Here’s an intriguing two part BBC radio drama by Matthew Solon. Roz Taylor takes up her new post as head teacher at Collington House, a secondary school in the Midlands. She soon finds herself clashing with Mr Shah, a parent governor who takes exception to compulsory music lessons, the appointment of a gay teacher, and the skimpy skirts favoured by some of the school’s female pupils. Roz, under stress at home as well as work, is irritated into a couple of ill-judged remarks, as she spars with Mr Shah in a series of increasingly acrimonious meetings. Episode One ends with an official visit from the police, investigating a charge of threatening and abusive behaviour. The CPS decides not to prosecute – but Roz’s troubles are only just beginning.
So – what exactly was the play’s agenda? Roz appears to be presented sympathetically, as someone keen to promote tolerance and diversity, but adamant that all children should be given the chance to experience a broad based curriculum. Her Deputy, John, is rather an interesting character. He’s fluent in the different branches of Islam and their differences – offers to lend Roz a book – and refers to the need ‘to celebrate the vibrant diversity of our multicultural community’ with the acidulated insincerity of – a few people I’ve encountered on the internet. A shade more naturally Islamosceptic than Ros, he still seems to be presented as broadly sympathetic. Those keen to highlight the BBC’s left wing bias, perhaps even its ‘cultural Marxism’, won’t find much ammunition here.
Certain choices and details help clarify the play’s agenda further. Mr Shah is challenged over an invitation to an Imam who thinks apostates should die. His implied approval for the Imam seems designed to drive home the fact that he’s not simply pious and censorious – he’s an unequivocal hardliner. The treatment of anti-Muslim bigotry is also interesting. This topic is almost always raised by the more extreme characters – Shah, his sidekick and ally on the Board Mr Noorani, a radicalised sixth-former – and raised in a way which seems designed to prompt an exasperated rather than a sympathetic response. One child is shown to have subjected a Muslim woman to abuse – but the charge is softened by some further background information – he is struggling at school, may have Asperger’s and didn’t understand some of the insults he employed. When his punishment is limited to a five day suspension, Mr Shah bitterly complains that no mitigating ‘context’ had been brought into play in the case of the uninvited Imam. Unless I’m confusing Matthew Solon’s ideology with my own, I didn’t think this was intended to be a convincing line of argument. Solon would seem more in tune with Andrew Gilligan than, say, the Education Select Committee.
There is one significant Muslim character who supports Roz and opposes Mr Shah – this is Mr Sadiq, the Chairman of the Board of Governors. One detail from early in Episode One might put listeners on their guard against him. This is when John (the no nonsense Deputy) refers to him in what seems a slightly disparaging way. “Our beloved Chairman Mr Sadiq is from the Ismaili-Nazari’ tradition”, he informs Roz. However Sadiq doesn’t really seem to deserve any snark. An amiable, easygoing man, he’d rather avoid conflict but, when push comes to shove, he stands up to Mr Shah, and confirms his own support for liberal values. Craig described this drama as ‘clunky’ – I know what he means, but thought it was quite a subtle touch to hint at some dislike or distrust of Sadiq on John’s part, given that both characters are essentially, it turns out, on the same side.