Clementine is a new 10-part drama series, which is intended to motivate students who would once have given up French at 14, but who are now required to continue with the study of a modern foreign language.
As such, the series has to offer material that is interesting, yet accessible to less-able linguists, while at the same time meeting other curriculum objectives - presenting viewers with different types of spoken French, comparing life in Britain and France and providing encouragement to make creative use of the language. It is, if you think about it, a fairly tall order.
According to producer Len Brown, he and co-producer Luis Espana began working out the solution on the proverbial scrap of paper. They were anxious to get away from the formula of stock situations for introducing vocabulary, "useful phrases" and the phrase-book format of "at the baker's" or "ordering a meal" and so on.
They also rejected the idea of a linear drama, which is restricting for the writers - and for the teachers who will eventually be using it. In particular, the format of a continuing drama with a storyline makes it difficult to repeat the same words or phrases without sounding stilted, and it was essential that each episode should contain this kind of reinforcement.
The solution lay in the central character of the stories. A bright, 16-year-old, Clementine lives just across the English Channel in Dinard. Each episode is self-contained, introducing us to Clementine's family (mother, father, elder sister, younger brother and pets), to her school and to her friends, then covers topics such as the rock band in which she sings, her sister's boyfriends, asking someone out, illness, holidays and so on.
Firmly located in centre-frame, Clementine is not afraid to talk directly to camera and even to freeze the action to offer a marginal comment on a character or situation. She also fantasises a good deal, putting her imaginings into soft focus, under suitable lighting. The conventions distinguishing one level of reality from another will present no problems to visually-literate pupils.
They also provide the occasion for irony, which can be an excuse for repetition. In the first episode, for example, Clementine goes through her morning routine, anticipating what is about to happen: "ma m re va m'appeler: Clementine" and so on. She also imagines how much more interesting breakfast time might seem in a television commercial, an opera or a rock musical. All of this gives plenty of opportunity for introducing and repeating everyday phrases, but in a way that escapes from the usual formulaic style of many previous series.
Of course, there is a limit to the amount of interest that most pupils will be able to work up for Clementine, her no-good boyfriend Patrick, her fashion-victim sister and her brother, with his collection of rats. But they are a lot more exciting than most Dupont and Durand textbook families.
As a whole, the series marks a new stage in broadcast material for teaching modern languages, not only in its more sensible incorporation of "fiction" (Clementine's fantasies) as well as "documentary" (her actual surroundings), but also in discarding the old dogma about only presenting learners with language spoken at "natural" or "authentic" speeds.
Most of the time, the actors in Clementine manage to preserve a natural intonation, despite speaking at a speed which, with the different visual clues, will make their lines far more accessible to learners of the language. Altogether the series represents a significant advance.