Written in 1981, but set a couple of decades earlier, it unwraps, bit by bit, the unhappiness beneath the superficial smiles which ensure that, in very British fashion, the teachers never pry too deeply into the lives of the colleagues they work with every day.
In the course of five scenes covering a handful of years, health declines, marriages break up – and are patched together – a hated elderly parent dies and children become increasingly problematic.
And through it all sits Rowan Atkinson’s St John Quartermaine, a solitary figure in his usual chair, not only incompetent as a teacher but pretty inept as a human being as well.
Atkinson has a face built for comedy but, under Richard Eyre’s assured direction, sensibly tones down the mannerisms to reveal the pathos of his character – a lonely, aging bachelor, useful as a baby sitter but otherwise avoided outside school hours.
The rest of a very strong cast are equally effective as their lives evolve around him – Conleth Hill’s jovially blustering family man with an increasingly unstable daughter, Will Keen’s accident prone newcomer from Hull who turns up on his first day with a rip in his trousers, Felicity Montagu’s torch-carrying spinster, Matthew Cottle’s would-be novelist who pays more attention to his literary baby than his spouse, and Louise Ford’s serially betrayed young wife – all in the employ of Malcolm Sinclair’s detached, implicitly gay co-principal.
Image: Nobby Clark