Finding their place in a group and overcoming problems caused by a lack of self-confidence are major preoccupations for children. Cliffhanger, a new two-part drama written specially for Talk, Write and Read by award- winning author Jacqueline Wilson, gives children an opportunity to consider and discuss how other children cope with fear, friendships, bullying and homesickness.
Wilson invites viewers to try out the life of Tim, a shy and gentle boy who is left at an adventure centre for a week by his well-meaning father. Timid and sensitive, he soon becomes the target for the taunts and blows of a bigger boy. Further problems follow when his team mates discover that he can't catch a ball during a game of rounders. On his first night away from home he is frightened and alone, his problems compounded by the knowledge that the next day he must go abseiling for the first time.
The following morning he reluctantly drags his feet up to the edge of the cliff and after some gentle encouragement, the petrified Tim takes his turn to make the perilous descent. But half-way down he panics and is paralysed by fear.
In the second half of the drama, Tim finds out how to resolve his problems. After overhearing him on the phone pleading with his parents to come and fetch him, a counsellor reassures him that all people are scared of something, "mice, the dark, wetting the bed". He recalls how he was once teased because he was afraid of worms until, that is, he stood up for himself and threw a worm right back at the bullies.
During the last game of the week Tim is tripped. He manages to put the interests of the team before his own need for a plaster and goes on to defy the bully openly at a crucial point in the game. As a result his team become the adventure centre champions.
The drama is rich in thought-provoking sub-plots. Tim is surrounded by believable characters who have their own problems to face. Kelly, who is kind and bubbles over with enthusiasm, is left out by the other two girls in her team who giggle and whisper about her behind her back. The good-natured Biscuits has to suffer jokes about his weight. The bully seems always to have to humiliate the others to make himself feel adequate.
Fears, bullying, exclusion, what it means to be in a team and the nature of parental love are skilfully explored from a child's point of view in these programmes. They allow children to try out different solutions to familiar dilemmas from a safe distance. Subsequent discussion and other English work will enable them to analyse in more depth their own and other pupils' responses and experiences.
Remaining true to Wilson's style of writing, the camera tries to interpret events from Tim's point of view, often borrowing the conventions of modern cinema thrillers. Well-observed humour prevents it from being depressing and child actor James Peachey convincingly communicates Tim's troubled emotions.
The teachers' notes, however, do not fully exploit the potential this drama has for developing a wide range of children's English skills in the classroom.