This spiritual successor of The Office is a very funny and well-observed spoof documentary set in a grimy school, and is the sort of comedy that will get better with repeated viewings. But whether Summer Heights High scales the same Olympian heights as The Office will only be apparent after the full series.
What was good about it?
• The strongest character of the three played by Chris Lilley (who also wrote the show) is the sublimely named drama teacher Greg Gregson, or Mr G as he claims his “adoring” pupils refer to him.
• Yes, on the surface he is a cut-out-and-keep camp drama teacher, indistinguishable from a phalanx of throwaway Little Britain grotesques, but he is far closer to David Brent both in unintentional humour and acerbic self-delusion.
• Mr G always appears to be suffering from the perdition of yearning to wrest control of the drama department from Meredith Cotton – “Sometimes I think ‘what’s she doing?’. But it’s her choice” – while caustically in a state of self-denial that he should be so much more than a mere drama teacher, shown in him recollecting a recurring pseudo-good natured chat with the principal, “I tell her, ‘you’ve got an entertainment industry professional for the price of a teacher – so where’s my pay rise?’” This echoes redolently with David Brent’s belief that he was an entertainer.
• And as with much brilliant comedy, Mr G’s morals and views often threaten to tumble into bad taste, but always manage to manoeuvre an escape route through sheer hilarity. On the award-winning play he staged, Tsunamarama: “It’s about the Tsunami tragedy set to the music of Bananarama.”
• Or during his guided tour of the school: “We used to have huge bushes there, but we had a girl raped behind them so we had to have them cut down.” Which, of course, is a rather grim subject, but the humour derives from the disappointment in Mr G’s voice that the aesthetic quality of the playground being diminished was the worst thing about it.
• Or his dance classes for the Special Education Centre, or his envy at the budgets of a rival schools drama department. He and his staff room ally Rodney attended the play Bully Elliott, a musical about the true story of “a child bashed into a coma”.
• Jonah Takalua is the Tim Cantebury of Summer Heights High, not in character, as he is a rabid 13-year-old delinquent who frequently gets expelled from schools, but more in the sense that he provides the human interest thread who will hook you into the narrative of the series rather than the more dislocated, spasmodic scenes featuring Mr G or Ja’mie.
• Jonah is racist, sexist, vulgar, and vile and everything that’s bad about teenagers and boys, but just as you’re losing hope with him his father comes to pick him up from school. And it all falls into place, as Jonah’s father is a bigger bully than his son in every conceivable way, partly explaining Jonah’s appalling behaviour and leaving scope for him to be redeemed in future episodes.
• Although, we hope he’s not so burnished clean of insolence that he is absent of sullen defiance such as when Mr Paterson admonishes him for bullying a younger boy. “Was it fun for Ben?” “Yes, but he just didn’t get that it was funny.”
• But back to more Mr G moments. When one of the Special Education Centre pupils ambushes him in the playground and wraps him in a joyful hug, Mr G explains, with regard to the rules on physical contact between pupils and teachers, the difference between “fine” and “not fine”.
• While Mr G’s drama lessons include games such as “Slap the butcher” – essentially running round the room – but also “Sometimes I just perform for them to give them the benchmark for industry level professionals.”
What was bad about it?
• The only one of the three leads we’re apathetic to at the moment is Ja’mie, a spoilt girl who has transferred from another school on a temporary exchange programme. She currently is a rather facile facsimile of a dozen Britney Spears caricatures, who flounces around her new school like Lady Muck looking down on everybody. However, as the other two leads are so marvellously realised, this is only a transient view rather than a damning judgement, but we hope she’s more amusing and iconoclastic in future episodes.
• Sometimes Mr G does sail too close to David Brent. We only know this as the following lines could have come from the mouth of the erstwhile Wernham Hogg manager, and made us laugh just as much: “People say that drama is a poofo’s subject, that there are no jobs in it. Wrong. Drama changes lives.” “Staff say to me, ‘don’t confuse your role, you are here to educate’. Wrong again. I’m here to inspire them!”
• And the way the scenes are broken up with innocuous shots of school lockers or busy playgrounds resemble The Office’s use of photocopiers and the humdrum grumbling silence of a busy office.