Harrow: A Very British School
Sky 1 / Amazon Prime
Watching Harrow: A Very British School is a surreal experience. For what is supposed to be a fun, meaningless documentary about posh boys is actually an interesting examination of the institutions that have been suffocating British society for centuries.
Harrow: A Very British School follows a year in a life of students of the West Acre house at Harrow's prestigious boarding school. The program examines what it means to be a "modern-day Harrovian," as it tracks the daily happenings and activities students undertake throughout the year, from music competitions to Harrow football matches and end-of-the-year examinations.
I had quite an experience watching this program; I experience a range of conflicting emotions one doesn't expect to experience while watching a show about rich kids going to a posh school. The first emotion was loathing - I hated this program because I hated how it propagated the social structures that define Britain... And to be fair, it's just a weird program. But then as I fell into the narrative of the story, my experience turned from hatred to amusement, and, sure enough, I realized that Harrow: A Very British School is more than just a display of posh twattery, but rather its a cultural exploration of the institutions that regulate the social regime in Britain.
The first episode of this program follows first years (or shells, as they are referred) as they start their five-year journey with the school. This episode depicts is the formation of the narrative of the British social structures and the separation between boys of class and boys of poverty. The boys in this school, of no control of their own, are destined for success. They won't ever have to work hard to become something in life - their prestige was destined from birth. Their time at Harrow will define them for life, proving them with opportunities, that will inevitably lead them to the top of the hierarchy. All the while the kids from East London, with the same intellect, ambition, and work ethic, just unlucky to be born with prestige - will struggle to make a life for themselves, will have to have heartaches and debt, and will be lucky if they can hold down a job.
One of the most elating moments from the program (for me, at least) was in the final episode when next year's shells are introduced to the West Arc house. We learn that Michael, a trombone player from Darby, has earned a full scholarship to study at the school. What a moment - to see a kid, not from a posh upbringing, who doesn't come from wealth or prestige, get to study at this pompous school purely on talent and intelligence. Go, Michael! But soon the high wears off and you realize that again, only those with wealthy parents or exceptional talent can secure a bright future for themselves in this cut-throat world of elite boarding schools. And even though we're proud of dear Michael, is he simply just a spectacle for the school to say, "see we let poor people in too." It's quite an uneasy experience watching this program because it normalizes an institution that isn't normal. It normalizes the social structures that have crippled Britain for centuries. And it makes you feel like you too are encouraging this monster by making entertainment of it- and not least, it makes you feel pretty crappy for feeling so proud for the kid from Darby, not because he had the talent and intellect to make it into this school, but because he made it into the school as a working-class kid.
The episode I found most compelling and most relevant to the problems currently plaguing Britain (it starts with a B ends with exit), was the episode on traditions. The school is defined by its traditions - you're not a true Harrovian until you participate in and continue the ancient traditions of the school. The program makes light of these silly traditions (the best being turning the shells into the slaves for the older boys - all in good, traditional fun, of course), but what it doesn't acknowledge is how this mentality of legacy and traditionalism is defining these boys - who inevitably will grow up to become MPs and Prime Ministers, CEOs and world leaders - and propagates them into not questioning the systems that are in place, but simply accepting them because they are traditions. Britain, a nation built on traditions, is finding itself become a relic of the past, unable to modernize and advance with civilization because tradition always gets in the way. There is a fraction of Britain - the British people born from immigrants, building communities, and bring a new breed of culture to Britain - that don't factor into these traditions - traditions worthy only of elite white men. Yet, the country only wants to follow the traditions that have plagued upper society for centuries, and not acknowledge that perhaps it's time to modernize Britain and see that the "Great Britain" of old boys and white elites is long gone. But it's hard to do that when the traditions are being bred within its leaders at such a young age.
Don't get me wrong, Harrow: A Very British School is endearing - it really is a charming program and one that can be enjoyed if you simply want to enjoy mindless television. But what makes this program intriguing - and completely surreal - is looking at is a piece of cultural commentary examining how, even in the 21st century, classism and traditionalism become engrained in and carried on by the youth, ready to pass on the traditions of a "modern-day Harrovian" to the next generation, perpetuating the cycle ever more.
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