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Nights are drawing in

With summer upon us, BBC2 is lightening its tone to increase the allure of self-improvement, writes Janette Wolf

ust as you prepare to wind down for a summer of well-deserved indolence BBC2's Learning Zone is about to galvanise you into action. For the second year running, the strand is switching its emphasis from vocational education to something more light-hearted, in a bid to entice us all into a season of self-improvement.

Summer Nights is a 12-week tranche of educational programmes, aimed at the late developer as well as the late-night couch potato. Culled from the BBC's extensive archives, it comprises themed weeks on subjects of general interest from art and music to photography and health and fitness.

Sister Wendy Beckett kicks off proceedings with Sister Wendy's Odyssey and Sister Wendy's Grand Tour in a week devoted to "Discovering Art". But this is just one sparkler among many gems. Art documentaries from the past 40 years have been judiciously plundered to provide interviews with some of the most influential artists of the century: Dame Barbara Hepworth describes her own personal odyssey over a lifetime of coaxing stone and wood into delicious forms; L S Lowry appears as terse and miserable as some of his compositions. There are surprising insights from media celebrities in snippets from "The Great Picture Trail", where Joanna Lumley and Clare Rayner pick paintings that have moved them (Holman Hunt's "Isabella and the Pot of Basil" and Picasso's "Weeping Woman" respectively); Liberal Democrat MP Charles Kennedy pays a haunting tribute to Salvador Dali's "Christ of St John of the Cross".

Was Andy Warhol one of the seminal artists of the 20th century or, as one critic here claims, devoid of imagination and talent? If you've never thought about it before, this is your chance to reappraise his oeuvre, and countless others, in expert company.

But there is more to Summer Nights than passive digestion: viewers are able to use the individual units to build up credits for Open College courses, courtesy of links between BBC Education and more than 100 colleges and adult education centres throughout the country.

Catherine McCarthy, editor of the Learning Zone, says: "Now anyone can take the first step towards getting a recognised national qualification. For many viewers, interactive television has arrived with the Summer Nights season. This initiative will open the gates for people keen to explore the opportunities that further education offers."

Subsequent weeks cover a broad swathe of cultural, leisure and more cerebral issues. "The Great Outdoors" follows "Discovering Art", with an intensive garden-fest to "set spades rattling and backpacks jumping". Wildlife, remote landscapes and domestic patches of turf all feature in a bid to get viewers off the sofa and striding into the wide, blue yonder. The evergreen Patrick Moore is the interstellar guide to "Star Gazing", a batch of programmes which includes the highly rated series Heavenly Bodies as well as cosmic trailblazing from the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes in The Sky at Night.

The programmes become more practical in the week beginning July 21, with a timely guide to holiday projects for parents and their children (just as the former are probably wondering how on earth they will survive eight weeks of the latter, and vice versa). Some of these seem frivolous but mask a serious purpose, such as games to extend children's reading abilities or their knowledge of maths and science.

In all the programmes, there is a non-bludgeoning emphasis on getting you to have a go. Take singing, in "Music Maestros" for example. Here Jenny Eclair bravely leads the way for would-be divas, and exposes herself to ridicule by going on stage with a band to sing "Play that Funky Music" after only a few singing lessons. The result is predictably awful but no one, least of all her, seems to mind.

There's also a chance to see a vintage episode of In at the Deep End, in which Chris Searle takes on The Marriage of Figaro from scratch. "Think manly, " shouts his exasperated opera coach at Covent Garden, as Chris looks anything but. For anyone who has sung this lustily in the bath, here are some valuable instructions on how it should be done. Such irreverence contrasts with a wonderful acapella version of "Nkosi Sikelel'i Africa" sung by a group of black women, that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

Music and art can do that, and Summer Nights has many such moments. Teachers would be well advised to make sure their video recorders are working, even when they themselves have broken up for the holidays. And anyone in need of a spiritual lift is encouraged to watch. This is a rich seam to savour and exploit.

Summer Nights begins on June 30 and continues to September 19, Monday to Friday, between 2am and 4am on BBC2. For general information about the series, education packs and course accreditation, contact 0345 591000

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