Testing pop culture

16 May 2011

As exams loom, TCS looks in a special feature at how film and TV characters dealt with test stress

Testing pop culture: Paper 1: Film

The History Boys

If Easter term feels like ‘it’s just one thing after another,’ then you could do much worse than take a break from revision by watching the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play. Top marks if you remembered it’s set in early 80s Yorkshire; eight grammar school boys return to the classroom for an extra term in order to pursue success in

the Oxbridge entrance exams. A bittersweet exploration of the value of education, it can be taken as an antidote to Cambridge exam disillusionment.

The boys’ old favourite, ‘Hector’, the General Studies teacher, nurtures in his students a cultural appetite regardless of the curriculum, whilst the new contract teacher Irwin offers his own approach of rejecting conventional historical interpretation for the sake of originality. Thus, Rudge, the boy who seems to have fluked his way to three As, leaves the exam hall, satisfied that he has written ‘Stalin was a sweetie and Wilfred Owen was a wuss.’

Whether you see exams as just another hurdle to jump or an inadequate means of quantifying individual learning, your heart will likely sink at History teacher Mrs. Lintott’s line about Oxbridge: ‘You don’t just need to know it, you need to know it backwards.’ Oh, and don’t we all know it.

Florence Smith Nicholls

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

No-one wants to fail most heinously and be shipped off to military school when they’re a simple righteous dude rocking out.

Solution? Form an awesome, almighty and totally bitchin’ rock band so that, when your music eventually saves the world, some future man will give you a gnarly time machine to do your project so you can pass, man.

Meet Socrates and do some REAL philosophy; meet Napoleon and Freud and Joan of Arc (who, you realise, isn’t ‘Noah’s wife’). Or, just read about it. Seriously. EFFORT. Maybe they deserved to pass after all.

Anyhow, great for this term if you truly want to believe that revision might just be the easiest way to pass your exams. Unless you’re a real genius, in which case everyone hates you so you might want to pretend you’re revising. Radical.

Rosie Howard-Williams

The Breakfast Club

God! Imagine if exams were like this. ‘WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!’ Discuss. We wouldn’t need to revise at all! I’d struggle to find three hours’ worth of useful stuff to write though. But what this film tells us is that, actually, exams of the self require the most revision of all – and for this 80s quintet, that comes in the form of spending a Saturday in school with a bunch of kids who are not ‘your people’. But, they are YOUR people. This is what we must learn. John Hughes’ classic manages to sort its naff ‘be tru 2 URSELF n hold yr head hi’ moral with one of the best scripts ever. There’s a John Bender in all of us – but we probably shouldn’t take him to the exam hall with us.

Rosie Howard-Williams

Educating Rita

Working-class Rita (Julie Walters) decides she’s going to better herself and study English at the Open University. Her first ever exam question is ‘Suggest ways in which one might cope with some of the staging difficulties in a production of Peer Gynt’. Her answer? ‘Do it on the radio.’ Perhaps we could all benefit from such a fresh approach.

Rosie Howard-Williams

Testing pop culture: Paper 2: TV

In the second part of our feature, Daniel Janes looks at how exams have been portrayed on the small screen

Most of us these days access our exam results online rather than picking them up physically. However, in the episode ‘Spoiler Alert’, lawyer-in-training Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel) finds himself in a situation that we’ve all dreaded: the results of his bar exam have come online, but he can’t access them as he’s lost his password. Faced with a possible six weeks’ wait for a notification by mail, it all comes back to him when his friends mockingly sing one of his ‘nonsense’ songs – which was actually a mnemonic to help him remember his password.

The Simpsons – (‘Bart The Genius’, ‘Bart Gets An F’, ‘Homer Goes To College’, ‘Lisa Gets An A’)

Exams have been a recurring plot element in The Simpsons – more often, perhaps, than any other sitcom. In ‘Homer Goes To College’, Homer, forced by nuclear inspectors to gain college credits at Springfield University, makes the all-too-common mistake of spending the revision period partying Belushi-style, only to panic when faced with his final exam in Nuclear Physics. His nerd tutors help him ‘cram like you’ve never crammed before’, but Homer slacks off. A cautionary tale if ever there was one. Meanwhile, whole episodes have revolved around characters’ exam performance. In ‘Lisa Gets An A’, Lisa, after developing a video game addiction, uncharacteristically cheats on an exam and is awarded the rare grade of A+++ (initially there appear to be four pluses, but the fourth is actually a stain from Miss Hoover’s Drambuie). She is racked with guilt, but things go from bad to worse when she finds out that her test grade has brought the whole of Springfield Elementary up to the state’s minimum academic standard, meaning the school now qualifies for a basic assistance grant. Of all the characters, however, it is by far Bart who has had the most exam trouble. In ‘Bart The Genius’, after swapping IQ test results with Martin Prince, he ends up in a school for gifted children – which is fine until he has to provide evidence for his genius.

In the classic episode ‘Bart Gets An F’, he fails four history exams in a row and faces repeating the fourth grade. He vows to do better and tries to buckle down, but keeps getting distracted and ends up failing his American history exam by 1%. Breaking down in tears before Mrs Krabappel, he compares his failure to George Washington’s surrender of Fort Necessity to French forces in 1754. The historical reference shows Mrs Krabappel that Bart did make an effort after all, and in response – to Bart’s delight – she moves his grade up to a D-. He was lucky that time, but it’s perhaps a risky strategy to bank on.

The Inbetweeners (‘Exam Time’)

When it comes to exams, are you a Will, a Simon or a Neil? Do you, like Will, massively OD on energy drinks in order to keep you awake (with all the implications that has for your bowels), do you, like Neil, prepare for your PE exam by playing Pro Evo Soccer or do you, like Simon, focus on the romantic possibilities of study dates to the degree of jeopardising your own studies? The thing about The Inbetweeners is that, so realistic are the characters and dialogue, you feel as if it illustrates your own teenage years, even if you were never actually like that. Its portrayal of the feverish atmosphere of end-of-year exams is no exception.

Cheers (‘Teacher’s Pet’)

Like Homer, bartender Sam (Ted Danson) has to go back to school – but for him it’s not for his college degree, but his high school diploma. Assistant bartender ‘Coach’ decides to join him, and both excel in their Geography grades – Coach through hard work, Sam through sleeping with the teacher. When Sam finally decides that he’s going to get  try to get his grades honestly, Coach helps him with his memorable revision method, one that many of us have no doubt tried: putting all the information into song format. To the tune of ‘She’s Comin’ Round The Mountain’, Sam and Coach sing: ‘Albania/Albania/You border on the Adriatic/Your land is mostly mountainous/And your chief export is chrome!’

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (‘Band Candy’)

We’ve all abandoned the library at some point and sought a change of scenery – in the Fellows’ Garden, in a cafe, on the stairs. We’ve all sought to combine revision with other activities. However, Buffy took both of these one step further. In the episode ‘Band Candy’, Buffy, with her inevitably busy slaying schedule, decides to have a late-night SATs revision session in a cemetery – where she stakes a vampire with her number two pencil. When Giles hands her a new pencil, Buffy sits back down and sighs: ‘I just know that us and the undead are the only people in Sunnydale working this late.’

Daniel Janes

Image: Buffy The Vampire Slayer Episode 3.06 – Band Candy – Image.net