Chalk: Series 1 Review
Steven Moffat's Chalk, set in a comprehensive school, was one of the most reviled situation comedies of the 1990s. Nobody seemed to like it; not critics, not audiences and certainly not the National Union of Teachers. But if you get on the same wavelength as the show - and it's admittedly very silly at times - then its consistently funny, wildly inventive and beautifully structured.
The series is set at Galfast High School and deals with the machinations of the Deputy Head, Eric Slatt (Bamber). Slatt is a classic comic monster who hates his staff, hates children and punishes anyone who chooses to make more than one arts subject by telling the rugby team that they're gay. Obsessed with sex and afflicted by social pretentions, Slatt is doomed to live a life of constant frustration surrounded by a staff of lunatics, with the notable exception of newly qualified Suzy Travis (Walker). His wife is his secretary, his head of English talks only in Anglo-Saxon epithets, his music teacher has made up an entire class of puplis and the PE master is a bondage freak. Meanwhile, the headmaster, Richard M. Nixon (Wells) is on another planet.
What Moffat is particularly good at is the basic skill of writing farce; setting up a central situation and adding complication upon complication until the anti-hero is running around in increasingly desperate circles. It's not just the comic climax which is important - Slatt sitting in class without his trousers or being forced to piss out of a window in full view of national television - but the minute building towards it. In this respect, David Bamber's performance as Eric Slatt is quite brilliant. It's not what you'd call a subtle piece of acting but subtlety is emphatically not required and Bamber's sheer fearlessness is a delight to watch. The more desperate Slatt's position gets, the funnier he is and there's a particularly wonderful moment in the second episode, "The Interview" where, for reasons too complicated to explain, he has to pretend to be two different people for the benefit of a blind interviewer. He also revels in Moffat's flights of verbal fancy as one misplaced remark leads to a nightmarish morass of inappropriate comments.
It's important to point out that this has nothing to do with reality, despite the complaints of the NUT, and the school setting is just that - a setting. Complaining that Eric Slatt is incapable of being a Deputy Head is as idiotic as worrying about whether Basil Fawlty could successfully run a hotel or someone like Rigsby could run a boarding house. That said, my own experiences as a teacher tell me that there is a certain element of truth in the portrayal of a senior member of staff as a rampant egomaniac. But that's beside the point and the educational setting is basically a crutch upon which to hang various farcical situations. The best episodes - "Both Called Eric", "The Inspection", "The Interview" - could not have taken place in any other environment but build into crazy but ruthlessly logical plotting which has little to do with education and everything to do with farcical comedy.
Like all good situation comedies, there is a strong collection of supporting actors. Nicola Walker has lots to do as Suzy Travis and does it well but the best moments concern Amanda Boxer as the insane Amanda Trippley and John Grillo in the deliberately one-note role of Mr Carkdale who has fifty different ways of saying "Bollocks". There are also consistently lovely moments from Geraldine Fitzgerald as Slatt's sardonic wife and Martin Ball as the modern languages teacher who has invented an entire new language. The guest cast list is equally impressive, featuring such familiar faces as Milton Johns, Paul Brooke and Deborah Norton.
I'm not entirely sure why Chalk was so hated at the time, although I remember a couple of critics championing the brilliance of the plotting. The decision of the BBC publicity department to compare it to Fawlty Towers didn't help of course nor did the incessent hype which suggested it was the best comedy series for years. Fourteen years on, it's something of a lost jewel which deserved a lot better than it got and still might find an appreciative audience.
At one point it appeared that I would have to rely on my battered old VHS copies of Chalk since it seemed to have sunk without trace. Fortunately, Replay DVD - fresh from their success with the two series of Joking Apart - have answered my prayers and released the first series on DVD.
The series is presented in its original episodic format with each part running about 29 minutes. The image is in its correct full screen ratio, this being a few years before 16:9 became the BBC standard. I don't know how much restoration was done on the original video but these episodes look lovely - crisp, clean and vibrant. The stereo soundtrack is also impressive, rightly concentrating on the dialogue which stretches across the front speakers.
There are two major extras on the disc. Firstly, each episode has a commentary track featuring most of the main cast. These are a little repetitive but what shines out is that cast's enthusiasm for the show. Secondly, there is a new documentary made by Replay called "After The Chalk Dust Settled" which looks at the conception of the show, its production and the distinctly negative reaction it received from many critics. Notable by his absence is Steven Moffat who apparently regards the show with loathing - the reception was a painful experience for him and it seems that he was determined to evade the hostility by wiping it from his mind. It's a shame because, as indicated above, I think it's some of his best work and I'd happily exchange all three series of Coupling for a couple of episodes of Chalk.
It would be wrong to say that Chalk has a major cult following but it's a show which people tended to either despise or love - and if you loved it, it's unlikely you will have forgotten it. Newcomers who catch up with the it may well be surprised that a programme with such brilliant structure and sharp wit was consigned to the critical dustbin with so little thought or reflection.
Chalk: Series 1 is only available from the Replay Shop. Details can be found here.