That Week On TV: Educating Yorkshire, C4; The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese, BBC1

The nation's finest obs-doc is back - showing us how teachers and pupils have come closer together, says Jack Seale in his weekly TV review


I can hardly remember school, not because it was that long ago, but because nothing happened. Not to me, at least. I wasn’t invited to the dramatic events and never met the vivid characters. I timidly Gary Linekered my way through without once being in detention or attracting attention, hanging with other anonymous swots and waiting for it to end. So like its sublime 2011 predecessor Educating Essex, Educating Yorkshire (Thursdays C4; 4oD) is a chance to go back and smoke behind the sports hall, cry on the head of year’s shoulder, get screamed at in the head’s office. Do it properly.


Except, I think school has changed. Yes, the Educating strand is obsessively edited down from weeks of footage shot by scores of fixed cameras – and yes, it took the makers of Essex months to find Thornhill Academy near Dewsbury, with its 50/50 white/Asian split and its hopeful new head teacher, a chilled-out bouncer called Mr Mitchell. But kids are older now. They’re lairy, sweary, aware of things they probably shouldn’t be aware of. They’re closer to adulthood. So teaching has changed too. Educators are counsellors, motivators and friends as often as they’re what they used to be: distant elders who lay down the law. The constant movement of that blurred line gives Educating Yorkshire its drama.

The star of episode one was Bailey, a 14-year-old with a brassy style borne of adversity and worn with self-deprecating sparkle. Smiling from beneath a stack of straw hair, through thick foundation and lippy, Bailey resisted requests to tone down her look (“Miss Gifford wants me to take my nail varnish off. I can’t!”) before proudly announcing she’d upped the ante. “I’ve shaved me eyebrows off!” She’d drawn them back on, two thick apostrophes from a florid font nobody would ever write in.

Bailey wasn’t brilliant at looking like a grown-up, but her emotional honesty was well ahead of her age. She quite happily explained that the warpaint was covering the scars from a childhood dog bite, and even said in interview how much she admired Mr Mitchell. Hardly any kids at my school would even have met the head and formed an opinion, much less gone on national TV to say how great he was.

Despite a positive meeting in Mr Mitchell’s office (“Bailster!”), Bailey’s plan to become an unlikely prefect was sadly scuppered when she was repeatedly caught smoking. But she’ll rule one day soon.

Sometimes, teachers meeting students halfway goes wrong. With his baby face, greasy hair flanging gaily from the back of his head and tie at quarter mast, Mr Burton appears to be a cheeky Year 11 student who has accidentally been made assistant head. In one of the few stand-alone scenes, he sat on a table at the front of his English class, breaking off from reading The Woman in Black to humiliate a female colleague loitering in the doorway. “’The wind did not moan through the casement. Only the muffled noise went on – and the dog continued to stand.’ Speaking of which: Mrs…” She looked crushed; the kids howled, in outrage as much as amusement. I tentatively want to see what awfulness Mr Burton gets up to next week.

The big story was a detective caper with an extended character coda, as Mr Mitchell investigated whether angelic Kamrrem had been called a “Paki” during a fight in the toilets. After several witness statements it turned out he probably hadn’t, and later we learnt that he’d been hauled into the head’s office for misbehaviour 73 times and would have to be excluded. The crackle of anger in the room when Kamrrem got properly blasted for throwing snowballs in a pensioner’s face (Mr Mitchell: “I’m beyond upset. I’m HOPPING!”), and the sudden pathos when he finally lost his cockiness and crumpled into tears like a little boy, were reminders that all this stuff is serious.

Mostly, though, Educating Wherever is just great at finding people. Obs-doc producers across the nation could work for years without turning up another Ryan, an adult sitcom character trapped in a schoolboy body. Everything Ryan said was a catchphrase: “I’m having a latte!”; “I’m intrigued”; “A big man shoots the guy. A bigger man walks away.”

Ryan’s wisdom came from long, wearying experience: “All my life I’ve not been offered stuff like this,” he said, putting himself forward for Mr Mitchell’s new student council, “or anything special. Now all I want’s a fair shot at it.” Ryan is 12. Bailey laughed at herself for being moved to tears.

Three years ago in Plymouth, a woman in early middle age called Sarah was hospitalised with a migraine and, when she could speak again, her life had become a social experiment. Her West Country accent had gone, replaced by something from a dated Peter Sellers routine. Sarah now sounded like a Chinese woman speaking thickly accented English: vowels flat, consonants missing, clauses mangled.

The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese (Tuesday BBC1; iPlayer) was in the mould of John’s Not Mad, the classic 1989 documentary about a youth with Tourette syndrome: at first, it was funny. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. Sarah and some builders working on her house chatted happily about how she made them chuckle; the film-makers gratuitously filmed her phoning up for a Chinese takeaway; and I am sorry to say that when Sarah had coffee with a fellow sufferer from Gloucester who sounds French, I had to pause it for a bit.

Very quickly, we were sobered by what Sarah had lost. Her husband felt he didn’t know her. A hairdresser clunkingly asked her where she’d been born. Sarah took her sister shopping with her to avoid having to speak to checkout staff. All this just because she sounded different. Talking funny was a sad business, but then Sarah’s speech therapist said something profound about us all changing as we accumulate different experiences. A recording of her old voice didn’t sound better, it just sounded like someone else. Sarah ended her treatment as soon as her speech got a little clearer: sounding Chinese was something else she’d accumulated. The film had followed the John’s Not Mad arc and become strangely cheering.