If Harrow were a very British school, this portrait wouldn’t be nearly as adoring. Although the title might mislead, the content is much more rigidly factual. As long as what you seek is no more than the selective truth of a school prospectus.
Dean Acheson famously said that Britain had lost an empire and had yet to find a role. Some saw the United Kingdom as the Greece to America’s Rome. It’s quite possible that we have instead become what Switzerland once was to finishing schools; educating the small slice of the world which goes on to comprise the greater part of its leaders. Harrow boasts a diverse intake geographically, but there is very little economic diversity. A long way from the initial mission of the school to classically educate thirty poor boys of the parish.
When the Harrow headmaster makes an appearance, it is always from behind a lectern. He makes speeches which are nominally for the boys in front of him, but have clearly been written for an audience much further afield. Spectators he no doubt envisions tossing away their copy of the Good Schools Guide and instead letting the emotional clarity of an after-dinner Shiraz guide them to the Applications section of harrowschool.org.
The rest of the staff are all plenty nice enough. Although most suffer from the try-hard enthusiasm of adults who seem to want their pupils’ approval more than their respect. It reminds you quite how weird most teachers are. Something which is almost certainly exacerbated by the full-time company of teenagers and other similarly afflicted adults.
A Very British School isn’t un-enjoyable television. There are enough titbits to keep you from drifting off and the cast aren’t quite media-aware enough to be dull. The occasional factual error will probably slip past even the eight percent who attended public schools; in all likelihood lost in the nostalgia of their golden spell before adulthood or reliving the trauma of expulsion from the familial Eden.
As an advert for Britishness, it’s somewhere between Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony and PG Wodehouse caricature. There’s not enough here to recommend watching unless you were either sent away or need reassurance before being sent. It’s not Hogwarts, but it’s far enough away from normality to probably seem like it to some.
Harrow: A Very British School will air on 4th September at 8pm on Sky 1 HD and the first episode is available On Demand from 29th August.