“I’d been telling my mates all about it, of course, and they were all saying, ‘You’re not in it very much are you?’ But you can’t really say, ‘Well, keep watching because this is going to happen in the final episode.”
Thornhill Academy’s assistant head and English teacher, Matthew Burton, is recalling events leading up to last year’s climactic finale of Educating Yorkshire, the documentary series that told the story of a Dewsbury comprehensive turning itself around under the leadership of charismatic headteacher, Jonny Mitchell.
Interest in this follow-up to Educating Essex had been building steadily, with audiences of over four million. Then, last December, in the finale, something rather special happened. Whether or not Educating Yorkshire wins the Radio Times Audience Award at next month’s Baftas, few would deny that it delivered the most emotional television moment of 2013.
The final episode introduced us to year 11 student Musharaf Asghar, a bright, engaging boy bedevilled by an acute stammer. His impending English GCSE required him to recite a poem, an ordeal that seemed impossible until the intervention of Mr Burton. Inspired by The King’s Speech, the teacher hit upon the idea of making Musharaf listen to some music to help his delivery. The tactic worked and – to the sound of a nation collectively reaching for the Kleenex – Musharaf read Margaret Atwood’s poem The Moment almost without a hitch.
Before the audience could compose itself, the programme took us to the end of term with Musharaf standing in front of the entirety of year 11 and, again with the help of his iPod, delivering a speech thanking everyone in the school for their support in overcoming the bullying he endured in his first year and restoring his confidence. As Mr Burton and Mushy began trending worldwide on Twitter, Educating Yorkshire exited in a blaze of blubbing glory. Fast-forward four months and the pair have travelled to London for a photoshoot. Musharaf has now moved to a sixth-form college in Dewsbury (helped by his crucial C in English) where he’s taking BTECs in science. His stammer is still pronounced and at times our interview seems like torture for him, although he never comes close to losing his smile, let alone his temper. His bond with Mr Burton appears as tight as ever; the teacher helps him throughout the interview, with strategies that include singing, tapping out a rhythm and counting to three.
When I ask Musharaf about the role Mr Burton played in his early school days, he finally resorts to writing down, “Going to a new school was a big jump for me. I didn’t really know what was going on. So, yeah, Mr Burton was a big part in helping me to speak.”
“Mushy has never made excuses for himself,” Mr Burton responds. “There are kids who won’t put their hands up and answer questions, but Mushy always would. He’s always had the confidence and since year seven he’s had a group of really close mates who’ve supported him.”
Recalling the lesson where Musharaf made his breakthrough, Mr Burton remembers worrying that his tactic might actually backfire.
“We didn’t really expect much to happen in that session. My main concern was that it didn’t set him back. So for him to go from not being able to get his words out to doing that was unbelievable. I saw David Brindley [Educating Yorkshire’s producer] later and said, ‘You must have got that,’ and he said there wasn’t a dry eye in the production team. He could not believe it.”
Musharaf, who’s planning to study at Huddersfield University, watched a preview of the show with his family. “I saw Mushy just after he’d seen it,” laughs Mr Burton. “I said, ‘What did you think?’ And he said, ‘It’s all right. My mum and sister were crying their eyes out, though.’” What about your dad? “Oh yeah, he was crying a bit too,” smiles Musharaf.
The show’s success was instantly reflected on Twitter. “Mushy sent me a tweet,” recalls Mr Burton of the night of the broadcast. “I sent him a reply that said, ‘Good lad’ and it got retweeted and favourited thousands of times.” Mr Burton recalls being “absolutely overjoyed” when he mustered 100 followers on Twitter. He now has 39,000, while Musharaf boasts 15,000, among them, to his pleasure, the magician Dynamo.
More acclaim followed when they won Most Popular Documentary Series at the National Television Awards. “It was the most surreal night of my life,” recalls Mr Burton. “It was like stepping into the telly. At the party afterwards, I asked for a bottle of champagne. They said, ‘How many do you want?’ Just one! I wandered over with it to [fellow teacher] Michael Steer, who was sat with Bradley Walsh putting the world to rights. I looked around at one point and saw Mushy chewing the ear off Roy Hodgson!”
For Mr Burton, however, the biggest changes are being witnessed at the school and in the town. Since Educating Yorkshire aired, Thornhill has been inundated with people offering help and support. Broadchurch’s Jodie Whittaker came in to deliver an acting workshop at the school, which has seen a surge in applications.
“The kids are walking a few inches taller,” Mr Burton explains. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m from Thornhill and I’m proud,’ and that’s not always been the case. If the show has done one thing for us as a school it’s that. And that makes us incredibly proud.”
It’s up to you to decide the Radio Times Audience Award from the six TV shows shortlisted above. Voting closes: 12 noon, 15 May. The Arqiva British Academy Television Awards are held on 18 May.