Beyond Boarders

Publicity image for Boarders TV show

The BBC’s new comedy drama about five black children from an underprivileged part of London who attend an elite boarding school has certainly divided opinion. The first episode of BBC3’s drama shows teenage boarders at a private school pouring champagne over a homeless man and urinating on a classmate’s face. Naturally enough The Guardian loves it whilst the Daily Mail utterly loathes it. I must confess to falling asleep halfway through episode two and have yet to find time to resume viewing. Still, I did watch enough to know that if you are expecting some sort of sophisticated Swiftian satire then you will doubtless be disappointed. Undeniably, there are some funny moments because the writing is sharp and the action is fast-paced. However, viewed as a whole, this show is little more than a grotesque parody that relies almost entirely upon lazy stereotypes and tired cliches. One dimensional characters deliver what amounts to a very long lecture about class, race and privilege. These are topics that we should reflect upon with humility but I believe that we gain much more from listening to the actual lived experiences of young people. Thankfully, the vast majority of modern independent schools are a world apart from the cynical and diabolical pantomime version of a private school conjured up by the scriptwriters of Boarders.

The cast is excellent and there are some very accomplished performances but this is not a show that does nuance and nor is it a show that promotes meaningful debate for it is far too preachy for that. Of course, there is a place for levity and perhaps that is why a well known school felt very comfortable accepting the handsome location fee. In any case, representations of private education in modern dramas are rarely sympathetic and why should they be? Consider the Netflix drama, ‘Fool Me Once’. At least one of my colleagues fretted that Michelle Keegan’s character was allowed to wander around Bolton School without a visitor’s lanyard. ‘That would never happen in real life’, she opined. Naturally, the depiction of the headmaster made me shuffle uncomfortably in my chair as he is a middle-aged white man (with only slightly more grey hair than me). He strutted around his office demonstrating a callous disregard for the suffering and anguish of Michelle Keegan’s earnest and tortured character. His posh voice, whiskey decanter and oak panelling all served to flag up that this private school was a bastion of upper class privilege – a world apart from the lives being led by normal decent folk. It was a world of secret clubs with initiation rites, a world in which summer holidays were routinely spent onboard daddy’s yacht in the Mediterranean. It was a strange and carelessly cruel world; one in which the simple matter of a tragic death was something of a tiresome topic of conversation for a headmaster who would rather have been teeing off at the golf club.

Lanyard-free Michelle Keegan stars in Fool Me Once

Some will argue that these dismal depictions of private education are justifiable or well-deserved and I do not think we should grumble too loudly about these portrayals given that we must acknowledge that these tropes often play upon a theme of entitlement which has, historically at least, been an undeniable aspect of some of the country’s most famous public schools. Gone are the days, when we can expect a gently benign caricature of private education such that offered up in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Decline and Fall’. There is a righteous anger in the air and those who dislike private education focus on damning portrayals of egregious excess in order to hammer home their point whereas Waugh was writing from a position of profound snobbery. From a dramatic perspective, such portrayals are both fun and relatable. ‘Look at those posh idiots…..etc’. Dramatists have a tendency to pour every negative attribute imaginable into those of their characters whom they send off to private schools. Incidentally, you may have noticed that privately educated figures are rarely afforded much of an opportunity to express empathy or reveal anything about their inner emotional landscape. Consider the twins in the recent Netflix drama, ‘One Day’.

There is a rather fun body of literature which blames Oxford or Eton for Brexit, the mishandling of Covid and pretty much every social and economic ill that has ever existed since the beginning of time. I must confess that I enjoyed Richard Beard’s polemic, ‘Sad Little Men: Inside the secretive world that shaped Boris Johnson’. It is a rollicking good read and it certainly wears its heart on its sleeve. Simon Kuper’s ‘Chums’ is equally brilliant and takes us on a riotous trip through entitled privilege, extravagant parties and the insatiable desire for power. Matthew Paris describes it as ‘a searing onslaught on the smirking Oxford insinuation that politics is all just a game’. Meanwhile, Lynn Barber describes it as ‘a sparkling firework of a book’. Of course, it is something of a national disgrace that no less than twenty British Prime Ministers went to the same school. Unless you believe that there is something quite extraordinary in the air around Slough, it is smacks of nepotism, privilege and entitlement. I sensed some of that entitlement on display during my own university years. As a state grammar boy from Essex, I sometimes felt like an imposter. By contrast, those who had attended top public schools tended to carry themselves with a confidence that suggested they were not plagued by my own crippling self-doubt. This is not a criticism of them or the schools they attended. If children leave school as confident young people who are comfortable within their own skins then that should be viewed as an absolute positive. It is not Eton’s fault that Oxbridge and Westminster seemed to demonstrate a very clear bias in their favour. 

Schools are rich sources of inspiration for authors and dramatists and it is easy to see why. From ‘Grange Hill’ to ‘Waterloo Road’ from ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ to the ‘Inbetweeners’, the fictional portrayal of our schools often tells us a good deal about the state of society and the challenges and pain of growing up. At the moment, those who dislike private education choose to portray them as bastions of cruelty, entitlement and privilege. Of course, this is not how we perceive ourselves and we should feel proud of the remarkable diversity that exists within schools such as Rossall. However, there is little comedic potential in portraying a community that is inclusive, diverse and at ease with itself. There is little drama to be gained from focusing upon children who are kind, compassionate and caring. There is no shock value in portraying children who are humble, gentle and desire to dedicate their lives to serving others as nurses, doctors, teachers or police officers. It is much more satisfying to portray private school children as champagne fueled hedonists whose only purpose in life is to burn a hole in Mummy and Daddy’s platinum card whilst elbowing their way to political power in Westminster. It is an absurd caricature….or at least it would be if it were not for the fact that, historically, a tiny percentage of those who have attended private schools have behaved in this manner.

So we should not be angry about unkind portrayals which are comically behind the curve – other than for the fact that such portrayals seek to negatively stereotype privately educated children in a way that feels uncomfortable and weirdly personal. It is one thing to be ethically opposed to private education but I think we cross a line if we risk demonising a particular group of children in society. Still, we should be reflective enough to recognise that these stereotypes have not been born out of nothing. We should not be afraid to laugh at ourselves and we should recognise that drama is a wonderfully powerful tool for highlighting injustice. We do not have a God given right to exist and nor should we expect to escape the barbs of the satirist’s pen.

Of course, Derek Walker Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘Out of Step’ should be of particular interest to Rossallians. Published in 1930, it is based on Walker-Smith’s life at Rossall and charts his journey from socialism to liberalism. Walker-Smith went on to become Chairman of the 1922 Committee (1951-55) and Economic Secretary to the Treasury (1956-57).

Derek Walker Smith (1910-1992)

If we are not happy with the portrayal of private education then we need to work harder to provide an effective counter-narrative. Rather than getting riled up, we need to shine a light on a depiction of our sector which is outdated, unrepresentative, lazy, occasionally funny, but almost always unkind. We should tell the stories of our communities more effectively. There are wonderful, lyrical, tender, life-affirming stories to be told about communities like Rossall and it is our duty to tell those stories with gentleness, honesty and sensitivity.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School