Teachers: funny, honest, unglamorous comedy drama

A fond look back at UK comedy drama Teachers, starring a pre-The Walking Dead and post-This Life Andrew Lincoln...

Fifteen years ago, Andrew Lincoln wasn’t the guy from The Walking Dead. He wasn’t even the creepy guy from Love Actually (the one with the signs. Not any of the other creepy guys). No, he was the guy from This Life that was getting a show all of his own in which to charm the viewing masses. That show was Teachers. And charm us he did.

Set in a secondary school in Bristol, Teachers was good enough to make us actually want to go back to school – or, for those of us who were still at school when it started, to wonder if some of the ridiculous rumours we were making up about the staff shagging each other might actually be true after all.

The show was built around Lincoln’s Simon, an English teacher who isn’t so much inspiring the next generation as trying to convince himself that he’s still one of them. He’s not there for the love of teaching, or of passing on the literary torch, or shaping the minds of the next generation. He just can’t work out what else to do. This is a common predicament for people with English degrees. Trust me. And so he’s living with his dad, having an ongoing life crisis, and trying not to think inappropriate thoughts about sixth formers.

But the show didn’t rely entirely on Andrew Lincoln to deliver; he was ably supported by a band of haphazard and hopeless colleagues. There was the borderline sex-pest duo of IT teacher Kurt (Navin Chowdry) and PE teacher Brian (Adrian Bower), plus the unliked and unlikeable senior teacher and definite sex-pest Bob. And, most charmingly of all, a few women who seemed to actually have their shit together, kind of.

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Central to the show, and to Simon’s support system, was Susan (Raquel Cassidy), the endlessly patient psychology teacher. She put up with all Simon’s freakouts and failures – only to be let down by him when her own life fell apart. She was smart, ambitious, and good at her job. And she only had one nervous breakdown, which considering the crap she had to put up with was actually quite impressive.

Elsewhere, strong women bordered on the terrifying – Liz, the school secretary, ruled over everyone and made absolutely certain they knew it. Claire, the headteacher, had the terror-inducing gravitas of General Snoke. Man-child Simon just couldn’t cope with these women – except when, as in the case of fellow English teacher Jenny (Nina Sosanya), he really wanted to have sex with them. Then he became socially awkward, terrified and aroused all at once, because he was just a sucker for authority figures. Which was why he went out with a policewoman, presumably.

And yes, sex – or rather, the lack of it – was at the heart of the show. While most of the characters may have been pretty up for some shagging in the stationery cupboard, none of them really managed it. Especially not Kurt and Brian, the two most sexually frustrated men in all of the West Country. Not having sex was a common theme in their lives.

When people did get laid, it was in a terribly true-to-life manner. Ill-advised, probably drunk, and definitely regrettable. Good decisions were not the kind of decisions that got made at this school – whether it’s Penny copping off with married teacher Matt, Penny copping off with a student, Penny flirting with everyone to try and get her way… Basically, Penny made a lot of bad decisions, and nobody else did much better.

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And there were a fair few other teachers who got to try their hand at being sexually inappropriate and professionally inept. During the course of its four seasons, the show survived multiple cast changes. Simon went off ‘travelling’ towards the end of series 2, and not long after, Jenny and Susan disappeared without explanation. Just like that. They just wandered off and didn’t bother to return the next year, without so much as a farewell assembly.

But the sudden departures weren’t done. At the end of the third series, most of the remaining cast got killed in a car crash, with only Penny and the recently-introduced Lindsay surviving. But that didn’t matter much anyway, because a whole new load of teachers were introduced through that old faithful plot device of the school-based TV show – the merger with another school. Sure, the quality dipped a bit, and it all became a bit like that other great revolving door of the early-to-mid-naughties, the Sugababes. But we forgave them.

For in an era when the US was still sending over weekly doses of Friends and Sex And The City, Teachers was refreshingly non-shiny. There was no living in swish apartments on tiny salaries, or wearing fancy outfits on the profits of one singular column. Instead there were horrendous hangovers, people living in their cars, people living with their fathers, and people living in tiny flats. There were no daytime trips to the coffee shop, or evenings spent drinking fancy cocktails. There were nightly trips to the pub, where inappropriate conversations were had and too many cheap beers were consumed.

As a sixth former I didn’t watch and despair that my life was never going to look like that in a few years’ time. I despaired that my life was actually probably going to look exactly like that in a few years’ time. After all, what else was I going to do with that English degree that I planned on getting?

Still, I told myself, at least I could look forward to a life with a decent soundtrack – one heavy on the post-Britpop indie. And it’d be filled with surreal humour, many sneaky cigarettes, and donkeys turning up at random. Not that I’d have to acknowledge the donkeys, though. I’d be far too busy smoking and bunking off work to do that.

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That part, at least, didn’t seem too different to what I was up to as a student.

And that was the brilliance of Teachers; it showed us that the people we put in charge of educating the next generation are bumbling along just as much as the teenagers are. None of them were quite sure what they were doing, or what the hell they were going to do next. They were still dealing with cliques, and social politics, and generational divides.

Simon and the ‘cool kids’ of the staff room were just the bunch from the back of the school bus, with a few extra years and a bit of authority. They’d do just about anything to avoid having to spend time with the middle-aged side of the staffroom. Just as, much as Simon tried to convince them that he was still young and trendy, the actual cool kids didn’t want to have anything to do with him.

It showed us that while we may get bigger, we never do really grow up.

And then, inevitably, in 2004 Channel 4 cancelled the show. At the time it was blamed on declining ratings following the latest casting reshuffle, but I like to think that it’s because all the best British comedies only last a few series. None of this decade-long run stuff that the Americans go in for. Swift and efficient, that’s how we like our comedy. With a couple of donkeys thrown in for fun.