioned” ones tend towards.

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