BBC Radio 4, 20-21 August 2009
Robert Daws makes a habit of playing ineffectual bumblers; I well remember
his Roger Dervish in the ITV cricketing comedy Outside Edge - based on Richard Harris' hit stage play - a captain
of a local cricket team vainly trying to impose his authority. In the two plays Partners and Inspection,
Daws played David Poll, a deadbeat lecturer in the geography department of a deadbeat new university. In the brave new world
of the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise), which helps determine funding for each department within an institution, Poll was
dead wood, who could neither teach nor produce any sustained research project. In Partners he was contrasted
with Sadie (Fiona Chalke), a thrusting young American brought in as a transfusion of 'new blood' into the department.
Although professing much, she delivered little, apart from a remarkable capacity to make her colleagues - especially
the secretaries - undertake all of her duties, while claiming all the while that she was "rushed off her feet."
Forced by an oleaginous department head Jim (Jonathan Keeble) to search for outside
funding in Partners, David attracted the attention of Joselyn (Natasha Byrne) who promised all sorts of benefits
if the department would work with her company. In truth she was nothing more than a fraudster, using a combination of charm
and the promise of sexual favours to obtain confidential information about the students' bank accounts. Although the conspiracy
was eventually revealed, the experience did little to enhance David's standing within the department, rendering him liable
to dismissal (or, in Jim's phrase, realignment).
This formed the subject of Inspection, as David responded to the threat by informing
the QAI (Quality Assessment Inspectorate), who conducted the RAE - author Bryant was very fond of acronyms - that Jim had
been responsible for serious financial mismanagement. The department was only saved from embarrassment by David himself, as
he produced some exam papers (procured from the Internet) that proved how his department was maintaining academic standards.
Meanwhile Sadie left the department - much to everyone's relief - with glowing references (ensuring that she left for good),
for a post at Cambridge.
Both plays took potshots at life in the contemporary British university; its obsession
with money, its dedication to short-term goals at the expense of more considered research objectives, and its general neglect
of basic issues such as teaching standards (even though most institutions protest that such standards are rigorously maintained).
Such strategies are necessary so as to ensure continued financial support from the state. Author Bryant portrayed the academic
staff as simultaneously insecure yet insanely jealous; rather than devoting their time to research, they seemed more interested
in preventing others from carrying out their responsibilities by quoting the rule-book on any and every occasion. While such
people do exist in every university department, the majority of academics of my acquaintance are hard-working, dedicated individuals
combining research excellence with a commitment to teaching. It might be nice for once if playwrights concentrated on more
positive images of their work rather than resorting to negative stereotypes (which have become familiar over the years both
on radio and television - remember The History Man, or Andrew Davies' A Very Peculiar Practice in the
1980s and 1990s?). The director of the two radio plays was Gary Brown.