Television: RTÉ’s school documentary still has lessons to learn

Review: ‘A Different Class’, ‘Clean Break’, ‘The Muppets’, ‘Makers’

Student union: things liven up when pupils have their say in A Different Class Student union: things liven up when pupils have their say in ‘A Different Class’

Student union: things liven up when pupils have their say in A Different Class Student union: things liven up when pupils have their say in ‘A Different Class’

 

Early in A Different Class (RTÉ One, Thursday) it’s clear that this isn’t going to be an observational documentary with the grit, humour and insight of Channel 4’s Educating . . . series. This year’s instalment of that Bafta-winning programme is set in an underperforming school in Cardiff. The format works because it takes the idea of observational film – CCTV is, after all, a type of observational filming – and over a year gets under the skin of its subjects and environment.

In Educating Cardiff viewers come to understand the challenges facing pupils, teachers and parents, so that when Leah, whose teacher Paul Hennessy has to phone her every day to get to come to school, gets six GCSEs, an unheard-of achievement in her family, you cheer. Or so that when Jo Ballard, a former dinner lady who has just been named head teacher of the year in the UK, says she doesn’t see why a postcode should determine a kid’s chances, it’s not just talk. And that’s why you become engaged with life in a faraway school in a system in which you have no direct personal interest.

A Different Class follows a year in the life of Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School, in northwest Dublin, the first secondary under the patronage of the nondenominational body. Interviews with pupils and teachers stay on the surface and give little insight into their lives.

But we do get to know its principal, Bernie Judge – pupils call teachers by their first names – and she’s a character, properly old school. “I’ve no problem taking out a ruler and measuring short skirts,” she says. She is, however, grappling with her pioneering role. “Thanks be to God,” she mutters, driving to work, then quickly reminds herself, “I’ll have to stop saying that.”

It’s not until nearly halfway through that we hear a pupil’s voice. We see the students, though, and they’re a diverse bunch in Dublin’s newest, most culturally mixed suburbs. There’s a lot of boring stuff to get through before we get there: shots of diggers and hard hats during the building phase – tedious unless it’s Grand Designs – the official opening, teachers in the staffroom eating, and many scenes where the principal and others involved in the setting up of the school use the word ethos.

There’s a lot of talk about ethos. A pupil rolls her eyes and yawns at one session. I’m with her.

There’s also a tang of smugness in the air – not from the children or parents – that suggests the Educate Together approach is so different from all other schools not least because it involves parents and children in decision-making.

So we see parents invited in to talk about whether the new school should have a uniform. Uniforms are not part of the Educate Together ethos, the principal announces at the start. The parents break into small groups, and they are engaged and opinionated. They give up their time; it’s nice to be asked. The consensus appears to be that they’d like a uniform. Some pupils say the same.

Then there’s a board-of-management meeting where it’s swiftly decided that there’ll be no uniforms – it’s the ethos – and it makes all that consultation look like window dressing. The film ends with shots of next week’s final part of A Different Class, and it looks much better, less self-consciously worthy, more about the life of the school, and with robust input from students.

Crime fans take no pleasure in spotting the twist early on, but in Clean Break (RTÉ One, Sunday) its writer, Billy Roche, makes it too easy (spoilers ahead). After the opening episode – the strongest – of this plodding, ultimately tension-free four-part drama I pointed out that Desmond Rane (Aidan McArdle), the bank manager whose wife and child were taken in a tiger kidnapping, had to be the baddie. Why else would he be wearing an anorak and a V-neck jumper and – the clincher – collect stamps? And so it proves. He organised the kidnapping to fund his stamp collection, but by the time that’s revealed this week it seems almost beside the point.

Clean Break set itself up in that first episode as a crime drama, and in subsequent parts it goes through the motions: a detective investigates – Phelim Drew is a convincing cop – but there is little momentum. Add patchy acting and underwritten characters and it’s hard not to see Clean Break as an implausible script filled with few credible characters. Several subplots, including one featuring a casino owner, Ed Banner (played by Aaron Monaghan), feel extraneous.

It looks terrific, thanks to Anna Valdez Hanks’s gorgeous cinematography, which is lush and atmospheric when it’s showing Wexford scenery. But that’s a given in good-quality drama now, and it’s not enough by itself.

“It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the . . . ” If you grew up watching The Muppets (Sky1, Monday) you know the rest. For me it’s hard to think of the muppets from this distance with anything other than – appropriately enough – warm, fuzzy nostalgia. Memories are notoriously unreliable, but the original muppets must have been more charming, funnier and more family-friendly than this remake, which sees Kermit, Miss Piggy and co in a mockumentary, set behind the scenes of Up Late With Miss Piggy, a late-night talk show.

Who wants to know about the (modernised, grown-up) personal lives of the muppets? Finding that Kermit and Miss Piggy (who was a lovable hammy diva and is now just horrible) have split up, and that he’s with Denise, another pig, feels like too much information – he uses the word sexy: ewww – as does Fozzie Bear’s dating experience.

As for the humans, the talk-show guests, who include Tom Bergeron and Tracy Anderson in the first episode, are a dud on this side of the Atlantic. This Muppets doesn’t feel right for kids or nostalgia-loving parents, so I’m not sure who it’s aimed at.

Firmly aimed at children (although anyone interested in crafts will love them) are the Makers short films, on RTÉjr. Beautifully made and pitched for younger viewers, the one on Friday features Beth Moran, a handweaver from Clare Island. It’s lovely.

Ones to Watch: Colourful trips and black-and-white shots

If you’re still reeling after Daniel O’Donnell’s exit from Strictly Come Dancing last weekend, fear not: he’s back on TV, with his wife and without that jaunty pilot’s uniform, in Daniel and Majella’s B&B Road Trip (UTV Ireland, Monday, right), a series with a self-explanatory title.

For a small-budget station, TG4 delivers more than its share of new series. Tríd an Lionsa: Through the Lens (Sunday) looks at the birth of photography in Ireland and delves into the stories behind six iconic images, the first being Jane Shackleton’s image of Bríd Mullen.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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