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TV Interview

Chris Lilley ('Summer Heights High')

By
Chris Lilley ('Summer Heights High')
Australia has given us so much over the years: Kylie, Neighbours, Kylie in Neighbours, Foster's lager and now, Summer Heights High. The observational comedy follows the unique mix of personalities at an Aussie high school, Office-style, over the course of one term. It's earned rave reviews and impressive ratings down under, but has also come under fire for promoting bad behaviour in the classroom. We speak to show writer Chris Lilley, who also plays all three of the main characters, to find out more.

How would you describe the show?
"It's a comedy series that explores what it's like to be in an Australian high school at the moment. It's a fake documentary that follows three characters - a young schoolboy, a private exchange student and a drama teacher."

The schoolboy, Jonah, seems very angry. Why is that?
"He's a young boy who physically appears a lot more mature than he really is. He doesn't have a mum and he comes from a family where they value that macho aggression thing. He's not coping academically so he finds it works for him to be that aggressive."

He has a special slogan, doesn't he?
"He's a bit of a show-off so he draws penises all over the school. He's come up with this idea 'dick-tation' because he knows the word dictation. That's his calling card."

And Mr G is the school drama teacher. What sort of a teacher is he?
"He believes that he's very popular, but he's certainly not very popular among the rest of the staff. He's very self-centred and a lot of his classes revolve around him showing off. I think he's probably quite a lazy teacher; he'll do anything that puts himself in the limelight. He does a lot of physical performance stuff and bizarre sports games that don't really make any sense."

How does he involve the "special kids" in his lessons?
"He probably teaches them in order to show off as well, but he deals with the special education kids by being quite abusive to them. One of the characters is a boy with Down's Syndrome called Toby, whom Mr G befriends. In a way, even though Mr G is quite hard on him, it's kind of a nice story in the end."

Finally we have Ja'mie (pronounced "Juh-may"), the wealthy exchange student from a private school. How does she view her new classmates?
"She sees them as disadvantaged. She has this amazing background and thinks she's a cut above all of them. She looks down on those kids so much and wants them to be more like her."

Does she have something against the Asian kids?
"Yes, she's very inappropriate. She doesn't go to a multicultural school so it's a shock for her to arrive at this school that is. She thinks she's hot, she's white, she's young and she's extremely attractive - and consequently doesn't think much of the Asian girls."

Obviously there have been comparisons with The Office. How do you feel about that?
"I guess there are comparisons because it's a fake documentary and set in one particular environment. I did a show before this one where I played five or six different characters from all different parts of Australia, so it kind of became my thing to do multiple characters. So in that way, it's different to The Office, in that it has this absurd spin on it where a 32-year-old guy is playing a 16-year-old schoolgirl. I guess it's a nice comparison though because it's a great show!"

When it aired in Australia, there were complaints that the show was encouraging kids to misbehave. What did you think of that?
"I went to a lot of trouble to make sure the show was very real and we shot it in a real working school with real kids. So when you've got a big comedy character like Jonah swearing and being inappropriate in this real environment, that's what upset a lot of people. It's ridiculous, because kids are going to do what they want anyway. A lot of people were watching the show so they were kind of fishing around for any stories connected to it. Also I like making things that push the boundaries, so I expected a bit of controversy."

Finally, are you planning a second series?
"I never thought about it in the beginning because it was always a one-off thing. I'm not into just cashing in and rolling off into a second series that is not as good. I really enjoyed making the show, so the thought of writing and going back there again is really fun and exciting, but I haven't made a decision on what to do next."

Summer Heights High airs Tuesdays at 10.30pm on BBC Three.

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