The producers of Educating Yorkshire (Thursday C4; 4oD) knew they’d already delivered another fantastic series to follow Educating Essex: seven episodes of artful, humane documentary-making at Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury, creating the sort of show viewers miss like a friend when it ends. Subtly but powerfully political, too: it might be that not all teachers work extraordinarily hard, have more valuable and unmeasurable things than exam results on their mind and deserve a huge pay rise this instant, but finding a whole school stuffed with them is hard to dismiss.
Imagine, though, how delicious it must have been to also know they’d saved their best for last: that the eighth and final instalment, covering GCSEs and the end of Year 11, would have the nation sobbing and cheering together like few TV programmes ever have. The story of Musharaf Asghar overcoming his stammer with help from his English teacher, Matthew Burton, instantly turned both into national heroes.
Brilliantly edited obs-docs like Educating Essex, 24 Hours in A&E and One Born Every Minute have made it a cliché to observe that real life can provide better drama than dramas can, but it’s true and it was so true here. In short, this was a better version of the film namechecked by Mr Burton as he worked with Musharaf: The King’s Speech. It too was an uplifting tale of a stammerer facing the ordeal of speaking at an event with a lot riding on it, but instead of a dramatisation we were watching it unfold for real – and instead of a distant, dusty monarch whose wartime radio broadcast was underpinned by a simple personal struggle, here the personal struggle was everything. Musharaf needed to get a C in GCSE English, and to do that he had to complete an oral assessment. As the episode began, Mushy, a stammerer since the age of five, could barely speak.
Mr Burton only turned 30 during the programme and is yet to master his hair or buying a suit that fits, but has risen to the position of assistant head at Thornhill through the killer combination of caring deeply but never making this too obvious to the students. Mr Burton’s speciality: special classes for students on the C/D boundary in GCSE English, an extra mile that some folk would tell you is not worth walking. For Mr Burton and his colleagues, however, letting students with potential slip away is not an option.
As Mr Burton went through The Woman in Black, climbing onto his desk to make the sound of footsteps and reading in silly voices, Musharaf kept putting his hand up to answer questions. Mr Burton explained in interview that he always does that, and that he always has since year 7, even though he knows the result will be an agonising silence as everyone waits for the words to come out, and it would be much easier to stay silent.
In the cramped office of year 11 head Mrs Crowther and year 7 head Mrs Marsden, we saw Musharaf pop in again and again, and learnt how he’d wanted to leave the school in year 7 until Crowther and Marsden stamped out the bullying and took Mushy under their wings. Recently, being sucked into a war of words on Facebook had led headmaster Mr Mitchell to take away Musharaf’s prefect jumper, causing a crisis of confidence and his worst stammering ever. “We did that,” said Mr Mitchell ruefully, as he promised to build Mushy back up again.
Interviewed by the programme-makers, Mushy typed out his plan on a laptop: “Go to college do science because I like science, hopefully go to uni in Huddersfield. Big dreams.” Crowther and Marsden arranged for him to meet a tutor from the college in Huddersfield to make the prospect of losing his Thornhill support network less daunting. The tutor asked where Mushy lived. “D…. D….. D…..”
This programme exactly encapsulated the agonising frustration of stammering. “Someone is keeping my mouth closed,” Mushy typed. “Inside I feel like smashing my head with a hammer.” The tutor from Huddersfield said it had been nice to meet Mushy. “It w… oh come on!” said Mushy, before trying the technique of tapping out a rhythm on his legs. “It. Was. Nice. To. Meet. You. Too.” Mrs Marsden covered her eyes.
So with Mr Burton rocking it in class, Mrs Crowther and Mrs Marsden desperately wanting their boy to succeed, and Musharaf himself having outlined his big, small dream of studying science in Huddersfield, there was just one problem: Mushy was nowhere near being able to pass his oral exam. Cue Mr Burton with a miracle borrowed from the inferior movie version of this perfect story: during one of his and Musharaf’s endless extra sessions after school, out came the teacher’s phone and headphones, on went some music to fill the silence and distract the brain – and there was Mushy’s voice, reading a poem out loud. It was staccato, with the odd long pause and several stumbles, but words were tumbling out. Mushy was talking. Singing.
This, the TV moment of the year, had elements of Hollywood contrivance. The poem Mr Burton happened to have chosen was The Moment by Margaret Atwood: “The moment when, after many years/of hard work and a long voyage/you stand in the centre of your room,/house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,/knowing at last how you got there,/and say, I own this…” But there could be no quibbling, since the programme-makers had laid the ground so carefully, and Mr Burton had clearly put the work in, after hours, year after year. Musharaf, the kid who never, ever stopped putting his hand up, had tried and tried again and been rewarded.
Mr Burton wouldn’t let the cameras into the GCSE oral itself – so it seemed the scene in the classroom with just Mushy and Burton, and the lovely coda after the exam (“Sir. I… come on! I. App. Reciate. All. Of. The. Help. You. Are. Giv. Ing. Me”) would be the emotional peak. It would have been more than enough. But Mushy had a bit more awesomeness in reserve. On the last day of term, as the giant straggly family that was year 11 got together to scrawl on each other’s shirts and say goodbye, Musharaf – in his newly regained prefect’s jumper – got up in front of everyone and gave a fluid speech thanking the school and Mr Burton. Mrs Marsden was crying so hard she was almost curled up on the floor. At home, millions of us were the same.
Finally, a full series for Toast of London (Sundays C4; 4oD). It only piloted last year but feels as if it’s taken ages to arrive, since it means at last Matt Berry has a cage big enough for his talent to prowl in. Supporting roles and cult series on BBC3 and Radio 4 were never enough. He is Steven Toast: crap actor, enormous moustache-sporter, puffy lothario. The first proper episode saw him date a journalist known for cold hatchet jobs who turned out to be both an extreme hoarder and the sort of person who chucks supermarket trolleys into canals; and awkwardness at home as his flatmate Ed romanced a beautiful African girl whose cosmetic surgery procedure – conducted by Toast’s nemesis, Ray Purchase – had left her looking like Bruce Forsyth (Generation Game era).
Berry has a silly fondness for Zucker-brothers visual gags, hysterical crash-zooms and silly voices. His delivery of the stock line “These things come in threes”, with the last word almost imperceptibly given seven extra “e”s, was one of many absurd nuggets buried everywhere. Toast of London thrums with the possibility of big laughs in unexpected places, the danger of that approach being that the show can feel scattergun when you want a great sitcom to be merciless. At times it felt a bit too Susan Random – other fantastic character names included Clem Fandango and Beezus Fafoon, although the latter was just Ray Purchase’s latest alias – but if Berry and co-writer Arthur Mathews can funnel Berry’s exploding genius a little tighter, Toast of London could be a weird symphony, a comic world of its own.