With the summer holidays drawing to a close, 4 Extra marks the putting away of bucket and spades and the re-emergence of pencil cases, sharpeners and the sound of the school bell – with a two week season of programmes that explore that near universal of experiences: school days.
Rooting around in the BBC’s basement you find that school life has been a constant source of inspiration in the history of BBC Radio. Back to School with 4 Extra features classic comedies like a 1955 episode of Hancock’s Half Hour – in which the ‘the lad himself’ - Tony Hancock – takes a turn as teacher in a school full of ‘juvenile delinquents’. The episode - The Blackboard Jungle (starring Hancock, Kenneth Williams and Sid James) - was writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s take on the controversial American movie of the same name that year. It was a pressure cooker story of inter-racial school life that featured the then incendiary song ‘Rock around the Clock’, and a breakout performance by the young Sidney Poitier. Nearly 30 years later, in 1984, award winning Caribbean-British writer Caryl Phillips penned his first radio play, The Wasted Years, exploring the pressures of identity faced by Solly, the 16 year old son of Caribbean immigrants, as he prepares to leave school for an uncertain future. Tony Armatrading stars as Solly, alongside Carmen Monroe and Rudolph Walker (EastEnders).
Alongside a five part adaption of RF Delderfield's classic school drama set between the two world wars, To Serve Them All My Days, we have BAFTA winning Sarah Lancashire returning to 1930s Yorkshire as headmistress Sarah Burton, in a radio version of Winifred Holtby’s (1898-1935) most famous novel South Riding. Published posthumously in 1936, it's a rich and memorable evocation of the characters of Yorkshire's South Riding, their lives, loves and sorrow and a fitting summation of Holtby’s life as noted feminist, pacifist, journalist and writer.
In much more boisterous mood, Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley and Lisa Dillon star in three classic ‘jolly hockey-sticks’ tales, from writers Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton, Good Show Clarissa. While from 1957, John Gielgud stars in The Browning Version, striking a reflective mood in his first performance in a play by Terrence Rattigan. Playing a schoolmaster, it’s a story of personal betrayal, education and regret.
Beyond fictional school walls we get to explore the real school reports of Dame Edna Everage, Wendy Cope, Alan Coren, Terence Stamp, Stephen Fry and Kenneth Williams, as Robert Booth asks what they would have done differently in school in the series Could Do Better. Celebrated Crime writer Val McDermid reveals her passion for South Shields novelist, Elinor Brent-Dye’s boarding school novels in The Chalet School. Though often overlooked today, these novels inspired her to go to university and eventually to become a writer herself.
Always with the ability to surprise, the BBC radio archive often gives us the chance to open up an audio time capsule….in this case from a bygone age of education: “One day last autumn  a BBC van arrived at the tiny village school of Bolventor, in the middle of Bodmin Moor….engineers proceeded to hang up microphones in front of the various desks and out in the porch….the microphones and cables were left until the children had become accustomed to their presence and took no notice of them….” So explained the Radio Times in 1948, introducing an experimental programme decades before the vagaries of ‘reality TV’. The School on the Moor is a remarkable audio document: presented by the headmaster himself, this small school and former pupils magically tell their own story in 1947.
And, not heard since 1962, a truly disturbing school drama - from a BBC master of radio drama writing and production, Giles Cooper – admits us to a classroom where a new teacher has the distinct impression that his class has had something to do with the unfortunate demise of his predecessor in: Unman, Wittering and Zigo.
As we all know, school holidays are but a short lived dream….unlike the famous rock song….schools are never out forever…..
Programmes featured include
Unman, Wittering and Zigo (Sat 26 Aug, 4.00pm–5.20pm)
Desert Island Discs Revisited: Sir Ken Robinson (Sun 27 Aug, 10.15 – 11.00am)
Conversation From the Engine Room (Sun 27 Aug, 4.00pm–5.00pm)
The Clitheroe Kid – One Hundred Not Out (Sun 27 Aug, 8.00pm – 8.30pm)
The Wasted Years (Sun 27 Aug, 8.30pm – 10.00pm)
The Chalet School (Fri 1 Sep, 13.30am – 2.00pm)
Hancock’s Half Hour – The Blackboard Jungle - (Sat 2 Sep, 12.00am-12.30am)
The Burkiss Way (Sat 2 Sep, 12.30am-1.00pm)
Could Do Better (Mon 4 Sep, 2.15pm – 2.30pm)
South Riding 6-10/15 (Mon 4 Sep – Fri 8 Sep, 2.30am – 2.45am)