Was ‘The Teacher’ meant to be funny?

I am a big fan of Sheridan Smith – only a fortnight ago I took to Facebook to praise her tremendous performance in ‘Four Lives’, the BBC drama about the Stephen Port murders. She was also great, some years ago, as Cilla. So why did she allow herself to be in ‘The Teacher’, Channel 5’s big drama release, a show so publicised that Sheridan’s lovely face appeared on a huge billboard at Waverley Station?

‘The Teacher’ is just rubbish, astonishingly badly written and cartoon-like in its relationship to actual schools and actual classrooms and actual teachers. Now, I know my background is in Scottish independent education, not in the rough-and-tumble of an English comprehensive, but it defies credibility that anyone involved in education at any level could watch this and not feel both amused and insulted. Is it possible that there are people in the TV audience who watched this and thought that must be what schools were like? 

Teachers are, of course, generally fairly left alone by TV – yes there are dramas set in schools , the most obvious recent perhaps being Sex Education – which is brilliant, while, rather oddly, appearing to be set in an American high school in rural Wales;  but I don’t think the writers of Sex Education were ever pretending it was gritty drama. More like the thing are Waterloo Road, or the entertaining and pretty accurate Logan High (featuring Heriot’s FP Angus Stobie) both of which are a bit more on the ball. But ‘The Teacher’ is actually insulting, not just in its depiction of its ridiculous central character but of her ‘colleagues’ and their horrid students.

For those of you who haven’t seen it (and please don’t) the central premise is that the main character, played by Ms Smith, gets very very pissed at a night club, where she is celebrating her promotion, and then – it is alleged – has sex in the toilets with one of her pupils whom she meets there, who is 15. This fifteen year old is played by Samuel Bottomley (who was very good indeed in Ninian Doff’s film ‘Get Duked’ – you should watch that instead). Samuel is 21 and looks it. This is all established in the first episode and the rest of the episodes go on to discover whether she did it or not. Suffice to say that by the end of the first episode when the disgraced teacher switches on her voicemail and gets a message from said boy saying ‘I loved fucking you’ I just sat and laughed, such was my dramatic engagement.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter to the plot whether she’s done that or not – and I have to admit I decided not to waste another three hours after episode 1 – because she is clearly an entirely unsuitable person to be a teacher anyway. Well before she decides to enter a club, down innumerable shots and get dancing, she’s already done all sorts of things that are very very unprofessional (and I speak as someone for whom professionalism was a relatively low professional priority). When she tells the cartoon aggressive butch worn out cynical old policewoman ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’, she’s done tons wrong: she drinks huge amounts and consequently has blackouts on school nights; she has sex with a married colleague whom she at one point gropes in a bar full of her colleagues; she smokes on the premises; she openly insults one of her pupils during a lesson (Jane Austen dragged screaming into the Instagram world) and allows another (the boy she eventually shags or not) to be insulted by others in the class because he’s from a poor background. In general, she is an angry, hysterical person with an approach to life like that of a pouting prom queen aged 16 who goes about stroking her pupils dressed in a tiny skirt. It’s an insidious picture to present of a supposed member of a beleaguered profession. 

And then there’s the rest of the staff, backbiting away; apart possibly from the male teacher she’s already off with, there wasn’t a single character who was anything like anyone I’ve ever seen in a school, including fictional schools. The Head (ha!) seems to spend his time wandering around. At one point he gives her her exam scripts back – has he marked them? Presumably he does all the marking of all the exams, while his staff live lives of Bacchanalian debauchery. She is, incredibly, appointed as Head of English early in the story: she is doing this, in part, to impress her father, a former head, played as a dry old curmudgeon who might conceivably have been a Head Teacher in 1910 but not since. 

Is it like this for doctors and nurses and policemen and spies and criminals when they watch fictional programmes about their chosen professions? I’m not even a teacher anymore and I felt really insulted by this nonsense. It was written by Barunka O’Shaughnessy; I just wonder if Barunka went anywhere near a classroom during this particular creative journey. God forbid anyone should think this is what teachers are even remotely like. Aaaargh.



  1. Programme sounds quite dreadful, and to be avoided. Your commentary on it, though, sparked a memory in me of a Ch4 fly-on-the-wall documentary programme series called Educating Essex (2011), and I wondered if you had seen it and if so what you thought. The professionalism, affection and commitment of the staff in that school was hugely impressive (moved me to tears), and made me wish that a similar level of positive humanity had prevailed in my Scottish Independent school in the 1960s-70s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes indeed – in fact almost all documentaries about schools inspire those kind of feelings, the exception (for me) being the infamous one about Glenalmond. You did not, alas, have the benefit of being taught by me!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s