Purpose, always purpose: Educating the East End

It’s about family

Teachers: Motivation, to support family

Educating the East End Teachers: Motivation, to support pupils

Walter White, Teacher: Motivation, to support family

Walter White, Teacher, drug manufacturer: Motivation, to support family

It’s back!  Well sort of.  The new Educating… has left Yorkshire and returned dahn sahf, to Walthamstow.  It’s not far from where I live – about 6 miles.  Citymapper tells me I could walk there in 105 minutes.

I won’t, obviously, that would be creepy.

Actually, my eldest started at big school two days ago – Stoke Newington School and 6th Form – a step up.  It makes the programme even more real.

I wrote about Educating Yorkshire last year.  A wonderful programme, which took the lives of the pupils and teachers and carefully fashioned them into stories of triumph over adversity, friction, friendships and development.

The headmaster of the school in the ‘east end’ (it’s not really) explains her purpose:

We’ve got 900 pupils.. bags and bags of potential, but not a lot of self-belief.  Every child in this school deserves to succeed, and our job is to make sure we get it right for every single one of them

Educating Zebedee: a walk across a park

Educating Zebedee first day at secondary school: a walk across a park

Last year, Mr Mitchell talked about creating good citizens.  You might think it was obvious what the teachers are for.  But stating it up front each week is important for the viewers. It helps explain why the programme focuses on the more troubled pupils – the hardest ones.  Comprehensive schools have this purpose (there’s a clue in the word comprehensive), which private and selective schools do not. It’s easy to help a confident minority to succeed, but very hard to extend this mission to everyone.

Once again, we are indebted to John Yorke’s excellent Into The Woods for explaining why it is so important to understand what the characters are all about:

If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive.  And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead….  Purpose must be bestowed and actively sought, or the character is dead.

As in real life, so in character: we are all motivated by objectives, however small, however inconsequential, for most minutes of every day.  If weren’t, we wouldn’t get out of bed.

And it’s the same for viewers: they watch the programme for a purpose – it satisfies their objectives.  And if they don’t have that, fugeddabahdit.  And yet, and yet, beyond the stories, what IS the motivation for viewing this programme.  It’s one of the hardest question you can ask.  Perhaps you shouldn’t ask why you do things at all.

It makes no more sense for a pollster to ask you why you’re voting for someone than it does for a doctor to ask why you’re feeling sick (Nicholas Epley, Mindwise p180)

And the same for why we watch TV programmes – we can rationalise an answer, but the real motivations are about habit, emotions, our personality deep-seated personal needs we barely know exist.  But one straightforward rational reason to watch is that we love to escape into the lives of the protagonists, and this is only possible if we understand what is driving them:

Why do characters in EastEnders offer up the mantra, ‘It’s about family’? Because it gives them something to fight for; it gives them a goal – it animates them. (Yorke)

And if we know what the motivation is, we can forgive what they actually do.  In Breaking Bad, Walter White feels the need to explain his motivation for manufacturing crystal meth (to lay his cards on the table) to a dangerous acquaintance of his, Gus. Gus agrees that clarity is best for business. White does so after he outlines his understanding of what Gus has been up to.

White: I want there to be no confusion.  I know I owe you my life, and more than that, I respect the strategy. In your position, I would have done the same…   You know why I do this.  I want security for my family.

Gus Fring: Then you have it.  (Breaking Bad, S3, Ep9)

And there we the viewers have it too.

By understanding the motivations of the characters, we respect their strategy.  And as long as we can do that, we not only ‘would’ do the same, we are doing the same.  That’s true when it’s something noble like teaching or something less-so, like selling drugs, or watching people die.  Because for as long as we are watching the programmes, and committing ourselves to the story, that’s us on screen, in Walthamstow or Albuquerque, being a headmaster or being Walter White.