All night and every night

Aleks Sierz

The BBC Learning Zone celebrates its second birthday with a makeover. Aleks Sierz reports

The corks are popping again at the BBC - this time it's the Learning Zone which celebrates its second anniversary this month.

As Catherine McCarthy, its editor, says: "Over the past two years, the Learning Zone has evolved dramatically - we know from the feedback we get that there's a huge and hungry audience out there."

Broadcast on BBC2 during the small hours - usually between 12.30am and about 7.00am - the BBC Learning Zone transmits about 1,600 hours of educational material a year. And, true to its boast of being a "unique overnight learning service", you don't even have to stay up to see it. Simply set the video and watch the programmes at your leisure.

When the BBC Learning Zone's zappy new logo - an acorn which grows rapidly into an oak - appears on the screen, legions of armchair learners will buckle down to enjoy the new term. An undoubted highlight is a continuing series called The Making of ... which features celebrities talking about how they started out.

As role models, it's hard to beat Kate Adie, Benjamin Zephaniah, Simon Callow, Sally Gunnell and Germaine Greer. The interviews are friendly and candid - though a few more probing questions could have livened things up a bit. Because each programme features both a celebrity - say, Bill Oddie on bird watching - and also a youngster embarking on the same activity, they are useful for schools, though children might prefer the athletics to the bird watching.

The BBC Learning Zone output aims to participate in wider campaigns to raise public awareness of social issues. As part of Deaf Awareness Week (ending today), programmes have explored not only obvious subjects such as sign language, but also the use of information technology in the deaf community. Of wider interest is Everybody Here Spoke Sign, which, among other things, traces the history of a gene for deafness and its impact on the Mayan people of Mexico.

More glamorous is the series called The Art and Craft of Movie Making (December 8-19), in which the stars give practical advice about film-making, from script writing to marketing the finished product. If you've ever wondered how Emma Thompson adapted Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, or what Kenneth Branagh was thinking about when he directed himself as Hamlet, this is the series for you.

As a way of encouraging young talent across the broadcasting industry, BBC Learning Zone's Talent 2000 showcases the work of film and media students from all over Britain (October 28-31). The work includes short drama films, animation, documentaries and work which tackles social issues. On a more critical note, the growth of media studies courses will also be examined - especially the idea that they offer a simple route into the industry.

During National Libraries Week (November 3-7), BBC Learning Zone launches Sound Box, a smart collection of soundbites from the huge treasure trove of the BBC sound archive. Together with specially selected arty images, this gives librarians - who have always had something of an image problem - a welcome media makeover. On-screen graphics and zappy camera work enliven even the worthiest subjects.

Some programmes are more practical than academic. There are plenty of resources for hard-pressed careers advisers - such as Skills for Work, Career Moves, and Hospitality and Catering - and some funky material in the Spanish and German language programmes. If you've ever wanted to learn a language this way, you won't be alone - when the Learning Zone ran a special language season earlier this year, more than 150,000 people phoned the BBC.

Current affairs get the in-depth coverage they deserve on Newsfile 3, a series for schools and colleges that uses lively news clips and archive footage to study political issues. One programme puts this year's Labour landslide in the context of the electoral systems of other democracies, and then moves on to explore the future of the welfare state. Other programmes analyse the Asian Tiger economies and the debate about Britain's transport system.

Unlike most teachers, BBC Learning Zone doesn't sleep, nor does it take a summer holiday. Running Monday to Friday, 52 weeks a year, it has already clocked up some impressive viewing statistics. About 800,000 people watch its programmes - armchair learning has never been more popular.

The BBC Learning Zone autumn programme guide is available from BBC Education, White City, London W12 7TS. Tel: 0181 746 1111

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