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If that’s ok………

November 3, 2015


As a fully paid up member of the grumpy old men’s club, one of my recurring rants concerns the power of celebrity these days.

However, it is not always the case that actors, writers, artists and musicians have an influence which is merely banal. Sometimes, when the stars align, in more ways than one, the results can be unexpectedly profound, and remarkably long lasting.

I enjoyed a long, successful, rewarding, and very happy teaching career – and, generally, when asked what inspired me to follow that profession, I can mention a particular teacher who taught me when I was 11, a general liking for school and education, and a kind of vague notion that I wanted to “ contribute to society” and “make a difference”. They are all acceptable and commonplace answers to the question.

But there are alternative responses.

In fact, alongside my much loved primary teacher, Bill McCann, probably the two main motivations at the start of my career were actors.

As I have written previously, Scots actor John Cairney, starring in BBC Scotland’s “This Man Craig” in the mid sixties, portrayed a young teacher who got involved with his pupils, and sometimes their families, in his attempts to help them get the most out of their education. It was a different model of the profession to that with which I was familiar at my Grammar School in the north west of England, but I thought I would quite like to teach, if I could be like that. When I returned to Scotland in 1970, I realised he had been portraying the new approach in Scottish education known as “Guidance” and was further encouraged by the possibilities.

So I had already decided to become a teacher, an English teacher, and was at Moray House College in Edinburgh, when an inspired lecturer decided to show us Ken Loach’s film,”Kes”, based on Barry Hines’ superb novel: “A kestrel for a knave.”

Cairney’s “This Man Craig”, well written as it was, had been midweek drama on the BBC; “Kes”, like the novel on which it was based, was able to be a far more hard hitting and gritty portrayal of the sharpest end of education. And it was in that film, which I had not previously seen, that I met Colin Welland as the English teacher, “Mr Farthing”.

I had come across Welland before – as PC Davy Graham in the iconic “Z Cars”. In a world of almost nightly police procedurals, it is now difficult to explain the impact of “Z Cars” on two channel television in the early sixties – especially to those of us living within a few miles of the fictionalized “Seaport” and “Newtown”. Its characters seemed “real” in a manner not previously achieved in television drama.. One of its early inspirations was John McGrath – who would have further mighty impact on me as the director of the 7:84 Company.

Welland was lucky to join “Z Cars” when he did, for a number of reasons. He replaced the original co-driver of Z Victor 2, Bob Steele, played by Jeremy Kemp, who had been an unpleasant character, revealed to be a wife beater. When Davy Graham arrived, although he could be short of temper, he was a far sunnier character, and his interplay with his co-driver: Bert Lynch, played by the wonderful Jimmy Ellis, became a integral part of the programme’s success.

However, his portrayal of caring English teacher, Mr Farthing, really affected me. He was no “Mr Chips”, he was hard when he needed to be, and had excellent classroom control. However, the scene where he tackles the class bully, and finds the time to listen to the forlorn Billy Casper, is simply magical, as is the actor’s ability to portray the nuances of teacher/pupil relationships.

Casper details his life of woe and Farthing takes the time to listen. He knows about Billy and where he lives, and has assimilated the information as the lad talked in class about his hawk. He asks him where and when he flies the hawk, and when Billy tells him, replies: “I’ll come round then, if it’s ok?”

Billy can hardly respond to this – he is totally unused to the novelty of someone asking for his permission. His conversation with Farthing is quite possibly the longest two way communication he’s ever had. His family, and teachers, and friends normally shout or talk at Billy, not with him or to him – and nobody ever listens.

It’s a brilliant scene – and merits watching again and again.

Its impact comes from the writing and the acting.

Welland, Bob Bowes who played the Head, the wonderful and much missed Brian Glover – the PE teacher, writer Barry Hines, and Director Ken Loach were all former teachers – and it showed. Seldom has the profession been so accurately portrayed on film. Welland would echo this authenticity in his superb TV drama: “Roll on 4 o’clock” in 1970.

The message – which I took with me throughout my career, and shared with countless probationer teachers – is that teachers must know their pupils – and take the time to really listen to them. And that message was ingrained on me from an early age by the power of Colin Welland’s performance.

He was there on other occasions too. His script for “Chariots of Fire” about Edinburgh hero, Eric Liddell, won an Oscar, and one of my pupils had a sizeable part in the film – but it was the voice and demeanour of Mr Farthing which endured.

So much so, that on many occasions when in a “difficult” conversation with a pupil, I realised I was unconsciously echoing Mr Farthing’s words to Billy – or even his body language. That’s how powerful was the effect of his portrayal.

His voice stayed with me. Though born in Leigh and mostly associated with Newton-le-Willows, he was brought up in the same Kensington district of Liverpool as my mother. Maybe that helped the resonance too!

I may well have been a teacher without Colin Welland – but I’m not sure I would have been the same kind of teacher.

I’ll say thank you and God Bless, if that’s ok……..?

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