No. 4. Film Reel 1979

If you tuned into prime-time (7.30-9.30pm) TV in Britain on 17th January 1980 you had a choice of three channels. BBC1 kicked off the evening with an episode of Tomorrow’s World including a report on the ‘dangerously receding Columbia glacier’, followed by Wildlife on One which profiled the work of Lew Hurxthal, who had studied and filmed ostriches for eight years, then Watch this space ‘a comedy series about an advertising agency,’ and rounded off the evening with the 9 o’clock News. What you saw on ITV depended on the region, but in Oxfordshire Thames Television aired an episode of the Bernie Winters comedy show, followed by no. 4 in a series of Armchair Theatre entitled ‘The victim’ about a kidnapped girl, and (keeping the evening jolly!) followed that up with TV Eye: ‘How Northamptonshire is tackling the problem of battered children.’ If comedy, wildlife and suffering were not your cup of tea you could turn to the preferred channel of the contemporary thinking person, BBC2. BBC2 began the prime-time slot with a Newsweek programme about the race for the White House, followed that up with a panel game about inventions, and ended the session with an episode of one of the great classic comedies M*A*S*H. Set like a jewel between these was something new. Not only a new series, but also a relatively new, and still very rare, type of programme: the fly-on-the-wall documentary: Public School: ‘documentary series starring the real boys and real staff of one of Britain’s leading boarding schools, Radley College, near Oxford.’ Film Reel

This setting influenced the critics’ debate about the series for the next ten weeks. Many of them toyed with the idea that Public School encapsulated all you might want to see of comedy, wildlife documentary and suffering all rolled into one handy package, although Joan Bakewell (after two episodes) complained that there wasn’t enough suffering:

It was all a golden English idyll, a fantasy so potent I could almost believe they were my own schooldays. Cricket on green fields, fry-ups on the shared gas-ring, real tennis, unreal orchestra… as yet this series gives no hint of criticism or serious analysis within the school or without. Did the trade-off negotiated with the BBC mean there would be no look at the lonely boy, the failure, the unhappy? What about the uncompetitive, the introspective, the difficult? … What relationship does this dazzling institution bear to the real world? … I can’t deny the delights of lingering in its alien pastures, but doesn’t such golden sunshine cast any shadows? (The Times, 25 January 1980)

Critics debated whether a documentary about the human species in any particular environment should convey the same scientific rigour and disinterest as a wildlife documentary studying the habits of, eg, ostriches. In the Yorkshire Post, Eric Roberts began his review:

Any similarity between Public School on BBC2 last night, and BBC1’s Wild Life on One may be accidental, but the techniques used in the two series to study a fascinating and possibly threatened species are precisely the same.

The Guardian TV critic made made the same observation:

Next week Wildlife on One deals with the cavorting and coupling of amphibians in one particular pond. Really remarkably like Public School (BBC2), which this week considered the sexual tensions in one small, all-male society, Radley. Unlike the humble toad which must go to find its own female, girls are laid on at Radley. I will rephrase that. Girls are bussed in to take the steam out of the sixth-form.

Whilst a retrospective article by Tony Money, Latin Master at Radley, appeared in the Sunday Times under the title ‘Radley’s goldfish bite back.’ An interview between Charles Hastings, Head of the Maths Department at Radley, and Richard Denton, the director, recorded at the height of filming in July 1979 touched on the same theme:

CWH. … How true have you found what I said to you that the denizen of pond-life didn’t like being disturbed, and their behaviour was dramatically different when they were watched…
RD. And I think you said ‘if you stir up the pond it gets very muddy’… But no, I don’t think its true that people behave differently in front of the cameras. (The Radleian, 1979)

THE RADLEIAN 1979 Cover

THE RADLEIAN 1979

How much of it was ‘real’ and how much ‘theatre’? What exactly should a documentary do? How ‘real’ can it be? Even the word ‘starring’ conveyed a sense of the unreal nature of the programme – how many scenes were orchestrated by the film crew, how many confrontations or ‘unguarded’ conversations were staged by the director? Note Bakewell’s suggestion that ‘negotiation with the BBC’ had hidden the unhappy from view. Given that the BBC’s function is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’, how much of it was viewed as comedy? And what about the issue of free advertising for an independent business being aired on the publicly funded, advert-free, BBC? Given the potentially emotive nature of the film, it is no wonder that on 17th January 1980, it was recommended as the Personal Choice for The Times’ television critic, Peter Davalle, and attracted an average weekly audience of 2.1 million, 4% of the British public. (In the same time-slot BBC1 audiences averaged 11% and ITV 7.2%, figures taken from the BBC Audience Research Report now in Radley College Archives.)

The definition of ‘reality’ caused a lot of difficulty. Reviews of Grange Hill, a fictional everyday story of an everyday inner-city comprehensive, screened slightly earlier in the evening, were almost uniformly positive, glowing with praise at the accuracy of its portrayal. The letters page of the Radio Times for 27 February 1980 had contrasting headings: ‘Public School: treating Radley badly …’, followed by letters criticising the school’s approach to sex; and ‘Grange Hill: treating bad kids softly?’ – ‘As an English teacher at a comprehensive school, I think it is an excellent representation of school life;’ ‘We watch Grange Hill and feel that it is very true to life…’ Radley, on the other hand, attracted words such as ‘idyll’, ‘fantasy’, ‘hypocrisy’. John Sayer summed this up in an article in The Listener:

Ask viewers about Grange Hill and they will tell you it is real. Ask about Radley, and they think of it as purest fiction … Those who ask how the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS) induced the BBC to plug on with public schooling, at this of all times, have missed the point by a mile. Had Radley been real, the BBC would not have had a programme…

Viewers want the fiction. If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented… ISIS, goddess of moonshine and earthly fruits, knows more what the public want in public schools than do those who run them. We want caricature, and that is what we have been given… (The Listener, March 1980)

Even within Radley the distinction was a little blurred:

CWH. Well, Richard, have you enjoyed yourself here?
RD. Yes and no. Sometimes I felt let down for professional reasons, and sometimes I felt let down because of my own paranoia as to whether anybody understood what I wanted to do …
CWH. Can you be a bit more particular?
RD. I think I envisaged it as a collection of stories, but in general the ‘stories’ in the school aren’t half-hour episodes. The school, is basically not episodic, it’s more like a soap opera. So if you make an episodic structure for a series, unless you actually tackle it like a soap opera, you are in one sense doing something artificial. (Interview between Charles Hastings and Richard Denton, The Radleian, 1979)

The political debate, ‘at this of all times’, was particularly vituperant. It covered the predictable areas of paying for education, the old-boy network, university entrance, single-sex boarding, and used them as a stamping ground to castigate the current government: the Education Secretary of the day was an Old Radleian. A closer look at external events in the world of British education reveals why Public School was greeted with howls of hatred from some critics. The TES has produced a timeline of 1000 years of education which includes the BBC series on Radley as one of six significant events of 1980. Other noteworthy points are that in 1977 a quarter of schools still had outside toilets; in 1979, the ‘Winter of discontent’, many schools were closed by striking ancillary workers and £280m was cut from the education budget, 80% of which came from ceasing to supply school milk and cuts to meals and transport subsidies; in 1980 the Education Act introduced assisted places at independent schools, there was rioting in Bristol, and Dorset became the first county to axe meals in primary schools; in 1981 the Rampton Report blamed teachers for ethnic under-achievement and called for more black teachers … Leafy, green, single-sex Radley with its focus on achievement in all areas, especially music, the newly-created Sewell Centre for art, the Boat Club and CCF, presented a view of education that many considered elitist, socially undesirable, out of date, irrelevant to society, sexist. A post mortem debate chaired by David Dimbleby was aired on BBC2 on 21 March 1980, the night after the last episode was shown. The participants were Dennis Silk, Warden of Radley, Clive James, then of The Observer, Clive Boyson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, and the Labour Shadow Secretary for Education, Neil Kinnock. This focussed entirely on the political issues raised by independent education.

The idea of the observational documentary of human life can be traced back to the 1890s when the earliest filmmakers set up static cameras on street corners, and then showed the results to local people as fairground entertainment. Nothing happens in such films except people passing-by, children making faces at the cameras, no commentary, no analysis. But people paid in their thousands to see themselves on screen. In the 1930s an independent documentary film studio was set up, which was amalgamated into the War Office Information Unit in WW2, and came under the control of the BBC. In 1959 the ground breaking documentary Morning on the streets was made, which records the morning routine of back street Liverpool, the only commentary being the ordinary conversation of the people in the film. In 1974, the Wilkins family of Reading were featured in The family, hailed as one of the first ‘reality TV’ programmes – and heavily criticised for its depiction of a ‘non-aspirational’ family. It was parodied by Monty Python in 1975 as ‘the most awful family in Britain.’ Richard Denton, director of Public School, was a highly regarded documentary maker, specialising in the fly-on-the-wall style made famous by The family. Before making the Radley films, he had directed acclaimed documentaries on the Ark Royal, entitled Sailor, the Hong Kong police, Hong Kong beat and Hospital. Critics praised all three films for his open and honest approach: ‘the programmes should do for the public school system what Sailor did for the Royal Navy.’ (Davalle, The Times, 17 January 1980) THE RADLEIAN 1979

The film was not Radley’s idea. It was the BBC who decided to make a film about a school. Initially, they advertised for a comprehensive – a school which could represent the everyday life of the majority of the school-going population. Not a single state school came forward. They then approached the Independent Schools Information Service, and asked them to recommend a public school. Westminster School had been the subject of a one-off documentary (also entitled Public School) the previous year. ISIS suggested several, and the final choice fell on Radley because it was the closest to London, and therefore easier for the film crew to continue with their daily lives.

The director and producer met with Common Room over a year before filming began. The dons were shown Hong Kong beat, and after a rigorous discussion a vote was taken: 7 for, 4 against, 68 abstentions. The crucial point at issue was that Radley would have no right of veto over the content of the programmes. (So no ‘trade-off negotiated with the BBC’ to hide the lonely or unhappy misfit.) In the end some dons and boys did ask not to be filmed, or refused the cameras access to classrooms or society meetings. The boys then had the chance to vote on the issue, as described in The Radleian, 1979, in an article published before the films were broadcast:

TO BEEB OR NOT TO BEEB?
Outside it was cold and dark, but inside School the lights glared as cameras rolled – the setting was the debate everyone had wanted for some time: should Richard Denton plus crew be here at Radley? An hour and a half later our producer stood triumphant amidst a host of Radleians – we had been persuaded. The verdict was for him …… Understandably there was a certain amount of suspicion among boys and dons, and a considerable amount of resentment among boys who felt they should have been consulted; the debate did much to quieten our revolutionary brothers, and most of the original suspicion has also abated…

It seems that Richard Denton does intend to present ‘an honest and true picture of a community’… As he said ‘We must have the courage to be boring.’ Presumably this means he is not trying to be sensational, and he has been concentrating mainly on the peripheral details which give the fairest indication of the whole: the music scholarship, the debate, the first eight … However, he admits he must entertain, or ‘flatter the audience’ … and this is why he was pleased to find us all wearing gowns.

…As a community and a school we have nothing to be afraid of, nothing to hide, or as Charles Mayo summed up in the opening debate, ‘… if we have, Richard Denton ought never to have come.’ (The Radleian, 1979)

The Radleian Interview 1979

The Radleian Interview. 1979

In 1980, The Radleian had relatively little to say about the experience or impact: the films were broadcast nearly ten months before the magazine was due out, and had become almost passé. That year’s article consists of extracts from reviews or letters addressed to Dennis Silk, or to Hugo Chapman, star of one episode:

‘Our trust in the fairness and objectivity of the BBC has been shaken …’ (Letter to Dennis Silk)

‘The Social Dance was disgraceful… One has great sympathy with the House Master who deals so admirably with morons.’ (Letter to Dennis Silk)

‘You have been exploited. The anti-public school have indulged in some subliminal propaganda…’ (Letter to Dennis Silk)

Public School has shown that a lot of Radley boys are gregarious, vigorously heterosexual, politically aware and often humorous.’ (Anonymous review)

‘The picture presented by Public School is of spoilt, moneyed, arrogant adolescents taught by smooth-talking, condescending eccentrics.’ (Anonymous review)

‘Are we really expected to take this personal myth-projection seriously?’ (Anonymous review)

‘More hilarious than Evelyn Waugh (even Come Dancing) last night’s episode of Public School – there’s hope for the aristocracy yet. I had thought that by now most of Radley would have been taken into care by the county council. Congratulations.’ (Letter to Hugo Chapman)

So for the boys there was a sense that the film crew had come and gone, with little lasting impact on their lives. Not so for Old Radleians or for the dons:

I saw some of the TV programmes on Radley and I think the general consensus of opinion among O.R.s and friends was that we could have done without the series … The one of the school dance was disgraceful.’(Radley College Archive OR letters file, letter from an Old Radleian, class of 1931.)

A major concern from the teaching staff before filming began was the potential impact on lessons of the film crew’s presence and, conversely, a serious complaint that not enough time was devoted to classroom teaching in the finished films. There was a certain amount of acrimony over whose fault that was:

RD. What do you think the [Common Room’s] reaction to the BBC has been?
CWH. I think we’ve learnt to live with you – we’ve been asked to live with you
RD. Why do you think it’s been so difficult for Common Room to accept the film, or even to actually cooperate?
CWH. I think a lot of the difficulties have been due to personality clashes. The other thing is perhaps that we were all very conscious of performing the whole time. Teaching a lesson is a public performance, whereas sailing Ark Royal isn’t. We may have found it rather disconcerting being watched while giving a performance.
RD. … it’s as if there’s an insecurity about the relationship between a master and the boys, and having somebody else around interferes with that relationship
CWH. One certainly wouldn’t want a relationship with a group of boys disturbed…
RD. … I could number the members of Common Room who have really understood what the series is trying to do on one hand, and I find that depressing. But I hope that we will get the right things across …
(Interview between Charles Hastings and Richard Denton, The Radleian, 1979)

The Radleian Interview Continued

The Radleian Interview Continued

Reflecting on the fall-out after the films had been broadcast, Barry Webb, English teacher at Radley, complained in an article for The Listener that much of the reviewers’ criticism was based on ‘glaring factual errors’ or

more interested in the politics of independent education than the quality of the programmes, and have failed to see that Richard Denton has mainly concentrated on the froth. Parents do not spend £3000 a year on froth, and virtually nowhere in five hours’ television have we been seen doing our real job. We are close to caricature, a device which is based on fact but concentrates on distortion. (The Listener, 27 March 1980)

Dennis Silk also regretted the scarcity of teaching on the films:

‘I think that it was a very grave thing that the series didn’t have much teaching because the one thing the independent schools do pride themselves on is the ability to teach well… If you think of all the various ways there are of teaching it wouldn’t have been dull because there are 17 departments all trying to do different things differently.’ (Dennis Silk quoted in an unpublished report by Mark Piercey in Radley College Archives.)

Richard Denton’s response to this complaint in the same report argues:

‘I was making a film about what it’s like to be at school not what the masters would like to think being at school is all about which is teaching. As far as the boys are concerned teaching is a boring thing which has to be got through as quickly as possible and I think the series reflects that.’

Another complaint voiced by Barry Webb and reiterated by Dennis Silk was the omission of much that defines Radley as a community:

Nobody would know from the television that we are in fact a community, that we actually teach and boys work; we engage in cultural pursuits, we have some 40 families living in the grounds – yes, we have wives and families, domestic staff, ground staff, female teachers, a village church, a local pub…(The Listener, 27 March 1980)

Throughout the transmission of Public School the reviewers demanded that a companion series should be made about an ‘ordinary state comprehensive.’ Two years later the same production team made and broadcast Kingswood – a comprehensive. Kingswood School in Corby, Northants, was chosen from a short-list of over 100 schools – perhaps indicating a sea-change in the attitudes of the comprehensives to television based on Radley’s experience. The same discussion about politics and the nature of reality waged over Kingswood. But Kingswood was judged ‘real’:

The 1980 documentary series, Public School, lingers in the memory as a vivid picture, full of colour, sparkle, style and outrageous provocation: last year’s Kingswood – a comprehensive, … was by contrast a sepia photograph. Lacking in any sense of excitement or inspiration, its virtues were a probing exactitude and unpretentious realism. (Margaret Higginson, ISIS newsletter 1983)

Once again, ‘we were given scarcely a glimpse of actual teaching’, and a representative of the sixth-form objected that too little attention had been paid to the school’s achievements, ‘we saw no sport, no music, no drama, no fun – surely such things must exist?’ (Margaret Higginson). Coverage of music scholarships and rowing in the Radley films had been live tinder for the critics of independent education. Now their apparent omission from a comprehensive was sternly denounced.

So as a documentary the TV programmes about Radley fuelled political debate, but what do they tell us about Radley College thirty years ago? Do they have any lasting value for the history of the school? It is perhaps telling that the latest history of Radley, No ordinary place by Christopher Hibbert, published seventeen years after the films were made, devotes half a page to them. As fly-on-the-wall documentaries they give a snap-shot of a moment in time, possibly distorted, certainly incomplete. But they certainly had a lasting impact on Radley College itself – applications tripled as the films were broadcast, and no one, after 1980, could claim that they had never heard of the place.

Peter Davalle in The Times reflected:

and so the cameras quit Radley College and it ceases to be the nearest thing any educational establishment ever got to becoming a show business cynosure. As entertainment, the experiment was an unqualified success…(The Times, 20 March 1980)

The ‘London Diary’ section on the same day is headed ‘Radley breathes again’:

Mr Dennis Silk, Warden of Radley, will not be sorry when the strains of Jerusalem… die down for the last time.
‘It’s been a pretty traumatic experience,’ he says, ‘although I hope I would do it again.’…

Mr Richard Denton, the producer of the series, says: ‘I can’t say it thrills me that hundreds of thousands of people will be sending their children to public schools as a result of these programmes, but it doesn’t surprise me that the values represented at Radley are very popular.’(The Times, 20 March 1980)

Clare Sargent
9/3/2012

LATEST NEWS The BBC still holds the copyright on this documentary, however pirate versions are available on youtube.  Contemporary comments echo the original praise and criticism.  A follow-up documentary appeared in 2013.

2 comments

  1. Very interesting article. Thank you. I would just point out that you’ve made a spelling mistake – Warden’s Silk’s first name is ‘Dennis’ not ‘Denis.’

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