Tom Bennett

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Nights in White City: On the BBC Breakfast Sofa with Charlie and Louise

‘Missed him again!’

Somewhere there is a Rolodex with my name on it. Because I am a teacher who hops up and down on the hilltop, pretending anyone reads me, I sometimes get asked to do rentagob spots on TV. It’s always very enjoyable, although it does little for my sleep pattern the night before (editor’s note: the Talisker may be a contributory factor. Memo to self: ask science, later).

THE CALL happens the day before, usually speculative at first- they sniff out where you stand on an issue to establish if you’ve got breakfast chemistry, I presume (swearing, corpsing, streaking, being deal breakers, I imagine). In fact I can usually tell when it’s the BBC because it comes up BLOCKED on my phone, which either indicates the Auntie or a significant creditor, so I play roulette with my day and answer. I’m thinking of having a large red Bakelite phone installed that flashes red, just for these occasions.

When I first started doing this a year or so ago, they sent you a taxi there and back; in these days of fiscal anorexia the offer stands one way, unless I presume you are important, or Graham Norton. Relax, dear reader, your tax dollars aren’t being wasted.

I needn’t tell any teachers out there how odd it is to be in a suit and tie during the Easter holiday, let alone rising in the dark. Equally it never fails to feel odd driving into the old White City folly of Television centre, laser-carved into every Briton’s genetic memory as the home of broadcasting, Blue Peter, Swap Shop and poverty-bashing Telethons. It’s also one of the few postcodes that most people over thirty could recite by heart, like a Jungian archetype: W12 8QT (did you get it right? Answers on a postcard). It’s an old Stalinist heap, the Gordon Brown of architecture, but lovable like an old dog with a cataract in one eye and a happy smile, wagging its tail.

Seizing my moment, I POUNCED

Once through the gates, it’s empty as the My Family fan club inside (seriously: does Robert Lindsay own stag negatives of Mark Thompson?), when you might think it would be like the newsroom you faintly see in the background of news reports. The Green Room is tiny (danishes, coffee, water; no toot) , which is fine, because they turn and burn guests on the show like tables in a rollerskating-diner. There’s the lovely feeling of watching the show you’re about to BE on as you sit down, and it makes me feel a bit like Mike Teavee from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as you see large, 3-D people remove themselves from the sofa, shrink down to the size of a mid-price Sony wide-screen before your very eyes, before returning to human ratio a few minutes later.

Charlie: Busted.

Make up. Every man will testify that this is AN ENTIRE WORLD OF WRONG (unless you’re Eddie Izzard of course). I sat down in the chair and said, ‘Make me handsome, hahah,’ in an attempt at congeniality, before I realised that I had probably committed the make-up artist’s equivalent of the ‘What time do you finish?/ Have you been busy?’ cliché of the taxi driver. The first time it happened, I didn’t wipe the foundation off my boat race, and one of the kids at school later said to me, ‘Sir….are you wearing make-up?’ wide eyed. It was a uniquely Mrs Doubtfire moment. I couldn’t even say, ‘Yeah, got it from off one of the waitresses.’ It wouldn’t have sounded right.

The studio itself is quite small, and no, there is NO newsroom behind the sofa. You get led swiftly on in one of their many twenty second clips, wired and miked in seconds and before you know it, you’re being gently grilled (more sautéed) by, in this case, Charlie and Louise. It’s hard to make something so tightly synchronised run so apparently effortlessly, and given that my guts were full of snakes and self-doubt, I’m amazed they come back each day and do it over and over.

My first couch co-pilot was Matthew Taylor, RSA Chief Executive and former Chief Adviser to Tony Blair. So, no pressure then. He was an old pro, of course, and there’s always a sinking second in the hospitality room before you go on that the person they’ve picked to contrast your views with might be adversarial, but quite the opposite. He was an engine of practised charm and efficiency. My experience of RSA thinking hasn’t been terribly positive; like all well-meaning organisations their hearts are absolutely in the right place, and they have the best interest of the kids at heart, but then, doesn’t everyone? Don’t we all? It’s all a bit, ‘Teach them 21st century competencies’ and ‘Group work not drone work’, which I’ve dealt with elsewhere as being two of the great legerdemains of the faux-progressive educationalist movement.

Matthew: LOVES group work.

Have you noticed how many non-teachers have quite strong opinions about what goes on in schools, and how to teach kids? The RSA is guilty of this kind of thing; child-centred theory that sounds lovely but is made of good intentions and clouds in practise. There was little of the gladiator arena in our discussion, but when he started to say that schools didn’t do group work, I nearly choked on my own tongue, and would have exorcised that myth, were it not for Charlie’s soothing ‘That’s all we have time for.’ THEY CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH.

I also liked when he made a, ‘Which is why great teachers like Tom, here…’ comment. And I thought, you OLD SMOOTHIE. You could tell he’d been in politics.

I was on an hour later, so I had forty minutes to chain smoke outside and update Twitter, which by this point was melting with kind people. There’s a TARDIS outside (sorry- THE Tardis) opposite a life size photograph of Will-I-am, Jessie J, Tom Jones, and the useless one no one knows, from The Voice. I resisted taking a picture of myself ‘hanging out’ with them. I failed to resist the TARDIS shot though. Of course.

The Green Room: impossibly glamorous.

The second round was easier than the first (Nicky was a pleasure to talk to- it was a regular couch love-in), and in between slots I had the pleasure of meeting the recently expelled candidate from the Apprentice in the Green Room, who oddly enough seemed to have a handler, like he was Tinchy Stryder or someone. Nice enough chap, with the most carefully sculpted eyebrows I have ever seen on a man outside of Captain Hook in panto. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Alas, Surallun was not impressed, so here he was with me. And his handler.

And that was it; escorted out by the efficient, agreeable men and women of the Beeb. My ants-eye perspective was that it runs a very tight ship, at least on the ground. I couldn’t see any Bohemian Boardroom profligacy at this level. I really admire the institution; having seen what commercial programming looks like in other countries, I marvel that we still have this bastion of anti-monetarism left for us.

I do hope Cameron and his pals in the League of Super villains don’t sell it to anyone beastly.

*I asked people on Twitter how to download my recording of this onto a computer. I got a few responses, all useful. A few days before I ‘crowdsourced’ (read: too lazy to Google) a request for two words to be translated into Latin. I got THIRTY FIVE people who were lining up with offers to help, up to and including MARY BEARD FROM JAMIE’S DREAM SCHOOL/ CAMBRIDGE UNI (delete depending on cultural touchstones). I think I need more techies in my life.

Jamie’s Dream School 4: Classical Gas

How do we feel about this, apart from indifferent?

Blimey, when did Poetry join falconry and fletchery as subjects of yesteryear? I mean, everyone knows it’s a vaguely doomed ambition, intimately linked with unemployablity and a life of wretchedness, but it’s always been like that, indeed, it’s part of its charm. It’s edifying to reflect that as poetry has apparently melted from the GCSE syllabus, it has been replaced by such stalwart qualifications as Media Studies, BTECs worth a wheel barrow of GCSEs, and Citizenship. I’m no economist, but I suspect someone, somewhere has been sold a bag of magic beans in exchange for the family cow.

I mention this because the focus of this week’s chef-inspired pedagogy (chefagogy?) is the lost art of the classics: or Latin and Poetry at least. Once again, Professor Jamie of Oliver brings in his JCBs to plant tulips, in the form of the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. I’ve written before about this, but this is the flaw in the whole diamond: the assumption that if only teachers were world-leaders then the children would ignite like barbecue briquettes with inspiration. Alas, alas, this is not the case. Even the dullest of blades emerging from the teacher training college still knows more than their charges about the Tudors or Pythagoras; the problem is that many of them don’t want to learn. And have you ever tried to make someone do something they really didn’t want to? Try it sometime.

Jamie also repeats his earlier mantra. ‘I’ll fucking BATTER you in this classroom…’ Sorry, that was Harlem again, the resident Goddess of Anger. She does have a lot of anger. Fortunately she knows what to do with it, externalising it the instant it appears in her consciousness, lest a single unprocessed note of her interior monologue go unexpressed for public consumption. And, I think, we’re all the better for it.

No, Jamie’s mantra was ‘The practical stuff can work,’ meaning that anything a bit more hands-on seems a sweeter spoonful to swallow than the more medicinal, academic subjects. Or, as he says it, ‘There’s been some success with more academic subjects, using a more practical approach.’ I don’t want to infer too much, but one of the dangers for the non-teaching specialist is to imagine that how we like to learn is how everyone likes to learn. Jamie’s an intelligent, inspired man, who has obviously excelled in the physical world of catering. The danger is to assume that everyone else will enjoy the kind of activities he does. I mean, it’s very in vogue these days to encourage group work because it encourages ‘collaborative learning’ and ‘communal thinking’- forgive me while I dry-retch my Skittles and Polenta. When I was at school, group work was, for me, a Hell of wasted time, squabbling, and settling for the lowest common denominator. Usually involving some farting mentalist trying to brand me with a soldering iron. Don’t talk to me about group work.

‘My manor, my rules. Got it?’

Some of the kids, like Danielle (who I might add is rapidly becoming my heroine of the series- I’m tempted to open a library wing in her name) clearly prefer working in quiet environments, independently. It was simultaneously heart warming and tragic to see her sitting on the steps outside her classroom consumed with agony at seeing another lesson get flushed down the Johnson by mouth-breathing morons with megaphones. Or as she put it, ‘Jesus.’ Jesus indeed.

Poor old Mary Beard (which sounds like a Leonard Cohen lay, or an East End shanty) had my every sympathy. She, like many trainee teachers (and let’s not forget that’s exactly what these Titans of their field are, despite their Leviathan qualifications) she entered brimming with enthusiasm and the desire to inspire, only to see her golden sunbeams of Roman enthusiasm thin and dim to nothing against their collective indifference. Some pointless, petty disagreement had been wrestled in to the room before the class began, and ended with Jamal flouncing out, butch as Disco, from the classroom, wiping a tear from his eye while he watched Tara burn.

It was too much and, as Jamie’s voice over intoned, ‘Word trickles down the corridor that things have broken down in Mary’s classroom.’ Given that there are twenty students in the school (and incidentally, not all of them seem to attend every lesson), and that the place is wired for sound like Winston Smith’s khazi, I can’t imagine it’s very hard for word to trickle anywhere. So what Unstoppable Force, what Educational Fury is unleashed to lay waste to a third of the Earth? What Godzilla slouches towards the mayhem, what Jungian emblem of order and retribution incarnates in response to the anarchy?

You guessed it: D’Abbs. And boy, is he mad at them. ‘I’m really disappointed with you,’ he says, as they all p**s their collective knickers in fear. The class look at him as if they had sneezed him into a handkerchief. One of the unlovelier members of the class showed him how cowed and respectful they felt. ‘Excuse me, but you don’t even know what it was about, so how can you say you’re disappointed in us?’ He really puts the fear of God into them. But D’Abbs has an ace up his sleeve. ‘I feel let down,’ he says, and a chill runs down my spine as I am reminded of Leonidas and Morgan Freeman, rolled into one.

D’Abbs confronts (sorry, mediates/ facilitates) with the girl outside, which resulted in one of the most amazing sentences I have seen, almost entirely composed of the words ‘argue’ and ‘me’, but one that ran on for what felt like ten minutes. It was also untranslatable; I gave up on my third attempt. It was Joyceian

Andrew Motion, the softly-spoken avatar of calm, tried to turn them on to poetry, but also faced the same thuggish ignorance when it became clear to the class that he hadn’t brought any chicken nuggets or video clips of cats falling off drainpipes. Unfortunately what he did bring was a large painting by Edward Hopper called ‘Cape Cod Morning’ and asked them to write a poem inspired by how they felt about it. The only flaw in this cunning plan was that it doesn’t get past ‘Go’ if the kids don’t give a monkeys about the mid twentieth-century American Realist painting. Always have a task that everyone can do.

Poor Andrew; it was pitiful to see him blow his gasket at them, to little effect (and didn’t he do it in quite an odd way? He literally went from Yoda-calm to white-hot in a flash…and then back to Zen. Blink and you miss it. The kids clearly did.). Mary couldn’t even blow her gasket, bless her. So woefully unable was she to dress her desire in righteous vigour that she ended up asking tips from the kids about how to keep control of the class, which incidentally usually indicates that you are very close to going from ‘punchbag’ to ‘joke.’ The kids were warming to her, sure, but the next time she needs to speak sternly to someone, they’ll be unable to separate her ire from the fact that she learned it from them.

This raises another point: that every kid already knows how rowdy students need to be treated. I’ve had many conversations with kids that ‘the system has let down’ (© Jamie Oliver) and they all say the same thing: kids only act like tyrants with teachers that let them boss them around. Predators prey on victims- they’re not out for a chinning, they only muck about when they think they can get away with it. Danielle, the last hope for mankind, spelt it out. ‘Get them out’ she said to Mary’s request for strategic advice when something is flung around the room. ‘No warning; just get them out.’ She is, you see, a kid who wants to learn, and is fed up with the howling vanity and self-regard of the majority of her peers. So let me echo this sentiment: get them out- send them out. Give them some stick. Make them feel uncomfortable; make them see that if you try to push other people’s lives around, other people may very well push back.

Not that you;d know about it from D’Abbs. I really feel sorry for this guy, honestly. It’s not always obvious, but this fact needs to be repeated: he’s the only teacher in the whole school. Everyone else is a telly gonk or a field-leader. But no other teachers. No wonder he feels stressed. He also has the following handcuffs:

  • There are no sanctions other than ‘a bit of a talking to’ (or in an emergency they might be told ‘he’s very disappointed.’)
  • The kids are on camera
  • If they tell someone to f**k off, they’re allowed to come back the next day
  • He has them for a few weeks
  • They’re all NEETs.

No wonder the poor guy’s in tears. He literally has nothing in his arsenal to quell and direct them the right way, other than a seeming belief that, if spoken to in the right way, softly and with respect, they will experience a Damascan conversion. ‘I’m just putting out fires,’ he says through a spasm of man-tears, as Jamie does what any guy does when another guy visibly expresses an emotion other than joy or malice; he ignores it and looks uncomfortable, as the director thinks, ‘Oh boy, it’s Christmas.’

‘Favete linguis. Please?’

If the Dream School- if any school- doesn’t get serious about rewards AND sanctions, then it can expect to to face the same behaviour over and over again, until the end of time, like Ground Hog Day in Hell. Keep the firehose handy, John. You’ll need it.

And you know things are getting weird when Alastair Campbell and Jazzy B are coming in to give you a cuddle. This guy’s the boss right? What, did Jamie nip into the staffroom and grab whomever wasn’t brewing up or updating Facebook and say, ‘Quick, D’Abbs needs a man-hug- who’s in?’

(Incidentally, Jamie provided the second most cryptic and mysterious piece of wisdom of the whole program, when he replied to John’s fire-fighting comment with, ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fire fighting as long as we’re not starting fires.’ Pardon? He should have finished it off with ‘Grasshopper’ and stalked off into the sunset with a staff. John, startled out of his misery like a distracted baby with colic, looked at Jamie with confusion, and so did I.)

Back to Andrew Motion, and he found a novel approach to improving his lessons: going round the school and telling the kids, ‘You know that poetry thing? If you want to p**s off out of it, frankly that’s no skin off my righteous venerable ass.’ It was brilliant. If only we truly had that option in school; to turn to the most venomous ingrate and say, ‘Actually, do you mind not turning up ever again?’ and just teaching the ones that want to be there. Alas, every Education Act after 1910 rather prohibits that sort of thing, you know, universal enfranchisement, and all that. Still, it’s the Dream School, and we were promised new strategies. I just didn’t realise we’d see illegal ones as well.

First there is homework…then there is no homework.’

Perhaps predictably, Motion found that his second lesson, thinned out somewhat, was much more successful. The change of environment probably helped. But he was patient, and encouraging, and smart enough to know that the phrase ‘this is good’ can be used subjectively to the talent of those assessed, and quite right too. It might have been the only time in their lives that some of these kids had been praised for something they had written or created, and I bet it felt good. I like Motion, as a teacher. Apart from his heart-beat outburst, he keeps his cool, swigs endlessly from his Evian (although I’ve seen bottles like that act as beards for a number of more volatile liquids) and says what he means. Stay, and abide by my rules, he says, or do not and go. There’s a kind of beginner’s wisdom there- after all, at what point do we say with some of these children, ‘You know what? If you don’t care that much, I can’t care for you.’ They are, after all, mostly 18.

Other highlights of this week (and there are many, and there always are):

This could be you.

  • Uncle Jazzy (Uncle B?) doing the tough sympathy thing with poor old LaToya, who was having a breakdown because she hadn’t seen her kid in fifteen minutes or something. I think it was her kid: when Professor B asked her what she missed, she said ‘Her boyfriend,’ whom, you might think from the intensity of her misery, was somewhere in Iraq, or lost in the jungles of Borneo. It was impossible not to feel for her, but she presented a puzzle: she had to drop out of school to look after her baby, which you’d have to have a heart of tungsten not to sympathise with; and she was drenched in misery at the self-knowledge that she ‘gave up’ at everything, which at least shows a degree of introspection, although if left to marinate in self-loathing it becomes a cocktail of bottomless, paralysed indolence. But the puzzle is that, although she could see it, she wouldn’t do anything about it. And then she dropped out of school the next day. It was, I must say, very sad.
  • Harlem, bursting in to a meeting in the Head Master’s office, demanding that everyone dropped everything and do what she wanted, otherwise she would ‘smash someone in the face,’ or something else from Chaucer. She really is a piece of work. But then, why should she stop? She told the Head to f**k off last week, and called him a d**khead, but here she is, back again, because the Dream School doesn’t want to ‘let her down’ like state education did. Newsflash! She’s had plenty of chances- and every time you give her another one, all she learns is that you can spin the world around you in a whirlpool of narcissism and nothing bad will happen to you. What she needs, I would argue, is to experience the long, long drop that being vile can lead to; to feel the impact at the bottom, to bruise, to have the breath knocked out of her, until she stops thinks, and learns. But endless chambers of bouncy castles teach her nothing except to repeat her behaviour ad nauseum.

We all need to learn how to fail, and what we do afterwards. Learned helplessness is the worst gift we can give our children.

  • Teacher of the Week: Andrew Motion, for his farmyard boot camp, and his classroom eugenics.
  • Student of the week: Aysha, who along with Danielle, looks like one of the great hopes from this experiment.
  • Quote of the week: Jamie McOliver, referring to the pugnacious Harlem. ‘She’s such a top student at times,’ which surely must win an award for the most elastic use of the word ‘top’, and the most generous use of the phrase ‘at times.’ And Hannibal the Cannibal was such a top host. At times.

Roll on next week. Mr Oliver, I salute you.

Sofa-surfing Update

I’ll be on at 8:20am tomorrow, not 7:40. Practically a long lie in, then…

Sofa-surfing with Nick and Sian

I’ll be on BBC Breakfast with Sian and Nick this Monday at 7:40am or thereabouts, talking about Cyberbullying. The Beeb, I have to say, is eerily empty at that time of day. If you catch me, it’ll be spectacularly bad luck on your part, because it’s probably about a three minute spot. But tune in if you’re a fan of unironed shirts, stubble, and badly matched ties.

Here’s Tom with the weather.

Had my four minutes in the limelight today, appearing for interview on the BBC1 Breakfast Show (with Charlie and Susanna!). Taxi arrived at 6am, confirming that it was actually real, and not some dodgy cheese I ate. Got to White City in about half an hour- I really recommend having rush hour at six o’clock- it’s much quieter.

Got to a spookily empty looking Beeb and led through the fables corridors, which are exactly as utilitarian as a public service should be. Sat in the Green Room (the peasants’ one, for people like me, not the Russell Brand one) and sat with all the other rent-a-gobs until it was my time.

Endured the red-faced shame of having man make-up. I think I may now have tide marks. I apologise for knowing what they are. Anyway, I was led on by the floor manager into a set with about five people on it; not intimidating at all. Charlie (he does wear a lot of make up. Looks about twenty years younger for it, so maybe he’s got the right idea) and Susanna were brisk, warm and efficient- I suppose that’s part of the talent of a job like that, to make the guest feel at ease; they certainly did. It didn’t feel like national breakfast TV at all.

Afterwards we made small talk for about ten seconds and I was off in another taxi and back to school, just in time for briefing and the shower of glory from school kids that only an appearance on telly can guarantee, no mater what you’ve done. I swear I could go postal with a sniper rifle, and they’d bump me if they saw it on Bang! Goes the theory.

Afterwards, every social networking device I had was paralysed with all the data bottlenecking from people whose breakfasts I’d ruined by my invasion. I can only apologise to them all. What a hoot.