“The unexamined life is not worth living” said the Greek philosopher Socrates. Self-reflection is important. Knowing who you are and what you like doing is important.
Our broadcast assembly had this theme to start of the new term. All of our six terms have names by the way. This, the 5th term of the year, is actually called Perseverance – a great message for us all, especially those in our exam classes, reminding them to keep going for this final push. (Co-incidentally that’s the same name as the new robot on Mars. Here’s another interesting thing: the first powered flight on another planet was the Ingenuity helicopter that flew for the first time this month on the surface of Mars. Attached to it was a piece of fabric from the wing of the Wright brother’s plane at Kitty Hawk, the first powered flight on Earth, from 1903.)
So where were we? Yes, interesting people do interesting things – and it doesn’t matter what they are. Everyone should be interested in something, however obscure or common, obvious or abstract it may be. So I wanted to run a survey to find out what we as a school are in fact interested in.
What do I mean by interests? I described them as the activities you’d engage in if you didn’t have to do anything else. The activities you’d do if you could choose, what you’d do if you just had the time. Part of the purpose of being at school is to do your best so that you can have more options, more choices about the future.
Sooner or later this will all become vital for our students when they turn up for collage or job interviews. To get an interview means you’ve met the minimum requirements. From that point on it’s not about your qualifications or grades – everyone asked to interview has already proved that they’ve got those. Now they’ll have to prove who they really are: their personality, their perseverance, their ingenuity. Having hobbies and interests does just that – it lifts you up from the average.
I also asked all the teachers to do it too. Role models are important.
But it’s not about being obscure or unique. It’s just about doing whatever it is to a level of detail, of expertise. So I didn’t want people to just say “football” or “the internet” and think they were done. I created a form that asked for more specifics, to be particular. I’ve attached my own examples so you can see what I meant. It should be that what they put in the last column is pretty obscure to a lay audience, as mine are.
I’m compiling the results now and I’ll let you know later what the findings are. We’re hoping to use any data from the survey to help inform forthcoming ideas for clubs and societies as well.
This is a TED-style talk I gave, again from my lab, broadcast to the whole school about Tolerance, Intolerance and Prejudice. I was attempting to address issues of race, bias, antisemitism, extremism as well as issues in the news around those topics. Tutors then had a followup task for the students in each group. This is part of my role as Learning for Life Co-ordinator.
This was a broadcast from my lab to all tutor groups in the school as a special ‘TED talk’ style assembly on…. learning (specifically ‘metacognition’ although I didn’t refer to it as that straight away). Following the broadcast there were tasks for each tutor group to do.
Nearly a year ago, during the first lockdown, I wrote and recorded 12 half-hour episodes on my own TV show for school called The Early Show featuring Dr Terry Dacktyl (he’s the puppet in the pic below) with interviews with expert guests on topics relevant to school. During the series I end up getting chastised for blatant product placement and Terry finds his confidence.
It was nice to have the comment passed onto me from a parent in which their son has said that the on-line assemblies were good, but the ‘live versions are better’. I don’t know about that. Although we started out with a premise of ‘replicating what we do in assemblies’ I like to think The Early Show became something different and in some ways, better.
The first major difference was of course no live audience as with that loss we lose the immediacy of a live performance. I’d been watching the American chat shows from New York and due to lockdown they had all resorted to filming from their homes. Some worked well as they changed their format, some felt empty and hollow. I decided to go in the exact opposite direction: I wanted to make a show that looked more ‘live’ than ever before. I’ve done a lot of standup comedy (maybe you can’t tell that by looking at me, but I have) and I’ve faced some pretty tough audiences. There’s no tougher audience than a barn full of teenagers, in uniform, at 8:30 on a Monday morning I can tell you. So many jokes just don’t land when the audience is half asleep or wondering if it’s appropriate to laugh at their physics teacher making a fool of himself on stage.
So in writing the scripts for The Early Show I was so conscious of where the laughs were supposed to come, it made sense to put in a laugher track and applause in at the right moments. This was what was missing from the US chat show comedians broadcasting from their lounges. It worked.
Maybe you didn’t realise it was all scripted? Every word. Filming is not something you can ad lib. You’ll probably miss the message for one thing, ramble on or miss the links to the next sections. So I had to write the script, then learn it, then film it and that took ages.
I started filming the show with a Canon HG10 before switching to my Canon DSLR 7D with two fixed Quartz 2000W lights on a green screen, all set up in the barn. It was edited in Logic Pro X on Mac. The theme music was provide by Purple Planet as was some of the incidental music, some of it was my own tracks. I started my career in television and film editing at Quantel, creating training materials for the video editing and graphics systems before later working as designer and then creative director in multimedia agencies. So I was able to edit it quite fast, but it still took around a day, especially with the multiple layers of live footage of the view outside, the fake room and window frame over the green screen and colour corrected footage.
I decided to follow the US chat show magazine format although it morphed into a surreal variety show quite quickly. So we start with the ‘monologue’, the host talking to camera. In the US shows they talk about current affairs, politics, celebrity gossip and so on. All of these are hard enough to get right live on a Monday morning, much harder to get right pre-recorded where every word can be analysed in perpetuity. I had a few safe jokes about lockdown, but how topical could I get? Is it appropriate to criticise the governments response or make jokes while people are in intensive care and dying? Probably not. I’d seen endless US unfunny jokes about lockdown wearing very thin. So the route had to be more creative and lighthearted. I can make it slightly topical, but not political. I can try to reflect the mood of the times in a light way, but not in a depressing way. Some viewers out there may well be suffering and I wouldn’t want to hint that I’m mocking that. I’m not qualified to give advice either aside from the generic ‘stay safe’.
I needed a foil, someone to talk to, to have banter with. But since I was the only one available: as the sole writer, performer, cameraman and editor the only one around to step up was Terry Dactyl, the puppet my wife Rachel had made for our family movie a few years earlier. Rachel made the T Rex costume too (Terry’s Jurassic teacher from 65 million BC).
Now I had to learn both my lines and Terry’s lines and perform Terry’s lines as if I was hearing them for the first time. I think you can see my novice acting skills getting better as we go along. I then overdubbed Terry’s voice in post production, trying my best to match his mouth movements. It did take ages, under hot studio lights, wearing a velvet jacket, on the hottest days of the year so far, with my arm up a puppets backside.
It wasn’t just a case of operating a puppet – he had to have a character and I had to have a relationship with that character. I came up with the idea of him loving musical theatre and always wanting to sing (he later becomes an aficionado of pop music too). I looked at all the puppets and their operators from the past to get a handle on it. You may have noticed some clues as I developed the character:
Sooty is clever (but doesn’t speak) while Matthew (or Harry if you’re older, or Simon if you’re younger) is usually incompetent.
Emu is very naughty (and doesn’t speak) as Rod Hull apologises for him.
Orville the Duck is shy and self depreciating while Keith tries to make him feel better. (Keith’s other puppet Cuddles the Monkey was his favourite with his catchphrase ‘I hate that duck’ which was really Keith’s opinion of his own successful creation.)
Basil Brush (a fox version of Terry Thomas) was outrageous and quick witted while Mr Rodney, Mr Derek, Mr Roy or Mr Billy looked like idiots.
Then there’s arrogant Hartley Hare (from Pipkins), Zippy and George (from Rainbow), Roland Rat, Gordon the Gopher (CBBC), Spit the Dog (Tiswas), Zig and Zag (The Big Breakfast) and of course the Muppets (although not strictly puppets). It does seem like puppets, once the mainstay of children’s television from the 1960s to 80s seem not to have many contemporary counterparts.
There’s a running thread throughout the story of Terry if you watch closely: he starts off innocent and full of enthusiasm, becomes riddled with self-doubt, he get’s bullied, but he works hard, he gains confidence, then he wins and gains respect. It’s a journey so many of us go on, but not all make it to the other side.
If you’re eagle-eyed for more cultural references, you may have spotted appropriation from Stuart Lee, Vic Reeves, Bob Monkhouse, Stephen Colbert, Morecambe and Wise, the IT Crowd, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Count Arthur Strong, Take Hart, Screentest, Cheggars Plays Pop, The Grumbleweeds, Record Breakers, quotes from every Beatles movie (plus I quote almost the entire sleevenotes from the Beatles 1964 LP Beatles for Sale, yes, really) and finally Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The interviews generally took an entire morning or an evening to plan and record. My guests were carefully chosen and we spent a lot of time planning each interview to mould it into the theme for the episode as well as designing a task or discussion for the tutor groups to carry out after watching.
The Early Show is of course not a virtual assembly – it’s a personal development variety show. After 12 episodes, that’s over 6 hours of material, it’s likely to be a mainstay of our enrichment programme in some form, as a valuable addition rather than a replacement for, whatever we can do next. It’s always been a problem getting visiting speakers to come all the way to see us for just a short session both with their time, fees, costs as well as disrupting lessons to make the enrichment time a worthwhile length. It took a global pandemic for us to realise that there was another way of doing things!
I currently have eight speakers lined up for September. The word is getting out there. If you know of anyone who can be interviewed for ten minutes on a topic of personal, educational or professional development with tips, a personal story or an insight into their life and work, we’d love to hear from you. Since the programme will likely be shown mid morning or after lunch there’s be a subtle name change too…
If you missed an episode, here’s a full episode guide:
During lockdown I was tasked with continuing our school ‘assemblies’ in a video format, called The Early Show. The result was a chat show that also featured inserts of videos made by some of the students and other items.
One of the most popular items were a batch of Public Information Films from the 1970s that I re-edited and re-voiced to be (roughly) about the pandemic and lockdown rules.
You can view the complete set here.
Charley Says featured a very clever Cat who gave a young boy valuable advice on a manner of dangerous topics. This time he’s watching out for lockdown violations and those not social distancing properly during their exercise in the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. Stay home, stay safe and protect the NHS!
With apologies to David Prowse, The Green Cross Code Man is back – this time he’s watching over lockdown violations and those not social distancing during the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. Stay home, stay safe and protect the NHS!
Tufty really wants an ice cream but he’s following the governments advice. Willy Weasel isn’t though…
Joe and Petunia were a couple in 1970s public information films who didn’t follow the country code, didn’t call the coastguard when someone was drowning and didn’t check their tyres. Now they’re back violating the lockdown rules, having a nice day out and risking spreading the virus.
Donald Pleasance terrified us as kids with his Spirit of Deep and Lonely Water. I’ve re-done this version in light of the Covid19 threat but I think it might be have gone too far…
As the students walked in to our first assembly of the new term, the song All the Good by Jana Stansfield was playing. On the screen were the lyrics:
“I cannot do all the good that the world needs but the world needs all the good that I can do”
I asked them all to turn to the person on their left and give them a smile – and – a genuine compliment, no matter who they were, if they were a friend, and associate, a teacher, whoever.
A buzz went around the room and a fair few laughs. I asked them how they felt about it. The unanimous opinion was that it felt good, but a little forced, a little embarrassing.
I pointed out how easy it is to be sarcastic, to say cruel or critical things and how alien it is for so many of us to simply say something nice.
So with that in mind we decide to set up our first experiment and join The Smile and Compliment Club.
The idea was simple. I placed a box in the dining room along with a stash of blank compliment slips. For a week, everyone had the opportunity to write someone a compliment anonymously and place it in the box.
There was a lot of activity around the box at the start of the week, which tailed off towards the end. Then at the weekend, I opened up the box and here are the results:
There were over 100 compliments posted. Eleven were too bizarre or unreadable (there were no rude ones though) so were removed.
The Compliment Box and a slip.
Sorting the slips into tutor groups
Year 11 was by far the most complimented group, year 10 in second place. The younger ones in year 7 and 8 received the smallest number of compliments. Interestingly enough there were only four compliments for teachers
The slips were sorted into tutor groups and discreetly given out in tutor time. On the following Monday I reported back to everyone with the results and a conclusion.
Everyone had enjoyed the experiment, both sending and receiving anonymous nice things. But – it highlighted another side and I asked our students to think about who they chose to compliment. Some popular students received quite a few but in some cases, those who would have benefited most from some kind words, did not receive many, or any.
If we were a gardener, would you constantly water and fertilise the strongest and healthiest plants in the garden? Or would you nurture those that need it more, that need it most?
Leadership is about finding the lowest amongst us and lifting them up until they are above us.
Hopefully this got everyone thinking about the idea of nurturing in a positive but soul-searching way, without patting ourselves on the back too much for being perfect and instead to to look carefully at what we can all do to improve and become for nurturing.
The theme of all this was part of my act in my stand up comedy days. Here’s a clip from back then: