“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.”
Last week, I thought that Class might be having trouble finding where it stood in the multichannel age. On the basis of Nightvisiting this was unwarranted caution. On the basis of this episode, Class is purposeful, assured and effective in exploring the unavoidable horrors of emotional life. Nightvisiting takes Class’s urban setting and injects it with a mystic folk tradition, as a green entity breaks through from another world claiming to represent a communion of souls which can bring comfort and release to the grieving, if only they will choose to believe the manifestations of the dead which flower at the end of their tendrils.
Nightvisiting is a story of the night and how it challenges our experience, with arresting visuals as Coal Hill and its environs are entwined by glistening, sometimes pulsing, green tendrils, some displaying a concerning knotted girth, as if advertising a well-fed gut. The alien entity, Lankin, sets out to define itself in ethereal terms, but its methods and presence are viscerally organic. As Tanya defends herself by working out patiently what she knows and why, through dialogue with a devil in the shape of her father, Charlie and Mateusz confirm their relationship and by claiming control of their present from the past immunize themselves against assault, while April and Ram discover their previously unsuspected mutual attraction in the midst of apocalypse. There’s a precise balance to the two love affairs; at different stages and with different dramatic and social heritages to draw upon, contrasting textures but here of equal force for discovery and self-discovery and strengthening against the force in the dark.
For all the attention received by the lovemaking of Charlie and Mateusz, this is an episode built on the female leads and their inner conflicts. Tanya we knew about, and Vivian Oparah’s two-handers opposite the embodiment of Tanya’s father Jasper (a disarmingly natural and then unnatural Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) confirm how much of a cornerstone to the programme her performance is. Sophie Hopkins continues to shine further – how many young people convinced they are just ‘nice’ need to hear April say that being kind and polite and concerned isn’t about mere pleasantness but about not giving in to the assaults of the world? Katherine Kelly demonstrates a determination somewhere on the far side of resignation; Miss Quill’s exchange with Lankin’s impression of her sister Orla’ath (a well-matched Anastasia Hille) is a verbal dance with words as surgical blades, the only knives (as dialogue reminds us) that Miss Quill is able to use. There’s an added picquancy to Quill, too: she’s not just an embittered enslaved terrorist reduced to sniping at her situation, but a person of experience who runs alongside but can’t share the formative experiences being enjoyed by her young charges.
After a resolutely beat-heavy urban soundtrack in the first two episodes, it was good to hear a folk-influenced one on this, including Jim Moray with a new recording of his own ‘Nightvisiting’. Class has shown it can shift tone and structure of storytelling and that despite its title it’s not tied to school and classroom. It also draws from the imagery and lore of Doctor Who without being trapped by it; as the Shadow Kin recalled to some the Pyroviles of The Fires of Pompeii, Lankin’s victims and projections, enveloped by vegetable matter and in some cases with green flesh, echoed in image the Krynoids of The Seeds of Doom, while telling an unrelated story, something Class must be free to do. Next week, a story of new heads and shared hearts, it appears.
The schools in Sheffield were very different.
Certainly – and this school in the displaced location of Shoreditch-on-Taff is very different from anywhere else. Coal Hill has been translated from its late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century redbrick incarnation in the Moffatverse into the gleaming antiseptic of an early twenty-first century academy, creaming off its brightest and the best while under the pressure to improve its results in science. The greenish hue of the walls suggests somewhere which needs to be wiped clean. There’s a lot of gore at Coal Hill Academy – people explode, Shadow Kin ooze across walls, members of staff are skinned alive and consumed. It’s not just the walls which are wiped clean, but memories too; the only way for students and staff to function is to block out the body count. At Coal Hill, we are told by a certain passing Time Lord, time has worn thin, and various unpleasant visitors are being drawn to its as to a beacon in space-time.
So far, so Sunnydale, and so Torchwood too. However, Class is its own entity. It has no Buffy nor a Captain Jack figure to act as the leader of action and centre of mystery. Greg Austin’s Charlie is carefully positioned to be neither surrogate-Doctor nor quasi-Buffy; he’s neither knowledgeable enough nor sufficiently open to fill either role. The other youthful leads are flawed too: Sophie Hopkins’s isolated, fragile-seeming but steely April knows she is seen as ‘nice’, her mother thinks she is ‘kind’, and she thinks she needs to be overtly ambitious. The mismatch between her and decorating (organising?) the Prom is evident to all – as she lets slip, it’s going to look great on her university application. One of the highlights of the first episode was April’s visualization of the home planet of Charlie and Miss Quill – this imagined kind and well-ordered world showed Charlie’s people dressed in old-style Coal Hill School uniforms, both a symbol of reassuring certainty for April but also a suggestion that, like school, this society was full of arbitrary self-justifying cruelties and that Miss Quill’s description of Rodea injustice and her resentment at her own ‘slavery’ is well-grounded.
Writer Patrick Ness and director Ed Bazalgette enjoy combining trauma with gags without diminishing the tragedy. The playing and filming of the murder of the cleaner in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo, complete with synchronized cigarette-falling, teases the idea that Ram will get covered in blood every single episode, but this isn’t South Park and Ram isn’t wearing an orange cagoule. A dominant theme in Class is dealing with grief – Ram (a braggartish and vulnerable performance by turns from Fady Elsayed) sees his girlfriend murdered and is only allowed to say that she has ‘disappeared’, at the same time as he mourns the death of his own confident social- and sporting-player self; Tanya’s father is dead; all of Charlie’s and Miss Quill’s people have been slaughtered. April’s mother, who has adjusted to a life beyond a point when she was expected to have died, directs us to the need to adjust in a world of dislocation. Finding meaning in a world of change is the message of Class from the theme song onwards – Coal Hill’s autumn prom is recognised in the script as something transposed from and trying to imitate American custom, April wondering aloud what ‘prom’ actually means as she prepares decorations for the hall. These are teenagers searching for identity in an environment with no deep-fixed cultural anchors and which deliberately deprioritizes kindness.
Thematically, Class involves, but there are problems with exposition. I wasn’t quite sure, though could infer, why Miss Quill’s gun seems to have killed Kevin and (it’s implied) almost killed April. Likewise, in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo I wasn’t quite sure who or what was doing the cleaning up after the flaying so quickly and easily. Presumably the dragons were very good at rapidly absorbing almost all a victim’s blood. The moral of the episode was laid on with too heavy a trowel too, with dialogue heavy in self-realization from Ram, though in part redeemed by canny juxtaposition with April playing the violin and ignoring the phone call from her absent, not-yet-discussed father.
After only two episodes, and aimed at a teleliterate audience, Class is playing with expectations. Mention of the governors by Mr Armitage and then in a different context by Miss Quill reminded me of the introduction of the Mayor through dialogue in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and poor Mr Armitage has gone the way of Buffy‘s original school principal in an even shorter space of time. There are worlds beyond Coal Hill Academy yet to explore – how great a role will the Cabinet of Souls play in the ongoing narrative? What is Mateusz’s fate – included in the Doctor’s injunction but ‘grounded’ by his religious and presumably homophobic father, is he to be the Suzi Costello or Jesse of the series, and his inevitable disposal is merely delayed?
Doctor Who fans, of course, were propitiated by the appearance of legendary costume designer June Hudson as a glamorous elderly woman in a shop complaining about the behaviour of her husband on the stairs… (I knew I should know who she was, but had to question the cast list…) and by the materialisation of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor during For Tonight We Must Die. Capaldi gave a less abrasive Doctor here than he has done so far in his own series, more at home with contemporary references (this is I think the first time the Doctor has shown he is aware of IKEA – does the sonic screwdriver dispense with the need for Allen keys?) and warmer towards other people without needing to hide behind dark glasses. This might augur well for the 2017 series of Doctor Who for those of us who appreciate Capaldi as an actor but think his version of the Doctor has been either too much of a Malcolm Tucker in the TARDIS (series 8) or archly working out his mid-life or new life crisis (series 9).
Class, though, is its own entity – and the third episode promises to develop the already self-possessed presence of Vivian Oparah’s Tanya as something gets its tentacles into the material and remembered worlds. For the moment, though, Class shows promise but still needs to find a stronger sense of its own place in the displaced world of streaming television.