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Fresh lessons from ‘Teachers’

Times Staff Writer

“TEACHERS,” which debuts tonight on BBC America, is a comedy-drama (originally shown in England in 2001) that watches the staff of a British high school at work and play -- mostly drinking, smoking, talking about sex, and to a lesser extent, having it.

It is not issue-oriented, or even particularly concerned with education, though the milieu is convincingly portrayed and crucial to the main idea that teachers are often only barely older than their charges, and not necessarily more mature. It’s neither “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” nor Lindsay Anderson’s “If ... ,” nor is it a UK version of “Boston Public” -- although it owes something to another David E. Kelley creation, “Ally McBeal,” with its use of externalized fantasy (while sticking closer than “Ally” to something resembling our familiar Earth). It is not extraordinary, but it is very solid, and though it covers no real new ground, the view seems fresh.

Andrew Lincoln (“Love, Actually”) plays English teacher Simon, and he is a type we have seen before, and will see again, as long as young men refuse to grow up or settle down. Self-centered and self-deceiving, he still lives with his father and clings desperately to a fading vision of himself as young and cool. Interestingly, his attempts to brighten his classroom with attitude and noise do not make him a better teacher, just a more popular one.

Though Simon is undeniably tiresome -- at times as exasperating to the viewer as he is to his fellow characters -- he comes fortunately equipped with the standard three friends, one of whom, as often happens, is a woman, Susan (Raquel Cassidy), a psychology teacher. (I have a pet theory that this configuration derives from the Talking Heads -- the Chick Bass Player effect, whereby a woman lends stability and soul to a group of men.) In fact, it’s the women, more mature in fiction as in life, who drive the show; they strike me as especially well-conceived, -written and -played. Besides Susan, there are Simon’s not-quite-girlfriend Maggie (Zoe Telford), a police officer, and fellow English teacher Jenny (Nina Sosanya), the perfection of whose posterior is a school-wide obsession, and with whom Simon shares an antipathy that may, in time-honored film fashion, mask the opposite feeling.

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Even while it flirts with surrealism, the production has the knack of making you feel you are in a place where people really live and work. The edges of the frame are alive with interesting activity that, though irrelevant to the main business, impart the sense that the characters inhabit a world that will go on without them. The kids look like kids, not postcollegiate spokesmodels, and the camerawork underlines personal relationships without calling attention to itself. This is not generally speaking the aesthetic of American television or film, where Hollywood Shinola is applied to even the most distressed persons. (In American TV and movies, any given character will live in a place too big and well-furnished for his income.) That is how we want to see the world. But the British, more frank about class distinctions -- or more in thrall to them -- and more alive to nuances of origin and accent, like things to look as they are. (It’s Woody Allen versus Mike Leigh.) From here, such realism all seems very exotic.

*

‘Teachers’

Where: BBC America

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When: 7 tonight

Ratings: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

Andrew Lincoln...Simon Casey

Adrian Bower...Brian Steadman

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Raquel Cassidy...Susan Gately

Navin Chowdhry...Kurt McKenna

Executive producers Greg Brenman, Jane Fallon. Director Richard Dale. Writers Tim Loane, Julie Rutterford, Andrew Rattenbury.


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