High school life gets a deliciously comical playground in BBC Entertainment’s Big School. Debashine Thangevelo had a chat with Catherine Tate and creator and actor David Walliams (of Little Britain fame) about the gauche wooing foibles of their respective characters and the cocky students who school them on the things not found in text books…
THE POSH FRENCH TEACHER
Catherine Tate as Miss Sarah Postern
THIS 46-year-old Bafta award-winning actress is in her element with situational comedy. Fans have seen her at her best with sketch comedy in The Catherine Tate Show. And her roles in Doctor Who and The Office were extraordinarily hilarious too.
In Big School, she is cast as a die-hard French teacher at Greybridge Secondary School, a fictional school near Watford, North London.
Expanding on her character, she says: “She thinks she’s going to come to this school and her methods of teaching are going to blow everyone away. And, in saying English words with a French accent, she is hoping the kids are going to get interested. For example, she tries to get people to translate pop groups that they like. I think it was quite clever of her to get a picture of one of the guys from Black Eyed Peas and call him ‘Will.je.suis’, which is a literal translation of ‘Will.i.am’.”
But her plan to blow everyone away works a little too well when she attracts the affections of a starry-eyed Mr Keith Church (David Walliams), the very old-school and dating-disaster of a chemistry teacher, and Mr Trevor Gunn, the rough-around-the-edges and brutish physical education teacher.
Shedding light on the love triangle, she notes: “I don’t think she’s particularly interested in Mr Gunn, but she sees a kind of sweetness to Mr Church that’s appealing. They have very different ways of wooing, or ‘seducting’, as Mr Gunn says.
“David’s character is more 19th century; he is very respectful, but always gets in his own way. He means well, but it can often trip him up. So he ends up offending me more than anything.”
On working with their young co-stars – Joivan Wade (Manyou), Matthew Fenton (Nicholas), Georgia Thompson (Beyoncé) and Carla Ryan (Tina) – the veteran offers: “It’s great. We’re really lucky to have been working with all the kids because it’s hard to make a show in a school if you have only got four kids knocking about. The school we filmed in, the kids gave up their school holidays to come through and be extras, which was amazing.”
Deny it all she wants, though, there is undeniable chemistry whenever Sarah and Keith are in the same room.
She nods: “I think they are kindred spirits in that they do put the children first and take their teaching seriously. They are quite suited to each other in some ways. It is quite sweet.”
As the six-part series unfolds, the will-they-or-won’t-they? is milked for its amusement, especially with the gaga chemistry teacher’s perennial foot-in-mouth syndrome.
THE CLUMSY CHEMISTRY TEACHER
David Walliams as Mr Keith Church
HAVING co-produced as well as created the hit series Little Britain, David Walliams’s proclivity for comedy is renowned and celebrated.
This time around, the uproarious circumstances of the array of idiosyncratic characters propels the storyline.
On the inspiration for this series, Walliams points out: “I wanted to do something a bit like Remains of the Day – the story of two servants who were in love with each other, but they can’t quite express it. I was thinking that it could be a modern take on that and a school was quite a good environment because you don’t get any privacy there. There’s always corridors teeming with kids (as are the staff and dining rooms). I felt that it could be a rather good setting for a universal experience.”
He maintains that the characters are more archetypal than drawn from personal experience.
As for his character failing dismally in the romance department, he admits: “The world of romance is very alien to him. I feel the engine of the comedy of this piece is the fact that Miss Postern and Mr Church do like each other, but they can never really express it because, in their own way, they are both quite repressed characters.
She thinks herself to be a very urbane person who has experienced so much in life. But she’s a French teacher who has never been to France. She never really had any big experiences in life. So a lot of it is about the fact that they can’t quite communicate with each other, which I feel is often the stuff of comedy.”
Sharing his favourite episode, Walliams says: “When The Dawson brothers and I approached this, we wanted each episode to be as distinctive as possible. For example, there is an episode built around a school play, another on a school trip, one on a talent show and another one around exams. The talent show episode is a lot of fun and I get to play the oboe as Catherine sings. It felt, as we were doing it, like a lovely moment and I hope that will come across on screen.”
Big School is laden with quirky characters – covering the full gamut of teachers, from the favourite to the most hated, and spotlights the students as they play dodge ball with their teachers inside the classroom while running riot outside of it.
Of course, this series wouldn’t be complete without the addition of overbearing mothers.
In this comically rebellious affair, everyone gets schooled. I guess, this is one time when going back to school (in a metaphorical sense) proves too tempting an offer. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!
• Big School airs on BBC Entertainment (DStv channel 120) on Tuesday July 1 at 7.55pm.