Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Chapter 10: When a pie in the face is no laughing matter

(Photo:  Mabel Norman, in A Noise from the Deep 1913)

Custard pies in the movies. Iconic slapstick. Think Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy.  More recently any gross-out comedy in the American Pie vein, with a debt to Benny Hill, normally featuring scantily clad, voluptuous girls. Freud would have a field day.  But did you know that it was actually a woman who threw the first custard pie? Apparently female comedienne and silent movie star Mabel Norman was trying out a gag on Ben Turpin and chucked a lemon-meringue pie in his face.  The studio bosses were so taken with the footage they incorporated the idea into the 1909 movie Mr Flip.  In the following clip, Turpin as Mr Flip goes round from girl to girl, essentially molesting them, and receives his comeuppance each time, climaxing with a pie in the face.  Turn-of-the century girl power.  

I found this out in a quick google of the history of custard pies this evening, prompted by a newspaper headline that caught my eye this morning:

A male sixth-form student slapped a paper plate of whipped cream in the face of the female head of year teacher,  allegedly damaging her eye, and has been expelled for assault, with police action pending.  It was an article that touched a raw nerve for me, as I've taught sixth-formers and first year undergrads in the past, and recently, as we move out of the nappy stage and I'm no longer a walking zombie,  the desire to return to teaching in a classroom again has hit me like a sledgehammer.  

Teenage boys, and girls, can be a delight, engaging, thinking outside-of-the box, inspiring, enthusiastic free-spirits. They can be challenging - both in a positive and negative sense.  And there will always be a power struggle at some level at some point.   The student was foolish - did the school over-react?  Momentum and humiliation are both key factors here.  It was the end of the teaching term, pranks are played.  In the secondary school where I was a pupil, although before my time, a group of girls were disciplined for some light graffiti on the school premises.  They had timed it just before Parents' Day, and the young head felt humiliated.  Reassuring the year that no action would be taking if only they owned up, the head then expelled those who came forward.   Schools can over-react.   They can, on occasion, discipline harshly and unfairly, privileging the reputation of the school over the individuals in their care. And they are very sensitive in what is an increasingly litigious environment. 

Yet schools also have to justify every decision to their board of governors and local authorities.  This matter in the press at the moment will have been dragged over with a fine tooth-comb, discovering information that they won't be at liberty to disclose to the press. The student pleads being carried away in the moment(um), a boy suffering a rush of blood to the head, but in response there is an accusation of premeditation by the school.  I wonder. I imagine. Did he have a grudge to bear? Was there a history?  Was there form? Was it on some level an assertion of alpha-male dominance in a classroom situation?  Would he have thrown the plate at an older male teacher? A plate thrown in high spirits, but with enough force to damage the teacher's eye? And I'm assuming here it's not simply a case of dairy intolerance to the cream that caused the reaction.   The incident was filmed and posted on Facebook.  Hardly spontaneous that. Basically, I find the whole story disturbing, and a far cry from the empowering origins of the custard pie. 

Ironically, one of the girls expelled from my old school is a friend of mine I met subsequently, and now a teacher herself, in the "Oh Captain, my Captain" vein.  If you haven't watched Dead Poets' Society, you won't get that reference, and what can I say?! Inspirational doesn't quite cut it.  Anyway, a couple of years ago I took the children to see the school's production of Bugsy Malone that she was staging with her fifth-formers, none of whom have English as their first language.  It was superb.  The cast were clearly having fun.  My kids loved every minute.  They knew the music well, as we'd had the film on repeat play around that time, having hosted a Prohibition Party, complete with pianist playing sing-a-long Bugsy all evening.  The custard pies that would have gone done like a lead balloon with the parents at the school production were discreetly replaced with water pistols.

On the other hand, the immersive cinema-experience entrepreneurs Future Cinema did a superb screening of Bugsy Malone, with bona fide custard guns, that is still the talk of the town.  It was messy, family fun.  

I guess the bottom line is that you need buy-in from the audience, and to know their limits, or their willingness to test them.  Comedy is always a tightrope, it takes guts, but catching your target unawares and humiliating them is no laughing matter.  And we all get our comeuppance in the end:

"You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die."
Joe Hill, 1911
(Labour activist and songwriter)

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