Friday, 17 February 2017

Introduction

Welcome to Stuart Fernie’s Blog





Please find on the right links to pages of reflections on films, books, TV series, and occasionally pieces of flash fiction. These are additions to similar pages which may be found at www.stuartfernie.org .

Having retired from teaching fairly recently, I thought I’d write my memoirs, “What have I done?”, and present them online. Please find links to the various chapters on the right, though chunks of the text (but not all) may also appear below. If you suffer from insomnia, this may help!

Click on the arrows to access links to 2016 and then December.




I can be contacted through the comments sections or at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk






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Reflections on characters and themes in "Inherit the wind"



Reflections on “Inherit the Wind”,
produced and directed by Stanley Kramer,
script by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith
(based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee),
starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.





Introduction

The film (1960) and the play before it (1955) are based on the Scopes Trial (commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial) of 1925 in which a young teacher of science (John T. Scopes) was brought to trial for teaching the principles of evolution, thus infringing the recently passed Butler Act which forbade the denial of the Biblical account of the creation of life in state-run schools.

Although the film is generally faithful to the events, arguments and spirit of the trial, with Matthew Brady replacing William Jennings Bryan (former Secretary of State and three times presidential candidate) who prosecuted Scopes, and Henry Drummond taking the place of Clarence Darrow (noted lawyer and member of the American Civil Liberties Union) who defended him, there are some notable differences.

The trial was envisaged (indeed concocted) by some dignitaries of the town of Dayton in 1925 as a means of drawing attention to their community and thus earning some cash. These dignitaries approached Scopes to volunteer to be accused, though he wasn’t even certain he had actually taught the principles of evolution as he simply followed the course book provided for him by the state (information courtesy of Wikipedia).

There was no rabid preacher and no romance between his daughter and Cates (who replaces Scopes) and, given the nature of Scopes’s initial involvement and the fact he was never actually incarcerated, it is unlikely there were any burning effigies or threats of hanging. Sadly, William Jennings Bryan did die, but some five days after the end of the trial.

Clearly, changes and embellishments were made for the sake of dramatic engagement, and these changes serve largely to clarify the arguments and the potential impact of the monumental clash of principles and standpoints on display in the film.

The film and main characters

The film opens with a meeting of local dignitaries (town office bearers, civic leaders and businessmen) who are discussing whether or not to prosecute teacher Bert Cates for violating the Butler Act by teaching the principles of evolution. Some react against the challenging ideas of Darwinism and want to uphold the status quo, and some want to bend with the wind of change. However, all factions are united by the prospect of financial, political and social gain for themselves and for the town as they realise the extent of national interest likely to be aroused by the legal case they are proposing, especially if none other than Matthew Brady (devout politician who has run for the presidency three times) is willing to conduct the case for the prosecution as he will attract even more attention and publicity.



It is clear, then, from the outset that although we are dealing with high principles (boiling down to the place of God and science in society), smaller minds are happy to take advantage of the situation for more immediately secular gratification.

Before meeting the two representatives of the opposing sides of the argument (Brady, against the teaching of evolution and pro-Creationism, and Drummond, in favour of science as a means of attaining truth, and opposed to blind faith and Creationism), we are introduced to Hornbeck (based on journalist Henry Mencken), a reporter whose newspaper is paying for Cates’s defence.

Hornbeck



Hornbeck (played by Gene Kelly) is a wise-cracking cynic who pours scorn on religious fervor and seems to hold the town’s stance (staunchly conservative and in favour of Creationism) in no high regard. He is intelligent, educated, eloquent and knows his Bible, but he is disillusioned and playful with almost everyone as he gently mocks nearly every adopted stance. Every walk of life is likely to fall victim to his cutting, if often insightful, remarks as he has perceived guileful manipulation of events and self-seeking promotion in the stories he has covered. He may, however, have an underlying respect for truth, justice and idealism (he tells Cates and his fiancée Rachel that he is on their side and chides Rachel for her position that teachers should deliver lessons they are instructed to teach, championing fresh ideas and original thought), but he is only too aware of the selfish posturing of people in authority and the mindless rejection of evidence and fact by the faithful. His outlook appears to have been soured by his encounters and his experience, and he copes by treating all situations with humour as he perceives apparent absurdity in them all.

Apart from providing some comic relief, Hornbeck may also serve to keep the viewer “grounded”. His remarks can deflate the occasionally haughty arguments and defuse potential conflict, and they remind us quickly and entertainingly of an alternative view of things.

Bert Cates



The character of Bert Cates, although clearly essential, can be viewed as little more than a catalyst, certainly within the courtroom. He is a principled and upstanding nice guy who makes a stand and wavers only once but is fairly easily persuaded to maintain his position as his relatively minor crime is seized upon, magnified and used by forces well beyond his normal domain for their own ends.

He is of more interest in terms of his relationship with Rachel Brown, though once again the changes he inspires in her character may be viewed as of greater interest than his own.

He comes into his own in his conflict with the Reverend Brown when he refuses to accept the Reverend’s heartless pronouncement on the fate of the soul of young Bobby Stebbins who drowned in a tragic accident. As a result of his disagreement, Cates abandoned the Church (though not God, according to Rachel) and this displays far more strength of character and a willingness to think challenging and independent thoughts than merely teaching a “questionable” lesson in a book. As such, he inspires interest, admiration and support that he had perhaps lacked up to that point, and with this storyline he makes a real contribution to the themes of the piece.

Reverend Brown



Reverend Brown (an invention for the play/film) represents an extreme of religious fervour. His “fire and brimstone” approach to faith involves rabble-rousing, incitement to hatred and violence, cursing his own daughter, and a refusal to admit challenge or a differing point of view. Rather than Christian love, he inspires Old Testament fear in his own daughter who, out of blind respect, obedience and even a degree of brain-washing, is tempted to deny her own instincts and turn away from her fiancé, Bert Cates. When questioned and confronted by his daughter, he speaks directly to God and refuses to enter into a discussion with her.

The Reverend Brown’s faith in the Bible and the dogma of the Church are such that he declared that a young lad who drowned in a tragic accident would burn in the fires of Hell because he was not baptised. Bert Cates could not accept this and challenged the Reverend’s whole perception of religion, suggesting it should offer consolation, comfort and hope in times of despair, rather than condemnation. This situation also leads to the beginning of a rift with his daughter Rachel who comes to share Bert’s view of a kinder, gentler and less dogmatic religion, and who tries to broach the subject with her father only to be shunned and ignored.

The creation of Reverend Brown provides dramatic impetus (both in terms of his relationship with Bert Cates and a more emotionally charged reason for pursuing him to court, and in terms of his terribly flawed and restricted relationship with his daughter), but it also provides a picture of religious extremism – the possible result of blind and total faith which denies challenge, interpretation, thought or humanity.

Rachel Brown

Few of the characters evolve as such in the course of the film – there is exposition of position and a deepening understanding of their natures, but in terms of character development, Rachel Brown is one of the most interesting characters due to the change she undergoes during the film.



At the start, she is a meek and timid girl who does not truly understand her fiancé’s stance (more or less denouncing him), and we discover she is downright fearful of her father. We realise the position she espoused vis-à-vis Cates is the result of her father’s black-and-white view of life, but she has been influenced by time spent with Cates and especially the conflict of views over the fate of young Bobby Stebbins, and her rejection by her father when she tries to reason with him causes her to doubt not just the validity of his stance with regard to Bobby Stebbins, but his position on religion and life in general.

When the Reverend goes overboard and tries to incite a crowd to violence, and then curses his daughter for consorting with Cates, she is “saved” by Brady who offers a voice of moderation and reason, calming the crowd and encouraging Rachel to confide in him. She recounts the story of Bobby Stebbins and Cates’s reaction and it is clear she shares Cates’s condemnation of her father’s hard-line mode of religious interpretation. She pulls away from her father’s influence to become an independent thinker, believing in a gentler and kinder interpretation of Christianity, but without accepting Cates’s view either – she will not go so far as to accept evolution. This represents a genuine evolution in her character and demonstrates the advantages of the freedom of thought advocated by Drummond.

When Brady puts her on the stand and tries to manipulate her evidence about Cates and his abandonment of the Church to his advantage, Rachel is terribly upset and disappointed by Brady’s abuse of her confidence and his attempt to twist her evidence. This exploitation of her trust may push her farther down the road of disillusion, self-reliance and independent thought, while it also reveals a darker and more desperate side of Brady’s character.

Matthew Brady

From the outset, Matthew Brady seeks and enjoys the attention and publicity surrounding the case. In a deliberate (and at times undignified) campaign of promotion for the case, Brady not only participates in the veritable circus atmosphere, but is more than willing to take on the role of ring-master. Speaking loudly, forcefully and at every opportunity in defence of faith over reason and denying the importance of knowledge, Brady is something of a rabble-rouser who encourages people to be pleased with themselves and the status quo, and reject science and the challenges it brings with it. Of course, there is no substance to his “arguments” – he merely insists upon the traditional view of morality and standards and suggests that science and knowledge may actually erode the values by which people live, encouraging them to view advances in knowledge as harmful and to be viewed with suspicion. He depends largely on his personal charm and presence, resembling a dynamic and spirited evangelist trying to drum up support for his cause.



Because of his constant performance and his good-humoured attempts to ingratiate himself with the crowd and manipulate their feelings, one wonders if he is as sincere as he might be. He appears to be seizing an opportunity to promote himself as much as the cause he purports to represent.

Presumably used to winning arguments and debates with less charismatic and self-assured speakers (which he would expect to face in the small town of Hillsboro), he is visibly shaken when he discovers he will face Henry Drummond, “the most agile legal mind of the twentieth century” (according to Hornbeck, whose paper has hired Drummond). Brady’s reaction, though slightly comical, reveals something of the man behind the act and suggests he is indeed producing (and maybe even living) a performance. He may be less sure of himself than we imagine.

Brady and Drummond are good friends and have known one another for years, suggesting society can survive even profound differences of opinion. Late in the film there is a lovely scene in which they hold a discussion while swinging in rocking chairs (moving in different times to represent differing rhythms of life). Brady shares that he sees religion as offering hope, and in response Drummond recounts a tale of an idealised rocking horse he coveted as a boy and was sorely disappointed by the poor-quality reality once it became his. He contends that hope is not worth it if it requires ignorance, bigotry and hate in order to be maintained. While Brady affirms faith in his convictions, Drummond seeks and supports tangible truth and evidence.

Brady continues to “grandstand”, whether it be in court or at a meal, currying favour with the courtroom audience or pontificating for the benefit of reporters.

However, while attending a meeting called by Reverend Brown at which he tries to incite violence and curses his own daughter, Brady intervenes to preach forgiveness and defuses the situation. Rachel turns to Brady as the embodiment of Christian values and confides to him why Cates abandoned the Church and has an ongoing disagreement with her father. Unfortunately, later in court Brady tries to use Rachel’s information for his own ends, causing severe upset to the devout and sincere Rachel, and revealing himself to be less high-minded and ethical than he might have appeared. In desperation to bring Cates into disrepute and to win his case, Brady resorts to verbal bullying of Rachel on the stand, which is frowned upon by all present.

Brady has been reduced to attempted character assassination because his attempts to prevent the proving of the validity of the theory of evolution (experts were not allowed to provide evidence) and defend the Biblical version of the creation of life have failed:

Unable to call witnesses in defence of the validity of Darwinism, Drummond is forced to seek weaknesses in the Biblical version of creation. He calls Brady himself as an expert on the Bible to the stand, and through a number of questions (the original courtroom exchange lasted two hours), Drummond is able to cast doubt on the Biblical version due to inherent omissions, internal contradictions and what are now seen (due to accepted scientific knowledge and understanding) as impossibilities. Drummond then pushes Brady into conceding that man should be free and allowed to think, suggesting that God had perhaps spoken to Darwin (Drummond initially wanted to pursue a theory that Darwinism and Genesis may not be irreconcilable, but as Brady had no knowledge of Darwin’s book, this was abandoned), whereupon Brady claims God speaks to him and he is God’s messenger, suggestions which lead to loss of confidence and even derision in the public gallery.

An excess of faith can lead to delusion, and many who profess a faith in God can confuse this with faith in themselves.

Somewhat crushed at losing this argument and at least some of his standing in the community as a result of this and his bullying of Rachel, Brady hopes to redeem himself with a final flourish in the form of a powerful summing-up, but he is denied this chance due to legal technicalities. Incensed by the situation, Brady starts to spout his speech anyway at the end of the trial, but is largely ignored. Overwhelmed, Brady collapses and dies, leaving the question of his sincerity unanswered. Did he participate in this circus merely for his own ends, seeing the case as an opportunity to relaunch his flagging career? Did he genuinely seek to defend the validity of Genesis? Was his collapse due to loss of face and standing which his ego could not bear, or was it due to his strength of feeling and his desire to defend the place of God in our society?

Henry Drummond

Just as Matthew Brady stands for faith and the maintenance of the status quo, so Henry Drummond represents advances in science, education and the development of free thought (at one point Brady’s wife states Brady has stayed still while Drummond has moved on). Drummond is the voice of reason whose guiding principle is the pursuit of truth. For Drummond, this case is not just about evolution versus Genesis, it is about the right to be different, the right to think and the right to express those thoughts.

According to Drummond, an idea is greater than a cathedral and the advance of knowledge is a greater miracle than any in the Bible, but the cost of such ideas and knowledge (which Drummond is willing to pay) is the abandonment of faith (or, as he has it, frightening people with a fable).



Drummond and Brady are very different characters and there is a considerable contrast in their personalities and style. While Brady arrives with great fanfare and loves being the centre of attention, Drummond arrives quietly and humbly by bus and is met by Hornbeck alone. When Brady dines grandly and holds court surrounded by representatives of the media, Drummond eats alone and very simply. While Brady ingratiates himself with the local populace and the public in the courtroom, Drummond suggests the community is an insult to the world and states he wishes to withdraw from the case because he feels his client has already been found guilty due to the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the local inhabitants.

Drummond’s purpose is relatively simple – he is there to champion truth and defend/protect the advancement of knowledge and understanding. In order to do so, he sets out to establish that evolution is perfectly reasonable and that the law (in the form of the Butler Act) is at fault and is not justifiable as it effectively impedes education.

One of the principal purposes of education is to gain knowledge (as well as the skills that allow the accumulation and processing of such knowledge, including reasoning and thinking). If individuals are to achieve independence and dignity (further purposes of education), then knowledge, thoughts and opinions should be freely available so individuals can draw their own conclusions. All positions in an argument should be justifiable and should be open to doubt and question. After all, one cannot be sure one is right if one doesn’t admit the possibility of being wrong. If a stance cannot be justified, or if it collapses in the face of reasonable challenge, it may indeed be wrong.

Drummond sets out to prove the basis in reason and fact of evolution, but he is dogged by bigotry and intransigence – there is a sign saying “Read your Bible” above the entrance of the court, the judge announces a prayer meeting at the end of a session, there are public marches threatening violence and Drummond’s highly respected men of science (called to act as witnesses for the validity of the theory of evolution and therefore support its inclusion in the education programme) are rejected as irrelevant to the case. Drummond is accused of putting the law on trial rather than defend his client, and that is indeed what he attempts to do, in order to defend his client.

Unable to adequately defend evolution, Drummond is forced to try to cast doubt on the validity of Genesis and calls Brady to the stand as an “expert” on the Bible. At first the fundamental incompatibility of faith and reason prevents Drummond from making any progress (one need not justify beliefs based on faith, only maintain them as the faithful may simply deny the consequences of reason, as does Brady when he claims God can do anything he pleases). However, by use of reason and by appealing to accepted rules of science, Drummond identifies sufficient internal contradictions and physical impossibilities in Genesis to fluster Brady, and he coerces him into admitting that man should have the right to think and therefore develop his theories and knowledge of himself and his world.

When pushed about the nature of the Bible, Drummond willingly accepts it is a good book, but adds it is not the only book – there are other ways of looking at things. Man cannot live by faith alone, though he does not suggest he should do without it, entirely. Indeed, at the end of the film when Drummond is tidying away his things, he picks up both a copy of Darwin’s work on evolution and a copy of the Bible, perhaps suggesting that man is a physical and spiritual being and that while neither book may contain all the answers, much can be learned from both.

Before this, however, Drummond has an exchange with Hornbeck whose sneering cynicism has rankled him. Drummond reveals a sneaking regard for faith and denounces Hornbeck’s insistence on believing in nothing. For Drummond, it is better to believe in something than nothing, and he may even have a little faith himself (or at least he finds the notion appealing). It appears man cannot live by science and knowledge alone.



The decision of the jury is that Cates is guilty as charged. Given the circumstances and the fact that he did, in fact, break the law, there was surely never any real doubt as to the legal outcome. However, the judge goes on to impose a very moderate sentence, fining Cates just $100. So, while the principle of the Butler Act is maintained, its impact is greatly diminished. The judge’s ruling appears to recognise the inevitability of change and the eventual abandonment of the principle behind the Butler Act. That said, it was finally repealed only in 1967 in face of concerns over comparison of education programmes in other nations, especially Russia, and the increasing separation of religion and public education.

The script (and I’m afraid I don’t know to what extent the original play was adapted by the screen writers) is remarkably literate and engaging given the potentially dry and academic premise. Sincere and rousing proclamations of faith are countered by concise and insightful arguments and observations. Each character makes a contribution to the whole, and in addition to dramatic exposition which helps develop and clarify the conflicting positions, the authors manage to inject a reasonable amount of humour to make the whole more palatable and entertaining.

Of course, the intention of the authors of the play was to draw parallels with McCarthyism (the Cold War was at its height in the 1950s and there was a movement to protect America and its perceived values from potential communist infiltration which led to something of a witch-hunt of left-wing authors, or those who offered any challenge to the political and social status quo), and defend the right of citizens to think and express views that might be at odds with the accepted political and social values.

A few of the performances may be a little staid or stagy by comparison to modern standards, but all acquit themselves well, and the towering performances by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March make it worth watching by themselves. Each brings humanity, complexity, sincerity and wiliness to his role, and each brings just enough knowing humour to allow relief from the intensity and high drama of major scenes.

Stanley Kramer manages to inject life and interest into almost every scene and treats his audience with respect and intelligence as he (and the writers) transform what is fundamentally an intellectual argument into an emotionally engaging piece of entertainment, the theme of which is as relevant today as it was at the time of production and at the time of the trial itself.




My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

Stuart Fernie


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Sunday, 1 January 2017

Flash fiction - Retirement Dinner and Speech



The Retirement Dinner


His name was William Thomson, known as Bill. He was a teacher of French in a small secondary school in the Highlands of Scotland. This was a job which, over the course of some thirty-five years, had gradually but quite relentlessly taken over his life (in common with most teachers) as he devoted his time to organising lessons, events and trips, produced materials, reports and test papers, considered and developed teaching strategies and techniques, even performed at charity concerts, and of course lost countless hours of sleep due to anxiety and an obsessive desire to do right by his pupils.
Now, somewhat to his astonishment, he was about to stand up before his colleagues to deliver his retirement speech.

He had looked forward to “escaping” for the last couple of years as the constant flow of dubious changes, questionable initiatives, pressure to justify just about every action he took, and the general daily grind seemed ever more intense, while the prospect of retirement offered a chink of light at the end of the tunnel and the thought of just saying “no more” was ever more appealing.

He had, of course, joked about the prospect of retirement for many years – if a pupil took an inordinate length of time to answer a question, he would remind them that he was due to retire in nineteen, then fifteen, then ten years and so on.

Now, at his own retiral “do”, as he was about to say his farewells to his colleagues, it was all of a sudden real, imminent and somewhat disconcerting.

Naturally, in the run-up to “the end”, many people had asked him about his plans for the future and he always jokingly answered that he was so preoccupied by thoughts of all the things he wanted to see come to a halt that he had never actually considered what he would do with his time and energy in the (now very near) future.

Joking though he was, it was actually the truth – immediate issues such as finding strategies to deal with that potentially difficult third year class, coaxing some senior pupils through their dreaded speaking assessments, adapting an exercise to make French grammar amusing and engaging at least to some extent, and dealing with a few poor wee souls whose difficult home circumstances were affecting their school work – all these things had indeed diverted his attention from the more personal and increasingly pressing matter of just what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

Discussion of this issue consisted largely of inane platitudes such as vague talk of travel, increased correspondence with friends and family, and regular trips to the cinema. The truth was he had given scant consideration to his future as he was too preoccupied dealing with issues in his present.

Then there was the small matter of his speech.

He had attended numerous retiral events and, in search of inspiration, he recalled the variety of tones and content of the speeches he heard at them. One or two were virtually scathing in their indictment of the direction in which they thought education was going (goodness only knows what they’d make of the present system!). Another colleague was remarkable in his brevity and conciseness - after hearing a couple of speeches in which his praises were loudly sung, and in the presence of many admiring colleagues, the retiree stood, said “Thank you”, and promptly sat down again! Then there was the colleague who stood, announced his year of birth and went on to provide a year by year account of his personal development and career. He took twenty minutes to arrive at the end of the Second World War!

So, these approaches had been done and Bill didn’t want to repeat others’ style – he wanted something that suited him, and then he remembered a quote from actor James Stewart who reportedly said that the best films were made up of “moments”. Bill thought that this notion applied equally to careers and indeed life itself, so he decided to recount some of his most memorable and cherished memories of his time at the school before simply thanking his colleagues for their support, camaraderie and friendship over the years.

Preparing the speech brought back many memories that had been buried in time and the process lent a focus and clarity to events, feelings and reflections. Bill had always been so immersed in the moment and his immediate concerns that he failed to perceive the bigger picture, but now, on reflection, he perceived patterns which perhaps only existed in his own mind, but which it pleased him to think might attest to some kind of overall purpose and even a modicum of success.

Bill’s working life for the last thirty-five years had been dominated by routine, duty, preparation, caring, supporting pupils and colleagues, but also camaraderie, mutual support and ceaseless humour in the face of adversity (on the part of both staff and pupils), all of which helped Bill get through some difficult times both professionally and personally. But all of this was within the context of his working environment, and within the next few days that entire framework would be gone. If the truth be told, Bill was somewhat unsure of the future largely because he was shortly going to gain that for which he had so long pined – his freedom, and he was none too sure of how he was going to handle it.

At one point, Bill even wondered if he was doing the right thing by retiring. However, he quickly disabused himself of that notion by recalling a few of the negative features of his working life:

Waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
Anxiety over the content and delivery of lessons.
Further (and perhaps more profound) anxiety over exam results.
The unpredictability of behaviour (pupils and staff!).
The feeling that whatever you do is not enough or good enough.
The constant accountability, justification, analysis and demands.

Actually, however daunting the prospect might have been, freedom suddenly looked mighty attractive!

Applause from his colleagues upon his introduction stirred Bill from his reflection and he stood up to embark on the speech that was to sum up the last thirty-five years of his life.



The Speech 


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is difficult to sum up in a few words the thoughts, feelings and experiences of some 35 years. The obvious thing is to discuss the changes I’ve seen in the education system in that time, but don’t worry – I’ll spare you that rant. However, I will tell you about my first observation.

Bear in mind what is involved in an observation today – a double-sided evaluation sheet incorporating at least 20 if not 30 elements. At the end of my first observed lesson the Assistant Head Ken Carlisle (who was responsible for probationers) approached and gave me his purely verbal feedback – “That was fine, Bill, but you might want to move the tables away from the wall”, and that was it. How things have changed ….. .

When starting out in teaching, it is essential to find your own style – you have to work out what works for you and your pupils, and you have to learn from your mistakes.

I would like to think I did learn from my mistakes, but sadly I have to confess I continue to make mistakes from which to learn.

For example, I learned that it is best to prepare in advance and not have to leave a class to collect some photocopying you’ve forgotten, giving the class time to set up a waste-paper bin filled with water above the classroom door which has been left ajar. This is particularly true if the depute rector decides to pop in to your room just ahead of you.

OR

It’s best not to assume that parents will be able (or willing) to exercise control over their offspring. At one parents’ evening, a pupil and his father sat in front of me and the pupil held a polystyrene cup filled with tea. While I was speaking to this pupil, he bit a chunk out of the lip of the cup and proceeded to eat it. A little taken aback, I pointed out to the pupil, quite slowly and deliberately, and with something of an air of disbelief, “You’re eating the cup”, whereupon he took another bite. I looked at the father and again pointed out quite slowly and deliberately, still with an air of disbelief, “He’s eating the cup”, at which he looked at me and smiled, making a bizarre high-pitched sound while shrugging his shoulders which indicated agreement, amusement and a recognition of his complete inability to influence events.

OR

It’s probably best not to physically remove a pen from a pupil’s mouth – even if he has arrived late, is under the influence of magic mushrooms and refuses to remove his pen when speaking to you. Physically removing the pen is particularly ill-advised if you consequently discover it is ridged and causes a distinct rattle of teeth while being removed.

OR

It’s probably best not to inadvertently lock a pupil in your cupboard and leave him there during morning interval – even if that attention-seeking little devil had crawled his way across the room and sneaked in to the cupboard to try to access some exam papers and amuse his classmates.

There are many, many happy memories from the classroom, charity concerts, school trips and the staffroom, car sharing to get to work, even meetings – far too many to be able to share with you here tonight, but memories which I will cherish and may well go on to write about in my memoirs. Be afraid!

Although there are many happy memories, I have to say it hasn’t always been great.

There have been difficult and frustrating times both professionally and personally, and I think in teaching it is often difficult to separate the two, and it is during the more difficult times that I learned to appreciate and value the wisdom and camaraderie of my colleagues. At the risk of sounding like the theme song to “Neighbours”, it’s at those times you discover that good colleagues become good friends. Clearly, I worked most closely with my fellow languages teachers Liz and Clive over the years, but I would like to thank you ALL for your camaraderie, friendship and support.

I have frequently said that I have no luck – I rarely win anything, have no luck in cards and the only time I put a bet on the Grand National, my horse actually ran away before the start of the race.
However, I have come to rethink my position concerning luck. I met my wife Anne (aside to Anne - “that is what you wrote, isn’t it?), and I was lucky enough to find a job at Shiel Academy and have some of the best colleagues and pupils I could hope for, and I am now lucky enough to have been made redundant!

It has frequently been said there is something special about Shiel, and actually I don’t think it’s hard to define – it’s just not that common.

It’s about caring. Putting pupils first and wanting what’s best for them, but extending that attitude to colleagues. It’s about professionalism with humanity and I know that I have benefited greatly from that environment and I thank you most sincerely, past and present colleagues.

My experiences have not been restricted to the school itself - I have also participated in several trips and I’ve been to France, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, London and Edinburgh.
I’ve met many interesting people along the way – not just colleagues and pupils, but people like Alastair Burnett (news journalist), Tom Weir (TV presenter), Rudi Oppenheimer (Belsen survivor), Jon Lee (former member of S-Club 7), John Owen-Jones (Valjean in Les Misérables), and I scared the living daylights out of Gareth Gates!

I have sung, danced and presented events.

I did a year-long exchange with a teacher from France and taught English in Rennes.

I was a union rep for many years and delivered milk, tea and coffee for 17 years.

As a result of one trip I developed an interest in “Les Misérables”, and wrote a study guide which led to the creation of a website, which in turn led to making several hundred acquaintances on the internet.

The point is that working in a school is a two-way process and if it is felt that I have made a contribution to the life of the school, it is equally true that my life has been a product of Shiel Academy, and I thank you all for the contributions you have made to my life.

I wish you all the best for the future, but whatever that holds, please remember you are already getting it right.


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Reflections on "The Prisoner" 1967 TV series



Reflections on “The Prisoner” 
(1967 TV series starring Patrick McGoohan)





This is not intended as a detailed analysis or review, but rather a personal interpretation of the much admired and unique TV series.

In terms of the its televisual background, the series is clearly influenced by McGoohan’s previous work in “Danger Man” (known as “Secret Agent” in the USA) and is a sequel of sorts, though this was strenuously refuted by McGoohan who doubtless saw “The Prisoner” as a separate and individual work dealing with much broader and universal themes. Although in the same category as several other spy/action/adventure series of the early sixties, Danger Man’s plots and characterisations reflected a more profound perception of events of the time and were treated with a level of intelligence and awareness not always shared by its contemporaries.

During his time as script editor on Danger Man, George Markstein, who went on to collaborate in the development of “The Prisoner” and wrote and edited the scripts of some 13 episodes, became aware of the existence of a mysterious resort-like prison in Scotland where some were held during World War Two. This style of prison seemed an ideal setting to present ideas McGoohan had been garnering for another series for some time during his stint in Danger Man. An episode of Danger Man was filmed in Portmeirion (on the north western coast of Wales) and it appealed to McGoohan as a location. Executive producer Sir Lew Grade gave the go-ahead to the project based on McGoohan’s outline (with no written contract between the two men), and the rest is history.



What is it about?

In a nutshell, it seems to me that “The Prisoner” is about the place of the individual in society and the restrictions a social framework must impose on the freedom of the individuals within it.

The series considers various aspects of conflict between an individual’s freedom and the lengths to which members of society will go in order to protect the “sanctity” of that society.

We start with the resignation of an agent (who holds important and potentially sensitive information). He is kidnapped and held in a comfortable resort-like village in order that authorities might ascertain just why this agent has resigned and whether or not he represents a threat to the security and best interests of the society he formerly helped to protect.

This contrasts with the right of the individual to exercise his freedom to cease fulfilling this function – whatever his reasons might be.



From this relatively conventional start (which fits well with the end of Danger Man and contemporary issues concerning the lives and careers of former agents), we experience episodes which are increasingly allegorical in nature (to the point of being arcane at times), but which are always engaging, thought-provoking and compelling.

The authorities in the Village seek information from Number 6 (inmates/inhabitants of the Village are deprived of names and are reduced to mere numbers, like cogs in the machinery of society) about why he resigned and use a variety of means to achieve their end.

They play psychological games to test Number 6’s strength of character and spirit, though he frequently manages to turn the tables so that the authorities (usually in the form of the current Number 2) fail and may even reveal important information to Number 6.

Along the way questions are raised about the very nature of democracy and the trust we all place in the (sometimes shady) figures who run our society. “Sides” become irrelevant as ultimately all parties would behave in the same way, leading to the conclusion that no-one can be trusted. We are also invited to question motives and the very positions we are expected to adopt in society, placing the interests of that society above those of the individuals who collectively form it. Clearly, these ideas are a product of their time (the Cold War was at its coldest in the sixties), but the series develops these ideas to deal with universal concepts of freedom and identity.



Within the context of extraction of information, the authorities resort to confidence tricks, application of drugs and even science-fiction duplication – all exploring identity, strength of character and principle (Number 6 doesn’t know which “side” is trying to break him, therefore it could be argued that he is actually trying to protect the society he has known, or, if his own colleagues are responsible for his incarceration, he is fighting for the principle of personal freedom and choice).

The persistent and ubiquitous use of technology throughout the series also serves to emphasise the apparent futility of trying to preserve individuality or escape the clutches and influence of modern society. Yet Number 6 manages to outwit the users of said technology or find weaknesses within it, thus offering hope for humanity.

In the end, when we have moved into purely allegorical territory, Number 6 does indeed escape and returns to London, but it is clearly implied that some degree of supervision is maintained. Number 6 is unbroken and intact but he (and we) can never escape social pressure and supervision. Total freedom is an illusion – the best we can manage is relative freedom within limits, though these may be limits of which we remain largely unaware.



Number 6 also remains a prisoner of himself, condemned to behave in certain ways by his character and genes. Might his refusal to co-operate be regarded as a character defect or weakness? Are the authorities simply trying to help him adapt to reality and enable him to lead a “fuller” life within certain confines? This appears to be the interpretation of the remake of 2009, a remake I found desperately disappointing exactly because it appeared to preach conformity.

“The Prisoner” is undoubtedly a work of art. It is a representation of ideas which all should consider at some point. It is intriguing, inspiring and thought-provoking, but by its very nature it is also personal, subjective, can lack clarity and is open to a variety of interpretations. It has even been suggested that we are witnessing a mental breakdown as Number 6 faces the consequences of his actions in resigning. Perhaps he is in a coma and is dreaming. Whatever the context, the questions the series poses remain valid and the thoughts it provokes remain intriguing, important and relevant.

The performances and production are highly polished and assured. The viewer feels those responsible know exactly what they are doing, suggesting that any lack of understanding is due to some inadequacy on the part of the viewer (though this may be far from the case!).



The idea behind the use of the penny farthing spinning out of control in the end credits was that society was getting too big for its boots, developing at such a rate that control can no longer be exercised and might eventually lead to self-destruction. I suspect something similar can be said of the series itself as, toward the end, it shifted to ever more outlandish and perhaps indulgent representations and arguments concerning freedom and society.

For all that (and perhaps even because of that), I am grateful for the production of this unique series which continues to provoke reaction and thought.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page – I hope you found it of some interest.

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .