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Have-a-go heroics

Look and Read Special: Captain Crimson BBC 2 Monday, 10.50-11.10am Rpt Friday, 11.00-11.20am 14 April- 13 June Age range: 7-9

While Superman, Spiderman and the other superheroes are delivering mankind from the forces of evil, all that the luckless Captain Crimson is able to deliver is the English requirement of the national curriculum at key stage 2.

He is the lynch-pin of this summer's Look and Read Special - a brave attempt to combine a good-natured send up of old-fashioned comic books, with some old-fashioned teaching about language and the craft of story telling.

In the first episode, Captain Crimson is merely a cartoon character - the brain child of Jeff, a singularly inept graphic artist who draws weekly instalments of the good Captain's inter-galactic adventures. But the Captain falls through a black hole - an occupational hazard in deepest space - and ends up a flesh-and-blood character in Jeff's home.

He's an alien who hasn't an inkling of how life is lived on our planet - a bit like an Ofsted inspector, really, except that the Captain is urbane, charming and willing to learn.

A couple of children, acting as his chaperones, spend the series introducing him to the mysteries of launderettes, banks, hospitals, birthday parties and suchlike.

But, as in all good stories, there is a complication: Jeff is congenitally incapable of meeting a deadline - he's a fairly typical freelancer, in fact - so it's left to the children to write and draw the weekly comic strip.

That's the sugar on the pill. But the series is also laced with enough medicine to keep the most fastidious English teacher happily ticking boxes through the long summer term. With a synchronicity which is unique to educational broadcasting, everything that the Captain seems to do leads to a perfect opportunity to revise one or other strand of the national curriculum.

For example, in the third programme, he chances upon a bank hold up. When the villain yells curt commands at the cashier, most superheroes would predictably resort to violence, but not Captain Crimson. With the speed of lightning, he grabs the chance, to offer the robber a lesson on the importance of giving instructions which are both concise and unambiguous.

Later, the Captain and the kids help the police with their enquires, and - surprise, surprise - the episode focuses on how best to describe a person. The story ends with the inevitable chase, but it is punctuated - in the honourable tradition of comic books - with Splats! Splodges! and a police car's "Nee-Naw-Nee-Naw-Nee-Naw". So children are reminded - as if they needed reminding - that onomatopoeia can be useful in their writing.

The producers have ensured that the sugar and medicine are well and truly mixed. For instance, the incongruity of the impeccably mannered Captain instructing the villain on the niceties of choosing the apposite adverb is both educational and, at the same time, funny. Using this approach, the series is able to cover a wide range of basics - proper nouns, easily confused homophones, punctuation, parts of speech and perhaps as many as 30 other topics.

By its very nature, the series lends itself to a study of some of the techniques of story telling. As they devise the weekly comic strip for the feckless Jeff, the children have to think about plot, character, setting, dialogue, beginnings, middles and ends.

In so doing, they give young viewers a crash course on how they too can make the act of writing a richer and more rewarding experience. Of course, the real work is left to the teacher, but the programmes do, at least, remind pupils that Sir or Miss aren't alone in regarding these things as important.

The accompanying teachers' notes offer 24 pages of very detailed advice on how to explore the various themes in greater depth. BBC Education has also produced a Captain Crimson Writer's Resource Pack.

It contains 24 photocopiable worksheets together with full colour resource cards, posters and - best of all - a board game which encourages pupils to show off the superheroic effort they have put into acquiring knowledge about language - with or without the Captain's help.

Captain Crimson Writer's Resource Pack costs Pounds 11.99 from BBC Educational Publishing, PO Box 234, Wetherby, West Yorkshire, LS23 7EU

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