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Driving School (1997)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Driving School (1997)
BBC1, tx. 10/6-15/7/1997
6 x 30 minute editions
DirectorFrancesca Joseph
ProducerMark Fielder

Seven would-be drivers take to the roads.

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Driving School might have been a one-off fly-on-the-wall documentary along the lines of the BBC's 40 Minutes (1981-94) or Modern Times (1995-2001). Shrewdly, however, the producers recognised the potential of its alternately winning and infuriating characters and its try-fail-try-again narrative to develop a more sustained audience engagement. Like Airport (1996) before it, Driving School proved an instant success, securing audiences of up to 12 million. The 'docusoap' boom had begun.

Though recognisably a descendant of The Family (BBC), the weekly insight into the daily life of Reading's unruly Wilkins family that caused a storm in 1974, Driving School had little interest in social commentary; this was documentary as pure entertainment. Crucially, it was the product of an altogether more media-savvy age: while the Wilkinses seemed wholly unprepared for their notoriety, the participants of Driving School and the docusoaps that followed it not only enjoy being in front of a camera, many clearly relish the prospect of fame.

Driving School is clearly structured to generate identification with the participants, who actually behave as if part of a drama. The camera cuts quickly between different situations, weaving multiple storylines to maintain suspense. Encounters between participants are obviously arranged to link the stories. Despite such manipulations, the series rests on the notion that it is all true: tales of ordinary people struggling to pass their driving tests. These may be ordinary people, but ordinary people like Maureen and Joan, larger-than-life characters capable of generating great pathos and hilarious comedy.

In any docusoap, the performance of the cast is key, and in Maureen, the genre found perhaps its greatest star. A full-time cleaner from Bristol, Maureen has already failed her test six times by the time we first meet her. Yet she refuses to be defeated, and shows no fear of failure or ridicule. Often impatient with instruction and frequently terrifying behind the wheel, she provided the series with its most memorable moments, but it's hard not to admire her determination.

Docusoaps tend to provoke reaction rather than discussion, and many critics took a similar line to The Family creator Paul Watson, who, horrified at the suggestion that Driving School and its kind could be considered his 'children', responded that if that were so, then they must be bastards. But though undeniably frivolous, Driving School is among the best of its kind, making for an undemanding but highly entertaining three hours of television.

Anamaria Boschi

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Video Clips
1. The students (4:22)
2. Midnight nerves (1:51)
3. Joan's test (3:14)
4. The results (2:03)
Complete edition (29:21)
Airport (1996-2005)
Faking It (2000-05)
Family, The (1974)
Vets in Practice (1997-2002)