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TV review: Boarders and Frankenstein: The read with Alex Kingston

08 March 2024

BBC/Studio Lambert

Femi (Aruna Jalloh) and Omar (Myles Kamwendo) in Boarders (BBC3, Tuesdays)

Femi (Aruna Jalloh) and Omar (Myles Kamwendo) in Boarders (BBC3, Tuesdays)

THE many excellences of the new social-comedy series Boarders (BBC3, Tuesdays) are almost cancelled out by severe infelicities. The prestigious public school St Gilbert’s seeks to rebuild its public reputation, after film of some of its particularly obnoxious students abusing a homeless man goes viral. So it awards scholarships to five black students from the depths of London deprivation. Thus, from the outset, this public philanthropy is compromised and cynical.

On their arrival, they encounter not just the casual snobbery that the wealthy mete out to the poorer and less privileged, but also direct and covert racism. The five display a splendidly drawn range of characteristics and responses: keep your head down; work as hard as possible to get the best out of the fantastic education; seek to assimilate to join the elite; act as the school clown, using streetwise skills to build a unique position; or — as the marvellously feisty girl does — be confrontational and foment rebellion, fighting all the way.

The dialogue is pin-sharp and witty, and the vigour and energy of the criminally charged life back in the hood balances the toffs’ unthinking superiority. But too much of the set-up is simply unbelievable. Surely, all large public schools have for years now had many (admittedly wealthy) black and non-white pupils? I know that young people swear something rotten and are sexually active, but such constant obscenities and couplings are surely exaggerated. The girls are modelled on the grossest US college sororities rather than anything UK-school-based. Why, apart from the clownish headmaster, are there no staff about, so that the students essentially run wild and unsupervised? Why are the publicly heralded newcomers not even welcomed to the place, but left to fend for themselves? Why are the two PR women entirely risible, simply farcical?

My ire is stoked because the subject — the way in which endemic inequality and racism still corrupt our society — is crucial. Comedy can be a brilliant means to reveal and deflate injustice: but good comedy must have a sound basis in the plausible, be just a small exaggeration of the likely. Vital elements of Boarders’ scenario are so divorced from reality as to undercut satire’s killer weapon: using our laughter to force us to recognise uncomfortable truths and determine to reform.

What could be less appropriate for the limitless possibilities of TV than just one actor spending 65 minutes reading from a novel? Yet, as Frankenstein: The read with Alex Kingston (BBC4, Sunday) demonstrated, it can provide the most engaging and exciting viewing possible. Ms Kingston’s wonderful range of expression, emotion, and pace drew us into the power of Mary Shelley’s parable about the blasphemous egoism of creating life, the self-destructive hubris of enthroning yourself as God, and the hellish curse of existential banishment.

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