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Article by Geoffrey Heath (Music Teacher)
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Last summer, more by accident than anything else, I made my debut (and probably my farewell appearance) on television in the Channel Four series That'll teach 'em which was filmed at the RGS. For four weeks it became 'King's School', a fictional boarding establishment where food was basic, discipline was harsh and the teaching style was based on the 'chalk and talk' method. For two of the staff. Headmaster Andrew MacTavish and me, this was very much like stepping back into the past as we had both once been on the staff at RGS. I taught French and Spanish from 1968 to 1989. We both agreed that although many things had changed, parts of the school were exactly as we remembered them. Indeed the Gym Block where lessons took place seemed not to have changed at all. The door to the gym did not fit properly in the 1960s and nobody has got round to fixing it yet. The only thing that seemed odd was the presence of girls.

Although they put on a show of bravado, the pupils were nervous at the beginning, not knowing what to expect, but the staff were quite anxious as well. We were acutely aware that these thirty boys and girls were intelligent, confident individuals and that if we did not manage to impose a strict regime in the first few days, we could be in real trouble. Fortunately my colleagues were very strong characters and outstanding teachers. They were all extremely likeable and I was fortunate to get to know them. The matron. Pat Crowe, who came over in the series as a dragon who had strayed out of a Carry On film, is in fact a deeply caring person who worried endlessly about the pupils' welfare. Inevitably the boys and girls did not realise this.

I have been asked whether we switched off and fraternised with the pupils when the cameras were not there. This was definitely not the case. The school was run twenty-four hours a day as if it were a real school and we maintained the regime whether or not we were being filmed. At the same time the situation was artificial as it is very difficult to interact naturally with a pupil when there is a TV camera three inches from your left ear. There is no doubt that the students did play up to the cameras and their behaviour noticeably improved when they went away. The main problem we found was that the staff and the production team inevitably had different agendas: we were running a school while they were trying to make interesting, entertaining television programmes and this did lead to some tensions. The camera crews had a natural tendency to concentrate on the "characters" and this tended to encourage rebellious behaviour. However I could see from the start that it would be like this and it was something we had to accept. I was part-time and originally only scheduled to teach two or three music lessons a week but it was difficult not to get more involved and I found myself going in every morning, including Sunday, to play the hymn for assembly. Even so, I was not there all the time. My colleagues who were in school twenty-four hours a day found it quite a stressful experience.

My brief in lessons was to teach singing and I soon found out that many of the pupils did no singing at all in their normal schools. The hymns which we, the staff, had sung all our lives were for the most part totally unknown and had to be taught note by note. At first there was some embarrassment and the sounds the class produced were fairly dire. Contrary to what one might have expected the boys sang with more confidence than the girls and several had surprisingly good voices. However the standard did improve quite considerably and at the prize giving three weeks later they gave a very creditable rendition of the school song, a suitably earnest ditty full of worthy sentiments which I composed in an appropriately pompous style, and two other pieces. What their performance lacked in refinement of expression it made up in enthusiasm, but, more importantly, I think that many of the pupils found to their surprise that they actually enjoyed singing, perhaps as a welcome relief from academic lessons.

It was fascinating to see how a major TV series is put together. One striking thing is the speed at with everything is done. We were still filming as the first programmes were being broadcast and each episode had to be assembled, edited, have music and commentary added and be presented to Channel Four for their approval within ten days. Another feature is the meticulous attention to detail, down to supplying us with 1950s spectacle frames made up to our own prescription or ensuring that we had authentic-looking magazines lying round in the staff room. It was also unbelievable what a tiny fraction of the material filmed was used in the programmes. At the end of 'term' all the pupils mounted a fully staged, very professional performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream which they had learned and rehearsed in under three weeks - a truly staggering feat. I think we were all very sad, both staff and students, that the decision was made to show nothing of this. It was disappointing for Liz Pidoux, the English teacher who produced the play brilliantly, but also for me, since I had composed and arranged the instrumental music, not a note of which was heard. Sometimes too, story lines were begun but not followed up. In the episode in which I featured most prominently I sent a girl to the Headmaster for misbehaving in a music lesson. She claimed that she could not sing, was duly admonished for her attitude and reduced to tears. What the viewers were not shown was that that girl sang a solo very competently in the end of term celebrations and on the last day made a special point of coming to say goodbye to me. I have subsequently had a charming letter saying how well she is doing with her singing.

One of the most interesting things was to read the post-series comments of the pupils on the Channel Four website. Almost all of them viewed the experience in a very positive light, even to the extent of wishing to do it all again. Quite a few said that they had learnt a great deal during the four weeks and could see positive advantages in traditional teaching methods. Although the aim of the series was ostensibly to compare the demands of 0 Level with GCSE this was never going to be a very scientific experiment, given the short timescale, and it was scarcely surprising that pupils who were not used to learning dates in History or studying French grammar did not do very well in 1950s style examinations.

To sum up, with all its frustrations it was a fascinating experience and I was amazed at how many people watched the programmes. However, perhaps the most touching moment for me was when I played the final hymn in the very last service ever to be held in the School Chapel.

Geoffrey Heath

This article was originally published in The Wycombiensian, the RGS magazine.

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