Posts Tagged ‘School’

50 films: #10. If…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

February 3, 2018

Sad news yesterday of the death at 75 of screenwriter David Sherwin – do read his Guardian obituary and this lovely piece by Malcolm McDowell, who played Mick Travis in his trilogy of films – prompted me to revisit a film that on reflection is probably my favourite of all time: Lindsay Anderson’s If…., which celebrates its 50th birthday this year.

A teenager who habitually read film guides, I knew of the reputation of If…. long before I saw it. I’ve written before here of the impact the death of my uncle William had on me when I was 14, and of the legacy that he left me, partly through the things he had owned that I inherited. From his collection of videos, I took a couple that contained films he’d recorded off the television: one was Death in Venice, and the other was If…. He’d recorded If…., I discovered on doing an audit of all my videos a month ago prior to chucking them out, on the occasion of Lindsay Anderson’s death in 1994, when it was broadcast on Channel 4 with a specially recorded introduction by Stephen Frears, who had worked on it as a young assistant director.

I don’t think I watched it until I was 16 or 17, and then probably only when it was shown late one Friday night on BBC2, in the days when BBC2 did that sort of thing. It must have been a mindblowing film to watch at that age. When the BFI rereleased it in cinemas in 2002 and there were two screenings in Cambridge, I went to both. By that time it had become an obsession. Last September I happened to meet Philip Bagenal, who played scientifically-minded Peanuts in the film shortly before going up to Cambridge. I was too starstruck to tell him how moved I was to be in his presence.

If…. originated as a script, Crusaders, written by Sherwin and John Howlett while the two were teenagers at Tonbridge School. Anderson eventually filmed it mainly at his own Cheltenham College. The film amounts to a study of power relationships within one house, College House, at an independent school, and of the repressive regime of the Whips (four prefects, Rowntree, Denson, Fortinbras and Barnes). Rebelling against their brutality are five Crusaders, senior boys Mick Travis, Johnny Knightly and Wallace, junior boy Bobby Phillips, and a girl (called simply The Girl in the credits) whom Travis and Knightly meet in a roadside café while playing truant.

The opening of the film, which sets the familiar black and white Paramount logo against the school song, ‘Stand up, stand up for College’, sung to the familiar tune Ellacombe, is excitingly uneasy, and I think I have always found it so. Still uneasier, suddenly the titles are in colour. A great deal has been written about Anderson’s juxtaposition of black & white and colour film, much of it nonsense. I think it’s generally accepted now that logistical problems led to the filming of the interior of the chapel being done with black & white film. I’m sure Anderson, mischievous to the last, would have enjoyed critics looking for meaning in the contrasts between the colour and monochrome sequences, which might or might not really be there. Still, the contrasts can be striking. Take for instance the Whips’ study, filmed in colour, a place of privilege and sober discussion, set against the happy austerity of the juniors’ black & white kitchen, where the scum are having a great time eating beans on toast. Or the fencing scene, where the Crusaders’ black & white game of war with their mock Shakespearean dialogue turns, West Side Story-like, into real war when they burst balletically through a door and Wallace draws Mick Travis’s blood, however accidentally. Travis is thrilled.

I got sidetracked. Let’s talk about Jute and about power. Our way into the film is through Jute (Sean Bury). Like us, he’s a new boy in the school. In the opening scene he is overawed, gazing uncomprehendingly at the noticeboard, not knowing the rules. Even the perpetually bullied junior boy Biles sneers at him, ‘You’re blocking my view, scum.’ Jute’s never the main player in the film, he’s an everyman (or everyboy), and through the film we follow his assimilation into the school. At the start he’s unsure. He calls Rowntree ‘sir’ even though he’s not a teacher; in chapel Brunning has to help him find the right hymn; he struggles to remember the right words when Brunning and Markland test him on school vocab; in gym he quakes before the vaulting horse like a fawn. But increasingly he takes part, he’s a joiner in. He plays rugby, sings in the chapel choir, he takes on ceremonial roles like bringing the chalice the house has just won to the top table. By the end he’s serving in chapel. Jute is the boy schools like this are supposed to turn out.

Starting at the same time as Jute is straggly-moustached John Thomas (Ben Aris), one of those teachers who is both disappointed and disappointing. He is shown up to his room by the housemaster’s wife in the film’s first black & white sequence. Both he and Mrs Kemp are shy and nervous, and after she leaves he sits on his bed in this drab little room, the eaves imposing, and seems to be the embodiment of human loneliness. He too assimilates in a way, and in rugby practice appears to be popular with the boys, but later scenes tell a different story. Whip Denson, doing his nightly rounds, finds Thomas working on his car and advises him not to be too long. ‘Sorry, Denson,’ he replies. When, out on manoeuvres with the cadet corps, he dives for cover and is liberally drizzled with hot tea from a leaking urn, it becomes clear he is a man without authority. Simply by looking unlucky, he becomes unlucky.

It’s not a matter of everyone knowing their place in established power structures, it’s also about people (Denson among them) who don’t toe the line. Just as John Thomas cowers before Denson, so too does housemaster Mr Kemp (Arthur Lowe) before all the Whips. Here is a man who by temperament should have been a bank manager, not put in charge of children. Warned of insurrection by Rowntree he simply devolves his power to the Whip, saying pathetically, ‘You must do what you think best,’ and popping another orange segment into his mouth. The Headmaster (a magnificent Peter Jeffrey) paints himself as a progressive, making platitudinous speeches to the prefects, but turns out to be just another fool. By their failure to fulfil their designated roles they are complicit in the Whips’ reign of terror.

Terrifying it is, too. Barnes and Denson stalk the corridors and yell ‘DORMITORY INSPECTION IN THREE MINUTES’ with military synchronicity. You can see why they don’t like Travis, a boy (man, really; he returns to school with a resplendent moustache that only Knightly is allowed to see before he shaves it off) who is determined to stick out, apparently for the pleasure of sticking out. Though Knightly and Wallace are committed to the cause, Travis is invariably the one who goes a step too far. A marvellous scene in the Crusaders’ study with the three boys talking at cross purposes illustrates perfectly the temperamental differences between them. Travis poseurishly expounds his theories of war (‘Violence and revolution are the only pure acts’), while Knightly, the joker, reads the horoscope aloud for the others’ amusement, and dreamy Wallace talks of his concerns that he’s going bald.

What I’ve written so far may give the impression that If…. is a cold and earnest film. In fact it’s so far from that. It depicts the whole experience of being young, including the romance of youth. Take Wallace’s love affair with Bobby Phillips, a junior boy a few years younger than him though more mature in outlook, a relationship depicted with such economy and tenderness. They don’t share more than a handful of scenes together, but it’s one of my favourite romantic relationships in film. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember that scene. Phillips, about to put his sweater on, looks down and sees Wallace preparing to leap up to the high bar. They exchange glances as Biles and Machin look on. Wallace’s gymnastics are hypnotic, set to Marc Wilkinson’s shimmering music (itself partly inspired by the Missa Luba that Travis likes to put on his record player, and sometimes underscoring it in the film). It feels like one of the mesmerising scenes with backwards music from the end of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, the film supposed to have inspired this one. Who wouldn’t fall for Wallace under these circumstances? Bobby puts his sweater on but continues to gaze, distractedly. The moment of falling in love has never been better depicted on screen.

Some boys are misfits. Peanuts, for instance, whom Travis approaches one night, apparently to invite him to become a Crusader. Peanuts looks at the stars through his telescope and talks of space. His concerns seem to be higher, and he hands back the bullet Travis offers him. He’s a pacifist, we might think; only out on manoeuvres he embraces warfare absolutely, condemning his charges for failing to do the Yell of Hate, so it can’t be that. Meanwhile, Mick accepts the thing Peanuts offers in return, his telescope, but uses it to look not at the stars but at the Girl he and Knightly have enlisted to join the resistance. Stephans is another nearly boy, intent on becoming a Whip, and unpopular with others because of his priggishness. Might he have made a Crusader instead? He’d surely have had more fun that way.

Let’s look at Biles, strung up in the toilets by his bullies. Who would think to view him sideways on? The anarchy of the gaze.

There’s a peculiarly British kind of anarchy and absurdity in the humour too: in the medical test, where the boys have to answer four questions (‘Ringworm? Eye disease? VD? Confirmation class?’); in Mr Kemp’s pink-pyjamaed performance of ‘Fairest Isle’ accompanied by his wife on the recorder; in the unexpected reappearance of the Chaplain, recently slaughtered on the battlefield by Travis (complete with Yell of Hate), alive and well and living in the Headmaster’s drawer; in the Headmaster’s reprimand to the boys, perhaps the funniest moment of the film: ‘So often I’ve noticed that it’s the hair rebels who step into the breach when there’s a crisis, whether it be a fire in the house, or to sacrifice a week’s holiday in order to give a party of slum children seven days in the country.’

What about the ending? The actions of the Crusaders may be understandable, but can they be justified? It’s easy to be on their side, but what if they asked you up on the roof? There’s a tremendous power in that final crescendo, with the beating, then the play battle, then the real battle, some of the agony of the ending coming from the conflict between the viewer’s desire to be one of the cool kids and the attendant reality of the civilian casualties. The extras in that scene, the parents and grandparents of the boys, look so ordinary. They don’t deserve to die. And yet a change surely has to come, and this may be a way of effecting it. The discomfort is part of the thrill. (And the guns.)

Then the title appears on screen again, ending the film as it began. Was this just an academic hypothesis, an exercise, as the Brechtian intertitles might lead you to believe? Even if so, it’s an engrossing one. I love it because it seems to contain everything (well, except girls). I loved that, watching it as a boy, there were any number of characters I saw reflections of myself in, so many that I might have been. I think I wanted to be Wallace, probably because I had a thing for Bobby Phillips. In reality I was probably Markland.

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Grand Tour #8 – Germany. The Flying Classroom / Erich Kästner

April 19, 2017

I’ve got past form with Erich Kästner. I was so engrossed in Emil and the Detectives one evening in 2006 that I left my phone on a train and never saw it again. It would be on a train, I suppose. Anyway, with all of German literature to choose from I could have opted for one of the acknowledged classics – Werther, say, though that’s hardly original – but in the end I decided to return to dear Erich.

The Flying Classroom (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer) is a book ripe for rediscovery, published in a new translation by the legendary Anthea Bell just a few years ago with the original Walter Trier illustrations preserved. It’s a pleasure just to hold the handsome Pushkin Press edition in your hand. The translation was funded in part by the Goethe-Institut, which I remember being a useful source of Thomas Mann stuff during my A levels. Long may it prosper.

The book opens with adult Erich being nagged by his mother to write the Christmas story he’s been banging on about, only it’s the height of summer and he can’t get in the right mood, so he goes to the Zugspitze, the only place in Europe with snow. Part of his motivation for writing this story is that he has just read a book in which the children were constantly happy. Childhood is not like that, he writes, and part of the process of growing up is learning to weather the punches that life throws at you, even as a child, so that you grow emotionally as well as physically. From one of the introductory chapters:

Only when the brave have become intelligent and the intelligent have become brave will we really be sure of something that we often, but mistakenly, feel is an established fact: the progress of mankind.

The Flying Classroom was published in 1933, the same year Hitler was elected Chancellor, and Kästner saw the way the wind was blowing. The knowledge of what came shortly after its publication, the burning of Kästner’s own books by the Nazis, makes reading this one a particularly poignant experience, though the story itself is poignant enough.

I get the impression there isn’t much of a tradition of the school story in German literature. The only one that comes instantly to mind is Robert Musil’s nasty novel of sadistic bullying The Confusions of Young Törless. How I love that book; but it’s not what Kästner seems to be going for here (except in the scene where two boys from a rival school abduct Rudy Kreuzkamm and tie him to a chair in the cellar with a washing line). The school story is a predominantly British genre, and whatever Kästner’s model may have been (Kipling? Wodehouse?), he outdoes the established masters here.

The action takes place on the last few schooldays before Christmas, and centres ostensibly around preparations for a school play, The Flying Classroom, written by Johnny and performed by him and four friends. You’re bombarded by names at the start of the book, but it’s worth slowing down and getting to know each of the boys individually: there’s Johnny, the creative one; righteous Martin, the leader; smart Sebastian, the joker; diminutive and weedy Uli; and hulking Matthias, Uli’s protector, who dreams of being a boxer and is rarely seen without a piece of cake in his hand.

At the start it appears that Johnny will be the central character, but every boy has his own story, the most engaging being those of Uli, who puts himself at risk in an effort to prove his bravery, and Martin, who is devastated at receiving a letter from his mother telling him she cannot afford the train fare of 8 marks for his journey home, and so he must stay at school for Christmas in the company of a small number of other boarders. The resolution of this plotline brought tears to my eyes, which is an effect books almost never have on me.

One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Mrs Lintott, of course, in The History Boys. I always knew that teachers were human, because I’d been brought up by two of them. If you’re a child with a parent teaching at your school, the assumption is that you live in perpetual fear of their embarrassing you in front of your peers. With me it was different, my father a universally popular man, me wanting occasionally to shout at children expressing admiration for him, ‘He’s not nice and funny at home, he’s a tyrant! A TYRANT!’ (The reality was probably somewhere between the two.) Let’s return to Mrs Lintott. When I quote Alan Bennett it’s usually to make a point, and the point here is that in Kästner’s world the lesson that one’s teacher is a human, when learned, deepens rather than undermines the relationship.

The boys’ teacher Dr Bökh (nicknamed Justus for his decency – ‘I’d go to the gallows for that man if I had to!’ swears Matthias), instead of disciplining them for delinquency, tells a candid story of his own childhood, and a friendship that he regrets having lost. This brings about a revolution in the attitude of the prefect Theodor, who treats the other boys more kindly. In another episode, the children deride their headmaster for his one repeated joke, but view him newly with sympathy and pity when, embarrassed, he attempts to tell a new one. Dr Bökh’s lost friend, it turns out, is an acquaintance of the boys, Dr Uthofft (known to them as No-Smoking because he lives in a no-smoking carriage from a decommissioned train), and the boys are able to effect a moving reunion, having intuited the importance of this friendship to the two men. There’s something of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ in this demonstration of the potential of children to redeem adult suffering, and it is one of a number of moments that lift the book from mere greatness to magicality.

No-Smoking linked arms with Justus … ‘I’ll ask you at this moment, which I hope is a memorable one, not to forget your own youth! That may sound an unnecessary reminder now, while you are still children. But it isn’t unnecessary, believe us! We have grown older and yet we have stayed young. We two know what it’s all about!’

Dr Bökh and Dr Uthofft looked at one another.

And the boys privately decided, in their hearts, never to forget that exchange of glances.

I fear that out of context this reads as sentimental. Kästner is not a sentimentalist. He writes early on of communing by the slopes of the Zugspitze with a butterfly called Gottfried and a calf called Eduard. So far, so whimsical, you might think, but at the end he relates that Gottfried has died and Eduard has most likely been made into schnitzel. Everything has a season. The Flying Classroom isn’t sentimental, though it’s often gemütlich, in the best way. Reading it ought to be a Christmas tradition, like watching Fanny and Alexander or having a fistfight with your aunt.

It’s not sentimental, and it’s not soft. It’s robust and riotous and archly, absurdly funny. Sebastian scoffs at the sixth-formers taking dancing classes with girls. ‘They ought to read what Arthur Schopenhauer has to say about women,’ he rails. Professor Kreuzkamm, on learning of his son Rudy’s kidnapping, openly reprimands Rudy’s parents before the class. There are typographic jokes and puns, and always those warm, endearing illustrations. It’s a sad and joyous book, and I loved it.

I remember 4

September 18, 2016

I remember being scared of going on downward escalators when I was about nine or ten, and being ashamed of it as I knew I’d been able to go on them when I was younger.

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I remember light pink fluoride pills.

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I remember hearing Chopin’s Funeral March on the radio when I was ill and thinking how beautiful it sounded but wondering if it might just be delirium.

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I remember making a boiled egg for my father, perhaps because it was his birthday, and dropping it into the pan, under the impression that it would float, never having done it before, and the egg cracking on the bottom of the pan and the albumen emerging from beneath, and him being angry.

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I remember a Year 5 Music lesson where I became aware I couldn’t see the board because I didn’t have my glasses and hoping desperately that I wouldn’t be asked by Dr T to read anything out because it would have meant admitting I couldn’t see.

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I remember wrinkled fingertips.

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I remember my little tin of blue Humbrol enamel paint that I bought to paint a model perhaps but ended up just opening every so often, prising the lid off with the end of a teaspoon to see the magical blue inside.

humbrol

I remember visiting Hinkley Point and being given blue plastic earplugs which I kept for ages afterwards.

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I remember eating and enjoying tongue, without acknowledging to myself what it was.

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I remember assuming ‘several’ meant at least seven or so, and coming only slowly and stubbornly to the realisation that it might mean, say, three or four.

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I remember praying for God to kill me.

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I remember the big yellow metal train in Welshmill Park with the graffito on saying PENIS LOVERS MEET HERE FRIDAY 8PM, and wondering what went on at such meetings.

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I remember an awful assembly at St John’s in which I was part of a presentation on hair, explaining that people had straight hair because of flat follicles and curly hair because of round follicles, and not understanding why flat and why round, which I still don’t. And then saying of Charlotte M the line ‘Her perm won’t last long,’ not really knowing what a perm was or why anyone would want one, and dimly sensing, perhaps, the absurdity of parroting words I didn’t comprehend written by some teacher who had no idea what children were.

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I remember Mr P saying it was always worth having a go during oral exams even if you didn’t know the word, as a pupil of his had once had his Brummie-inflected ‘a bee’ taken as ‘abeille’ and accepted.

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I remember feigning that I’d expected Gianluca Vialli to be sacked as Chelsea manager, though I hadn’t and it upset me.

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I remember Maths Circus.

I remember 3 — back to school edition

September 6, 2015

I remember Miss D reading out a piece of work by Holly in which she wrote that she missed Hong Kong (or was it Singapore?) and didn’t like England, and I felt sorry for her, not because she was homesick but because I sensed she was mortified at having it broadcast to the whole class, being shy anyway and not having friends yet. What you submit to a teacher should constitute a secret contract. Miss D was an inspirational teacher, but she made some bad decisions. She did the same thing to me on two occasions.

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I remember Mr R putting Nikolai, the new Russian boy, next to me in Maths. I was a bit shy of him, partly on account of his being cute. We were working on playing cards and probability, and he asked me ‘What is club?’ and I did a drawing but it was a bad one because it’s difficult to draw a club even if you’re not nervous and I’m not convinced the message got through.

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I remember Harry faking an epileptic fit to play a practical joke on Mr S, the supply teacher, but it didn’t work because Mr S wasn’t very observant.

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I remember Ben asking Mr O in an English lesson how to spell ‘hisself’, as he wanted to use the word in a short story, and Mr O saying there was no such word, which struck me as very unhelpful because it could have been dialogue, and people do say ‘hisself’ even if it isn’t grammatical.

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I remember joking that Oliver Twist was an OK book but it didn’t have any of the songs in it, which made Neil laugh.

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I remember being pleased when Kat objected to something she perceived as homophobic in a story we were reading in English, even though it wasn’t really necessary. The rest of us who cared about it wouldn’t have been bold enough to speak out.

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I remember thinking my history teacher Miss L was beautiful.

I remember thinking she liked me more than the other pupils because the marks she gave me were disproportionate to the quality of my work and the effort I put into it, and anyway she just did.

I remember Miss L played the flute and was quite shy and had translucent skin and sometimes blushed.

I remember Miss L correcting me gently for my anachronistic use of the phrase ‘conscientious objector’.

I remember David, who was normally quite boisterous and disruptive, toning things down for Miss L, probably because he secretly liked her too.

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I remember Mr T telling Helen that she sounded like Kenneth Grahame, and I realised he meant Kenneth Williams and felt bad for him, though I was the only one in the class who’d have known.

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I remember Mark coming in one morning and telling me his cat had died the night before, and hanging around with him during break and lunchtime feeling sad together and not really speaking. I think a member of staff asked if we were OK and I explained. I wrote a piece of music in memory of Mark’s cat, though I never played it to him or even told him because it would have been embarrassing.

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I remember devising a signature based on Miss R’s, which is still essentially my signature now.

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I remember, when we were about twelve, Jamie euphemistically describing Luke to me as a ‘flower’, and me protesting because of my conviction that being effeminate did not equate to being gay, though Luke did turn out to be gay, and so did Jamie.

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I remember Mr W banging his fist on the table during a play rehearsal, knocking a cup of water into his bag, and Paul having such a laughing fit that he had to go to the toilet to recover for so long that I wondered if I should go looking for him.

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I remember taking a penalty in football and striking the ball very poorly but scoring because the goalkeeper was even worse than me.

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I remember a student Music teacher correcting my use of ‘symphony’s’ to ‘symphonies’ in a piece of written work about the Minuet and Trio from Schubert’s 5th. I approached her after the lesson to explain why she was wrong.

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I remember Tim being shocked at how late I went to bed and telling me the late nights would catch up with me, and thinking what a bore he was.

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I remember Rachel asking me, possibly earnestly, if I was on drugs, probably because I liked to go around with my eyes half closed and sometimes walked into things. I wasn’t on drugs, I was just tired.

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I remember feeling flattered when Max punched me repeatedly in the arm, and when Jake gave me this personalised message, because they amounted to tokens of friendship, albeit oblique ones.

Message, c. 1998