French teacher: Virginie Hopstein
So Television for BBC One, 5 April 2006 to 1 September 2007 (14 episodes in 2 series)
The easiest half hour on television, because you were taught all the answers at school.
Well, Danny Wallace reckons so, anyway. Fortunately it's not quite that easy. That would be a bit dull, and thankfully this show isn't. Far from it.
Three celebs play, introduced with amusing extracts from their school reports. We're pleased to report that the celebs are actually people we've heard of, which makes a nice change. The first round is a "quickfire" general knowledge round, with Danny coming to the celebrities at random, addressing them by their surnames, which gets everyone warmed up nicely. For the second round, Danny brings out a fictional school timetable, from which each contestant picks a day, and then gets questions on that day's subjects. "Double periods" indicate a more difficult question for double points. Some of the questions involve films of current school pupils and/or celebrities such as Carol Vorderman asking questions/setting problems for the celebs and then providing the solutions, which is a nice touch.
The third round brings in a woman named Virginie who tested the celebs on their French to excellent comic effect. It's a bit of a shame that the round tests exactly the same things across the series. However, it is very funny trying to watch the celebs dredge up their French lessons from 15+ years ago and the well-cast teacher is sexy/scary enough to fit the role perfectly. And they have some fun with the subtitles too. At the end of the round, Madame always asks Danny a question in French - and he can never apparently even understand it, let alone answer her - so we get a suitably bemused look and - for a change - dead silence from him!
Next is the homework (or project) round, in which the celebs are tested on a subject they have been given in advance. Here's a clever touch: the celebs write their answers on cards, and there's a penalty for writing nothing at all, thus we're at least guaranteed something more amusing than a mere pass. (Several contestants in this round have complained that their opponents have been trying to copy them, only to get very short shrift from Wallace - "Nobody likes a sneak!" he invariably declares). The second series features an introduction to the round by means of a relevant clip from a schools' programme from the 1970's or 1980's (usually 'Watch'). The clips are worth seeing, if only for a laugh at how amazingly dated they are!
The project round was originally the final round, but with the expanded timeslot for the second series, a new round was added at this point in which the celebs attempt to play recorder alongside the School's Out Orchestra (a group of real schoolchildren). This round has its own running joke with Danny taking "requests" for the song to be played, which of course is arranged in advance (and is either "Y.M.C.A." or "Waterloo").
The top scoring celeb goes on to the endgame, where the timetable comes out again. The celeb goes through the week, answering one question from each day, including at least one double. £300 per correct answer goes to a school of their choice, with an extra £500 bonus (for a conveniently round total of £2000) for getting through the entire week. If there is one criticism here it's that the original 90 second time limit was way too generous (or the questions were a bit peasy) so there was no tension here at all. Fortunately they've addressed this in the second series by shortening the round to 60 seconds, while simultaneously upping the value of each question to £400. The winning celebrity also receives the 'School's Out' trophy, at which point Wallace brings out a decent-looking trophy, then takes a tiny one out of it to present to the celebrity. This was a running gag over the two series and it did, frankly, wear a bit thin.
The odd overdone gag aside, the whole thing works. Danny Wallace is in his element here (certainly far more so than in his primetime debut, the tedious He's Having a Baby), the quiz is neatly constructed, the graphics and production values are very good and, best of all, it's genuinely funny. It is, if you'll pardon the expression, old-school family entertainment in the best sense. And we don't even have to use the "could try harder" line, because actually a lot of the charm of this show is that they don't try too hard. There would surely have been a temptation to do this as a post-watershed show with more "adult" humour, and we suspect that would have ruined it. If there is one niggle (albeit very minor), it is that Wallace sometimes tends to help the celebrities a little too much (rather like the late Bob Monkhouse used to do in Bob's Full House). Although this certainly does not spoil the fun of the show, it has actually influenced the final outcome on at least one occasion. Still, it's only one smallish blip in an otherwise largely faultless performance, so we won't let it worry us - much.
Instead of the aforementioned substandard show that it could have been, we've got a good-natured and very entertaining half-hour studio-based quiz show in prime family viewing time, and there aren't enough of those. Excellent work. More, please, BBC - two series haven't been enough.
At the end of the first round: "Stay where you are - that bell's for me, not for you!"
"..And pay attention, because I'll be coming to you all at random...!"
"...and oxbow lakes!" (audience cheer)
To the contestants before the French test: "Bon chance!"
"Have a look....at this!"
"Nobody likes a sneak!"
"Please welcome (or, at the end), "Please thank....the School's Out Orchestra!"
Hugh Rycroft and Jeremy Salsby
From the "you wait years for one to arrive..." department, this show debuted less than 24 hours after More 4's similarly curriculum-themed That'll Test 'Em. (21, as a matter of fact.)
The motto on the school crest in the series is "Edocere Erudire Delectare", which translates as "To educate, inform and entertain", Lord Reith's statement of intent for the BBC.
The first series was never shown in Scotland, what with the schedule demands of River City, pro-celebrity shinty, and the like.
Another amusing touch on the show is the appearance of the celebrities' former teachers on film and/or in the studio, usually with some pointed comments about their ex-pupils' abilities and performances (or lack of them!)
"Madame Virginie" is indeed a genuine French lady (from Cannes, in fact) but she's not really a teacher (which may go some way toward explaining her rather eccentric marking) - she works for the BBC.
When Jo Brand appeared on the programme, she risked Madame Virginie's wrath by calling her a 'scary vache' (ie 'cow'). Naturally, Virginie was not too impressed by that, but Brand was still given a reasonable mark, since she had otherwise spoken some pretty good French.