BBC Radio 3, 11 December 2011
Mary Peate's revival of Barry Reckord's 1963 play - the first for radio
- made its intentions clear by establishing a stark contrast between the group of 15-year-old lads seeing out their last
days at an inner-city comprehensive school, and the teachers purporting to work with them. The boys were cynical, disillusioned,
and desperate to leave, believing that formal education had been of little benefit to them. They spent most of their class-time
making jokes about sex, or competing with one another in tests of strength, both physical and verbal. Their head teacher (Paul
Moriarty) claimed that he had "enough on [his] plate," as he tried to disseminate the public school ethos in
his school, by creating athletic houses, organizing prize-giving ceremonies, and claiming that education "gave [his students]
character." He had no empathy for his students' plight, as they saw out their days before going into the kind of employment
- the docks, or an apprenticeship - that their fathers had already determined for them.
As the action progressed, however, it became clearer and clearer that the teachers
and students behaved in much the same way. The head's sole solution to any disciplinary problem was the cane - preferably
administered in public for maximum humiliation (in 1963 corporal punishment was still allowed in state schools). Likewise
Brooke (Jason Maza) reinforced his position as the self-appointed leader of the gang of lads by threatening violence.
It did not matter to him whether he bullied boys or girls (in one sequence the boys successfully goad Helen (Joan Iyiola)
and her friend Sylvia (Shannon Tarbet) into coming with them into the graveyard for sex); what mattered to Brooke was the
feeling of power that came from enforcing one's authority.
Any resistance to this tyranny was largely futile. While Cragge (Danny
Worters) believed that Brooke was not cut out to be a leader, he seldom resisted Brooke's authority. On the contrary, Cragge
deliberately played a role - by seeming disinterested in everything, especially his school work - so as to be considered "unmasculine."
Encouraged by the fair-minded teacher Freeman (Carl Prekopp), Cragge discovered some latent creative talents, as he wrote
a concise and vivid report of a house soccer match for the school magazine. However the head teacher had little time for Cragge;
as a member of the gang who consciously resisted his authority, Cragge was nothing more than "scum."
Peate invited us to take pleasure in the boys' colloquial language, which was largely
comprised of short statements, resembling a series of verbal sparring matches. They enjoyed each other's company, even though
much of their humour was consciously sexist (they continually referred to "getting off" or "doing" women). However we have
to remember that this was the early 1960s, a time when the boys still feared authority-figures such as parents and police
officers, and when pre-marital sex was still the exception rather than the rule.
Nonetheless, Peate's production painted a bleak
picture of school life in the early 1960s. The overall mood was summed up by the mournful linking music between each scene, played
on piano and synthesizer, suggesting that the boys had little to look forward to in their future lives - even though they
were only fifteen. The situation scarcely
seems to have improved today. Recent figures claim that up to 16 million adults have the reading and writing abilities of
primary school students, suggesting that the education system is still failing them, despite endless government reforms.
Sometimes recreating recent - i.e. twentieth century - history for radio is more
difficult than it might be for earlier periods. Peate's production was utterly convincing, conjuring up a society which,
although remote in many ways from our own (especially in its morality)|, nonetheless remains uncomfortably familiar.