Tales Out of School Review
Tales Out of School was the name given to a quartet of standalone television plays written by David Leland in the early eighties and broadcast by ITV, over four consecutive weeks, during the June and July of 1983. Two years later they were broadcast once more, this time on Channel 4, after which they largely disappeared from view. Except one. The final film in the series, Made in Britain, subsequently attained a sizeable cult audience, in part thanks to its subject matter - Tim Roth plays a disaffected youth who also happens to be a skinhead - and in part thanks to its major players: not only young Roth, but also director Alan Clarke. Indeed, Made in Britain has had something of an afterlife courtesy of this cult appeal and the easy availability of VHS and DVD editions. So much so that there’s a likelihood that many will be attracted to Network’s Tales Out of School set simply because it sees the film making the upgrade to high definition. And yet whilst it had overshadowed the others in terms of reputation and audience size since those initial transmissions, part of the pleasure of these new discs is the manner in which they redress the balance. For all the ink spilt on Clarke since his untimely death in 1990, for all the subsequent stardom of Roth, for all those VHS and DVD sales, Made in Britain is not the sole outstanding effort of the Tales Out of School.
As the series title indicates, Leland’s plays each concern themselves with the education system as it stood during the early eighties and those affected by it. The opener, Birth of a Nation, is the only one to be fully set in a school, presenting a few weeks in the life of a comprehensive as seen through the eyes of a handful of teachers and pupils. Flying into the Wind, conversely, considers home schooling, this time from the perspective of the family involved and the courts who seek to hinder their unconventional methods. The final two plays both take a look at non-attendees and the system(s) they enter when once choose to opt out. In RHINO (an acronym for Real Here in Name Only, we learn) the focus is on a young black girl who signs in every morning then bunks off for the rest of the day, primarily to care for her pre-school-aged nephew (all other parental figures are either absent or effectively invisible). In Made in Britain we have the tail-end of the system: a few days in the company of a young offender as he awaits a court date in an assessment centre, yet nonetheless continues on his own anti-social path, seemingly unaware that the adult world into which he is soon to enter will not be quite so lenient or forgiving.
There is no cross-over throughout Tales Out of School, no recurring characters and no reference to shared events. Yet whilst each of the four plays may be entirely self-contained, clearly their themes and subject matter inform on one another. The home schooling of Flying into the Wind, for example, is presented as a mirror image to the more traditional education methods found in Birth of a Nation. Likewise the central characters of RHINO and Made in Britain are two sides of the same coin; different race, different gender, but both subject to the same machinations that, ultimately, do them no favours. More obviously the four plays all share Leland’s insistence that something is very clearly wrong - none of them paint a pretty picture and none of them leave the audience on a particularly high note. These are films that end on varying shades of bleakness and, needless to say, pack quite the punch. Even from a distance of almost thirty years there’s little denying the force.
Indeed, Birth of a Nation, which culminates with rioting pupils, understandably feels incredibly topical. The sole setting is an underachieving comprehensive - “not the brightest star in the educational firmament” - and it’s a claustrophobic one. Here firecrackers go off during assembly and the school bell sounds like a particularly intense car alarm. There are tensions between pupils, tensions between teachers and tensions between pupils and teachers - sometimes with the expected figures of authority acting as co-conspirator. (Bruce Payne’s P.E. teacher, for example, comes across as more head bully than responsible adult during his classes.) We view the school through various eyes, both young and old, but our ostensible lead is Jim Broadbent’s teacher, relatively new to the job and in possession of a dry humour and healthy cynicism. He also sees himself as something of a realist. Placed in charge of the worst class in the entire school - they’ve already seen three others like him in the past year - he comes across kids entirely disenfranchised from the whole thing. Lessons to them are simply a case of taking notes. The regular cry from a young Lisa Geoghan (later to find fame in The Bill) is “…but do we need to write it down?” over and over again.
Her attitude, though she may not know it, perfectly apes that which the school requires: write it down, pass the test, earn the qualification, leave school. Nothing more, nothing less. The essential emptiness of this is shown time and again, through disaffected pupils such as Geoghan, through disaffected teachers such as Broadbent or Bruce Myers’ quietly subversive science tutor who at least attempt a change, and through disaffected school leavers who have the piece of paper but not the understanding of how the adult world works. Just as importantly its shown through a distinctly realistic style that makes this all the more forceful. The school at the centre of Birth of a Nation feels like a school, from tiny details such as the smoke-filled staff room to more general elements such as the performances from the kids. There is nothing that feels out of place or any hint of fakery which only serves to make Leland’s occasionally more shocking/unexpected turns (the scene with the spanking mag, say, or the culmination of violence) feel perfectly natural. Of course, much of the praise for this must be given to director Mike Newell, here coming to an end of his work in television (Coronation Street, various Play for Today, ITV Playhouse and Saturday Night Theatre one-offs, working with a young Leland - prior to his becoming a writer - on Big Breadwinner Hog). Of course, it didn’t escape my attention that twenty-plus years later he would direct an altogether more fantastical school-set film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
If Birth of a Nation shows how traditional schooling, or at least its comprehensive model, is failing its pupils, then Flying into the Wind offers up an alternative. But first it takes us back to 1969 and a practically wordless opening that suggests thriller more than it does social problem film. (Director Edward Bennett, who made a number of experimental films with the BFI’s backing at the start of his career, would later move more firmly into television thriller territory, working on the likes of Waking the Dead and Dalziel and Pascoe.) A young girl has disappeared from school, setting the police into action and her parents into a panic. A mere false alarm in thriller terms given that she is later found on her doorstep, but the first in a series of incidents which will see her removed from school and home tutored. Her absenteeism is more than a simply case of truancy, as psychologically-triggered deafness and dyslexia reveal more complicated problems. Interestingly, all of the authority figures whom the parents encounter during this time - teachers, government officials - come across as incredibly harsh and matter-of-fact; there is little sense of compassion or even understanding on their part, more that a job must be done - and with all the lack of emotional attachment such a description suggests.
It’s an attitude that pervades once we move into the present day. The young girl is now a young adult and has a brother - born during Flying into the Wind’s opening scenes - who similarly followed the home schooling route. The action is split between two locations: the courts where the education of the young boy is being debated; and the small rural home on which the family lives (and learns). Leland knew such a family and his time with them as he researched the film understandably feeds into the action. Indeed, the contrast with Birth of a Nation couldn’t be more pronounced. Here the children do not learn to a set syllabus and nothing else, but rather in relation to their own personal interests and necessity. The courts take issue with this “unguided” approach, one that doesn’t favour ‘the three Rs’ and other conventions, though it’s quite clear where Leland’s own sentiments lie. Too clearly, perhaps, as the girl’s time in the stand includes a particularly eloquent speech that undoubtedly feels more playwright that it does real life.
Yet this is a rare flaw in a thought-provoking work. Covering less scope that Birth of a Nation, Flying in the Wind is the quieter, more personal film. It asks us to consider the details and, given the far smaller cast, is able to spend greater time in the company of its central characters. Director Bennett matches this was a nicely observational method during the rural scenes, simply watching as the young boy and his father work in the garage or take their boat out on the water. With that said it’s also important to note that he never romanticises the situation either; judgements are left firmly with the viewer, even if Leland’s own stance remains far from invisible. Arguably Birth of a Nation is the superior of the two - it’s certainly both denser and richer thanks to its extended scope - and, when viewed as part of the Tales Out of School quartet, Flying into the Wind can feel like something of a companion piece. But this is tough company we’re dealing with and such considerations shouldn’t take away from its very qualities.
The balance between RHINO and Made in Britain, both of which concern themselves with individuals who have effectively opted out of any education altogether, is arguably better placed. Whilst Made in Britain may have garnered all the kudos over the years and is by far the more immediate courtesy of its Steadicam camerawork by Chris Menges and fierce central character (the opening scene combines both with bursts of punk courtesy of the Exploited in a manner that instantly grabs the viewer), RHINO is ultimately just as affecting. Both find their protagonists - Made in Britain’s Trevor (played by Roth); RHINO’s Angie (Deltha McLeod) - coming to an end of what would be their school years if they properly attended, but also to an end of the system that has dealt with them repeatedly in recent years. Made in Britain begins with Trevor in court before being taken to an assessment centre. It ends with a police constable (a youthful Christopher Fulford) informing him that he’ll soon be in the adult world and subject to a cycle of prison, release, unemployment, crime and more prison. In-between times the key scene comes when a social worker breaks down exactly how Trevor got to this point and just how complicated that process is. By contrast RHINO opens with Angie attending school only to duck out as soon as her name is on the register. She goes to care for pre-school nephew, seemingly the nearest to a parental figure the child has in his life. We later learn that she has caught truanting on numerous occasions and gone through a series of social workers. As the film progresses the approach of the authorities hardens as Angie’s options are considered and, eventually, enacted. Just like the other Tales Out of School, the conclusion is a bleak one.
Both Angie and Trevor are seen to be intelligent types - each film contains a moment in which a social worker points out their “brightness” - but the reasoning behind their respective situations is markedly different. Angie seems to have been forced, unwillingly, into hers. Ask whether she would be bunking off were it not for her nephew and the answer, although not an easy one to make, would hopefully be a ‘no’. Her truancy is guided by this responsibility as is a later shoplifting incident; in both cases she’s only doing what’s best for the child. (We see the father a couple of times, once asleep during the day and on the other occasion pinching a cigarette.) By way of contrast Trevor’s situation appears to be entirely his own doing. Admittedly we learn very little about his past, but this lack (in comparison to the very obvious reasons for Angie’s current plight) would appear to be a deliberate move on Leland’s part. Consequently we never sympathise with Trevor in the way we do Angie, although that doesn’t prevent us from being fascinated nonetheless either with him or the route his life is taking.
Indeed, when watching RHINO and Made in Britain back-to-back, as this set allows us to do once more, it’s interesting to consider the differing reactions to Angie’s and Trevor’s respective treatment. The final scene of RHINO is incredibly stark - arguably the starkest in the entire quartet - as it completely dehumanises an uncomprehending Angie. Trevor’s is little better, but comes with a full understanding on his part and is offset by the racism, drug abuse, violence and general anti-social behaviour he’s displayed over the previous hour’s worth of screen time. Is Leland commenting that the system refuses to differentiate between the Angies and the Trevors and the world? There is little impression given that he believes Trevor should be getting such treatment, and yet Trevor certainly feels less of a victim than Angie does. Interestingly, she isn’t present during the scenes in which various social workers and her headmaster discuss the possibilities for her future, yet Trevor is centre-stage for every minute of Made in Britain.
As noted at the start of this review much has been written about Made in Britain, Alan Clarke, Tim Roth’s remarkable performance for someone so young at the time and the tremendous energy of it all. Consequently it’s one of those films that we think we know because we’ve become so familiar with it over time. As such it’s fascinating to have the context changed simply by watching alongside the other Tales Out of School for the first time (or first time in years, as the case may be). No longer is it a superb standalone play, but part of a much broader attack on the modern education system. More importantly, it’s also part, once again, of a superb quartet of plays. Understandably a review such as this one cannot hope to do justice to each within a reasonable word count, but hopefully there’s some indication of the complexity and quality contained above. Put simply, Network cannot be thanked enough for bringing the four plays together once more, and on Blu-ray no less, when it probably would have been just as financially rewarding for them to issue Made in Britain on its own.
The four plays which make up Tales Out of School are spread over two dual-layered discs which, according to the packaging, are encoded for Region B. The first disc houses Birth of a Nation, Flying into the Wind and RHINO, whilst the second contains Made in Britain and the various extras. Each of the films comes in its original 1.33:1 ratio as per original television transmission and its original mono soundtrack. Shot on 16mm and no doubt under quick conditions given their TV origins, understandably the cinematography is not going to be of the utmost quality (excepting the dynamism of Chris Menges’ Steadicam work on Made in Britain) and so it is that the ordinariness shines through: the smoky staff room of Birth of a Nation; the grey skies that seemingly permeate each and every film. Nevertheless the HD treatment brings out the colours in Birth of a Nation and contains a terrific amount of detail (perhaps a little more than anticipated during the scenes involving pornographic magazines!). A fine grain is discernible and no technical flaws come through. However, sadly the same cannot be said for Flying into the Wind which suffers from the softest image on display, an odd pixel-like ‘grain’ that sits over the image like some digital nastiness, and colours that have noticeably paled and, in some cases, gone a little green. The result is not unwatchable, but it is ugly - and certainly a disappointment following the fine presentation for Birth of a Nation. Thankfully, RHINO and Made in Britain improve on matters with only a couple of heavily grained scenes in each (the social workers’ discussion in the former, the opening court appearance in the latter) looking slightly unnatural. Otherwise, the results are as good as those found on the first film. Soundtracks, meanwhile, are superb in all cases.
The main extras are a pair of featurettes in which Leland features heavily. The first, ‘Twice Told Tales’, is a 39-minute look back over the entire quartet that made up Tales Out of School, taking in their initial (and real life) inspirations, the manner of their productions and the themes they discuss. The most remarkable thing is how easy it was for Leland to get the project off the ground. When he approached producer Margaret Matheson (who’s also interview for this piece) with the basic idea, she responded “How many do you want to do?” - unimaginable today! This piece is also bookended with a screening of Birth of a Nation to a bunch of school kids presumably nearing leaving age; their discussion with Leland on its themes and how things have changed occupy the final ten minutes.
The second featurette is entitled ‘Digging for Britain’ and concerns itself solely with Made in Britain. Leland and Matheson return for interviews and are joined by actors Sean Chapman and Eric Richard (no Roth), and Stephen Frears (who has worked with Roth and Chris Menges and knew Alan Clarke). Of course, there is a little overlap with the other piece, especially at the beginning, but this is nonetheless an in-depth 30 minutes that covers all the requisite angles and takes in both the factual and the anecdotal. Interestingly it was Menges’ work on Frears’ Walter that prompted the Steadicam use. Note, however, that this particular feature is presented in upscaled standard definition, whereas ‘Twice Told Tales’ is in genuine HD.
Rounding off the package we also find an on-disc image gallery containing plenty of production stills for each of the films and a 36-page booklet with a newly commissioned piece by Alan Clarke’s biographer David Rolinson.