UK, BBC (Pola Jones Film Productions), Sitcom, Colour, 1997
Starring: David Bamber, Nicola Walker, Geraldine Fitzgerald
Chalk crashed on to television on a wave of expectation. With the domestic audience crying out for a great new British sitcom, advance word hinted that this really was one of the most exciting productions in quite a while. Indeed, the BBC even let it be known that a second series had been commissioned before the first one had aired. The hype was such that Chalk nearly drowned in the stuff; yes, it was funny, and dark, and wild, but few series could have lived up to such trumpet-blowing.
Chalk was a school sitcom for the 1990s, set in Galfast High, a characterless, concrete comprehensive populated by unruly pupils and staffed by weary, jaundiced teachers ranging from the mildly eccentric to the completely barmy. Into this situation arrives a young woman, Suzy Travis, straight out of teaching college and keen to get to grips with her charges and do her bit for the world of education. She then realises that she is the only sane member of the staff and her eagerness and vitality are eroded by the sheer madness of her environment. The headmaster, Richard Nixon, seems to exist in a world far removed from reality; gormless teacher Dan McGill is harmless enough but becomes a liability after he falls hopelessly in love with Suzy at first glance; Head of English Mr Carkdale is only ever heard to mutter obscenities, especially his favourite phrase 'Bastards!'; Amanda Trippley (music and guidance) is a whimpering and simpering stack of neuroses; and school secretary Janet, who, on the surface, seems certifiably insane, is married to Eric Slatt, the deputy headmaster. Slatt is the whirling dervish at the centre of Chalk. In comparison, the other members of staff appear totally reasonable. A volatile mix of self-obsession, anger, hatred and fear, and with an ego the size of Jupiter, Eric Slatt is a true TV monster - hyperactive, homophobic and ruinously paranoid, his flaws are the catalyst to the school's problems, setting in motion a chain of outrageous events that results in his and its weekly downfall.
Critics were divided on Chalk, its detractors pointing out that Eric Slatt was a carbon copy of John Cleese's Basil Fawlty, its supporters praising its non-PC, off-the-wall approach and the breathlessly paced plots that delivered moments of high farce. Although it featured some of the elements of Please, Sir! (an idealistic new teacher, jaundiced staff, out-of-touch headmaster), Chalk more closely resembled the ill-fated Hardwicke House with its concentration on the teachers rather than the pupils, dark themes and overall depiction of the teachers as, well, nuts. The early-promised second series saw some changes: Suzy had become as hardened and world-weary as the rest of the staff, and headmaster Nixon had been replaced by the apparently sane but actually loopy Mr Kennedy. Slatt remained his old manic self, his character perhaps still toiling in the shadow of Basil Fawlty but showing enough original sparks to suggest scope for greater development.
Researched and written by Mark Lewisohn.
Number of episodes: 12
Length: 30 mins