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'S' is for a Sophie who sizzles on a simple set

WORDS AND PICTURES BBC 2 Wednesday 09.45-10.00am repeated Friday 1.45-2. 00pm. January 8 - March 21

Age range: 5-7

Anyone looking for a suitable title for a television programme couldn't do better than choose Words and Pictures - a simple enough phrase, but one that sums up the medium itself. That's all television ever is, regardless of the genre, the size of the budget or the commitment of the creative team.

We are ruthless critics: if we don't like what we see andor what we hear, we reach for the remote control. Pupils watching a school broadcast simply switch off mentally. So makers of educational programmes, like those working in mainstream television, have to give the audience what it wants: a cocktail of entertainment and education that's interesting, but not too demanding; that has a few surprises, but not too many; and preferably with someone suitably personable to hold it all together.

Words and Pictures has been running for 20 years - since the days when James Callaghan was Prime Minister - so the producers have obviously found how to adapt this winning formula to the requirements of pupils at key stage 1. The new series has bubbly Sophie Aldred as an anchor, presenting a range of activities which celebrate the joy of words - and, in particular, the thrill of being able to read them.

She is called upon to sing, instruct, mime, tell stories, make things, while always looking the camera squarely in the iris and oozing enthusiasm. She manages to seem genuinely excited that, for example, she can find so many words beginning with "j" or has been given the privilege of being able to make her very own jam roly-poly. This enthusiasm is infectious - and that's the secret of the series' success. If Ms Aldred finds words to be such an obvious source of fun, her young audience will want to experiment with them as well.

Each programme features a "letter of the week". Of course, there are the inevitable permutations of I-Spy, and lots of lovely laboured alliterations. The programme makers have been taught that "b" is for "budget", and "s" is for "shoestring". The set is simple, and the effects kept to a minimum. It does at least help to underline that words can work wonders without having to rely on the fussiness of special effects.

The series isn't entirely studio bound. This term, for instance, Ms Aldred is allowed to escape to the London Toy Museum. There is also a marvellous filmed report from a circus school, in which youngsters learn juggling, unicycling, stilt walking and other wonderful skills which, as any child will confirm, deserve a place at the core of any half-decent national curriculum.

Each programme also features a story, many of which are adaptations of illustrated books already popular with early readers. The story is read, key phrases are printed on screen and the illustrations brought to life by simple animation. The choice of titles is impressive, ranging from Kaye Umansky's Pass the Jam, Jim to Jessica Souhami's African myth, The Leopard's Drum.

The teacher's notes contain useful book lists and detailed guidelines on how the programmes can be used as a springboard for further classroom activities. These, of course, are optional. Pupils can enjoy the series and learn from it without the teacher having to lift a finger - other than to press the "on" button. As such it can provide a welcome break in a busy day's teaching. And for that reason alone deserves to run for another 20 years at least.

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