Five years before the Sun used the headline "Gotcha!" to describe the destruction of the General Belgrano and its young men, Barrie Keefe wrote a Play for Today with the same title about the devastation wreaked on a similar generation. In his play Gotcha! (1977) the young were lost in an education system that clapped the achievers off to university and buried the rest. The play had an enormous impact on me (I was 17 at the time) and in some ways was responsible for my subsequent career.
Set in a science stockroom, Gotcha! opens with a clandestine liason between two teachers - one a pompous male PE teacher (married), the other a younger female ironic and knowing. He's about to dump her, and before getting down to one last coital moment they are discovered by a fifth-former on his last day of school. He has secreted his brothers motorbike in the storeroom, intending to ride it out of the gates as a final gesture of bravado. He's about to enter the adult world with nothing but a damning school report. Abused and slapped by the PE teacher for exposing his sexual deception and moral hypocrisy, the boy (whose name we never learn because no teacher can remember it) turns on those who have presided over his failure. He beards them, threatening them by hanging a cigarette over the open petrol tank of the mtorbike. In effect he takes them hostage.
The piece is simply shot (in a studio) and has a coruscating central performance from Philip Davis as the Kid. It's a howl of pain inside an education system which he is incredulous to discover still doesn't know who he is after five years. The headmaster is literally pulled into the crisis, and the the three professionals vainly and comiclly try to discover his identity ("It is a very big school, headmaster"). Losers are always anonymous until they have their day, and for this time the Kid can gleefully rejoice in the power he has over the teachers. He no longer wants to listen to them, to be on the receiving end of their pompous language and condescension. He insists they use his language, and makes them call eacher other by their nicknames previously adopted for them by the rest of the pupils ("Farty" and "Gorilla"). Nicknames for teachers are the only form of subversion available to most kids, the only power they have over their educators. What Keefe portrays in Gotcha! is the pupil / teacher relationship based on power and coercion, on rigidly defined roles where absolute moral authority is vested in the teachers.
In a brilliantly written speech the PE teacher unable to contain his rage at the impotence he's now suffering at the hands of this "yob", explodes in self-righteous indignation, revealing a hysterical loathing, not just of the Kid but of all those "no hopers" on whom he has to waste his time. The teachers' low expectations of the children come chillingly home to roost.
The headmaster and the two teachers, terrified by their captor's volatility, for the first time in his life ask him what he wants. He replies that he wants to play for West Ham and be a brain surgeon. The headmaster, humouring him to improve their hopes of safety, concedes that these goals are obtainable with "application". Kid, however, is not as self-deluded as they'd like to think and has simply exposed yet again their transparent bad faith, the false hopes engendered in a school which as a newly founded comprehensive promised successful access to education for all.
Keefe keeps the tension alive and raises the stakes when necessary. He dosn't portray the Kid as an anti-hero - he's irritating, childish and deeply confused. It's his anger and pain which are so stirring, his cry of "What about me?" The previous secondry modern generation was factory fodder, but this boy's generation is about to see the factories closing and mass unemployment. His terror and vulnerablity, never far from the surface, reduce him finally to tears.
The sympathetic female teacher responds to his cry of "help me". While she's holding him, the PE teacher attacks him and the seige is over. Characteristically, Kid thinks she set him up, betrayed him. The PE teacher has unfinished business with the Kid and repeatedly kicks him while the headmaster looks on. It's a chilling moment on which to end the piece.
Previously a stage play Gotcha! was broadcast in 1977, when punk and new wave were at their height. This play articulated the same three-chord preoccupation of the Jam and the Clash - and 20 years on it's as valid and pertinant as ever. Even with the figures for youth unemployment massaged away into training and vocational schemes there are still a lot of kids who will walk through the school gates for the last time convinced they are excluded from the world they've properly joined it.
Gotcha! was not the usual middle-class experience or an exercise in voyeurism. It was the real thing - written by an ex-teacher.
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Last updated on 03rd of October 1999.