Last Night’s TV: Big School

BBC1, 9pm

On paper new sitcom Big School should be have been an instant classic. The comedy talent is stellar – Walliams, Tate, de la Tour and Glenister taking the headline credits – and the situation perfectly mainstream for the family hit the BBC is craving.

Strangely though, despite this familiarity, Big School has taken some warming to. While other critics have pointed to an out-dated feel, clichéd jokes and naval-gazing from the star names – it’s not the retro-feel that is the problem. It’s that it almost works too well for its own good.

Had Big School launched on BBC2, rather than its sister flagship channel, with little fanfare and a late-night timeslot, we’d probably all be raving about finding a hidden gem. Instead thrust in your faces on primetime BBC1 you can’t help but see the small flaws in an otherwise perfectly agreeable half hour.

Both Walliams and Tate are excellent as stumbling ‘Deputy Head of Chemistry’ Mr Church and new light of his life Miss Postern. The characters are nicely juxtapositioned, with the confident but insecure Postern balancing well against Church’s kind-hearted social awkwardness.

Frances de la Tour is a stand-out too, delivering a wonderfully catty and sharp performance as headmistress Ms Baron, albeit transferred straight from her role in The History Boys. Similarly Stephen Speirs has had his bumbling Welsh loser from Sky One hit Stella relocated to Greybridge School as depressive Geography teacher Mr Barber.

The first niggling problem though comes from Philip Glenister’s casting – in what is his first proper comedy performance – as PE teacher and crass Lothario Mr Gunn. Designed to be a foil and love-rival for Walliams’ character, the gulf in comedic delivery between the two is all too far apparent. It wouldn’t be a problem had Glenister been reduced to a smaller role such as Daniel Rigby’s wannabe hipster music teacher or Joanna Scanlan’s butch lesbian drama teacher, but Big School places him firmly at the thick of the action in each episode, which only serves to emphasise how out of place he seems.

The comedy is broad, as you would expect from such a mainstream show, ranging from smart running gags – ‘the French teacher who’s never been to France’ being particularly good – to Blackadder-esque putdowns from De La Tour’s headmistress, all the way to cheap toilet-based humour. The scenes with lab technician Pat (Julie T. Wallace) and Mr Church are particularly worth mentioning – wonderful little vignettes mixing slapstick with just the right level of a dark undercurrent that could have come straight from the first series of Little Britain. The decision to not use a laughter track should also be applauded.

The narrative similarly flutters from the sublime undercurrent of the romance between the two leads to ridiculous contrived situations throughout. Of course, it doesn’t always work and invariably won’t please everyone all of the time. And it’s this trying-to-please-everyone variety that’s both Big School’s success and downfall.

Between the main plot and the extended gags the lesser characters find themselves with very little screen time, which can at times bring about a stereotyped and one-dimensional feel. Scanlan and Speirs particularly are woefully utilised. Similarly the children at the school – which appears to only have one small year group – are largely absent except three which speak, acting more like bit parts in Waterloo Road rather than being part of the situation.

A second series would need some changes, not least a toning back of the Mr Gunn character. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a new addition to the cast in the form of a Tom Ellis type to bring another dimension to the Miss Postern love triangle. A lengthy run would help too, in order to let some of the minor parts develop their roles. Having a main focus with a larger ensemble of quality supporting parts is something that has been used well in the past – The Vicar of Dibley notably did it very well – but Big School doesn’t seem to have found quite the correct balance yet.

While it is desperate to be a mainstream hit, Big School still has a very cosy feel to it. It certainly has its heart in the right place, which is more than you could say for some recent comedies. Hopefully our relationship with it is given time to blossom.