Second only to sex in importance

Who'd have thought that a simple request from the bestselling author Ken Follett to get involved in a new literacy campaign would have me performing in a media circus as big as when we dug up Trevor Jordache's body from under the patio? But it did - even ending up on the front of the Evening Standard when the plot had moved on from a chat with a chum, to a command from the Secretary of State, to a call from Tony Blair himself.

All because I said I'd be happy to help anything that encourages children to read more. Like Paul McCartney I haven't met Tony Blair - so I wonder if The TES can get me tea at Downing Street like The Sun says it did for Macca?

The most-often-asked question has been why are we allowing the Government to influence what we do, which misses the obvious fact that the Government tends to influence everything we do. The answer is that I think it is worth doing. This is not the first time Brookside has co-operated with such initiatives. We have worked with the Department of Health and the Home Office on drugs awareness campaigns but the editorial position is always quite clear. We do our own research and develop our own storylines.

However, I am pleased to be involved with the National Year of Reading, announced by the Secretary of State last week and scheduled to begin in autumn 1998 with the support of the Department for Education and Employment.

I am pleased because nearly 20 years ago I was castigated for putting a storyline in Grange Hill about a boy of 12 who could not read properly. I was told that in modern Britain no child could enter secondary education without having been taught to read.

That was as false then as it is now. Anyone employing a large number of people, as I do, will know that there are still a great number of young people without the level of literacy skills we should expect.

This is often not the individual's fault, which is why over the years I have returned to this theme. It has featured in Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks because I believe that literacy is society's second most important social tool - after sex. Sex allows us to procreate. Literacy allows us to exchange ideas and knowledge that are the motors of all social and cultural change.

As literacy is so vital surely doing anything to help children become literate is vital. Children are our biggest investment. Through programmes like Brookside I can help raise the profile of the campaign simply by doing what I normally do: produce entertaining popular drama that challenges people to look at issues they might normally avoid.

Critics often say that Brookside is issue-led, but that is no more than creative naivety. I set out to write about contemporary Britain and an "issue" is something which affects a great number of people. It affects their day-to-day lives and emotions and is therefore a rich seam for drama.

I defy anyone not to be moved by the plight of children who have been branded and bullied by staff and pupils alike for being "thickos", when all that is happened is that they have lost time in their formative years learning to read. This might not be the result of the traditional image of dysfunctional socially-deprived backgrounds, but simply the result of serious illness or physical injury. Miss a year of English at the wrong time and understanding the questions in a science or geography lesson can impede success.

There are people in Britain who "shop by design", recognising packaging from television advertisements. They come home with tins of prunes instead of coffee because the manufacturer went for a new look.

Yet this connection between the visual imagery of television and the shopping trolley shows an intelligence that is often masked by the illiterate. They have to be bright to survive in this every increasing form-filling bureaucratic world we inhabit.

There are many instances of successful businesses being run by people who cannot read and write properly, just as there are high incidences of divorce in couples where one partner learns to read late in life. Once the dependency has been removed, the relationship collapses.

Now if all that isn't the stuff of soaps, what is?

Phil Redmond is chairman of Mersey Television and the creator of Brookside

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