12th May 2000 at 01:00
Walk through the main doors of the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square, across the new vestibule, and you are confronted with an escalator, the longest overground one in the country.

Get on - it seems the natural thing to do - and, at the top, you are among the Tudors. This is an atmospheric gallery, such as you might have found in a great house in the 16th or 17th century. The portraits are to some extent grouped: anyone studying the religious upheavals of the period should be able to spot the leading figures together, for instance, in enforced tolerance. Elsewhere are William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, courtiers and kings and several of the NPG's 10 paintings of Elizabeth I in all her symbolic glory.

The Tudor gallery, displaying the earliest works in the NPG's collection, is part of the newly opened pound;15.9 million wing built on what was once an unusable area belonging to the National Gallery. The two galleries exchanged space to their mutual advantage and the NPG has increased its hanging area by 50 per cent as a result and found room for a new lecture theatre.

Beneath the Tudor gallery is one devoted to the Sixties, displaying a mixture of writers, artists, royals, comedians, pop stars, politicians and people who are simply famous, some photographed, some painted. And beneath this, visible and intriguing from the escalator, is what looks like a comfortable waiting-room furnished with a bank of computers.

Here visitors can plan their route by discovering where certain portraits are hung and printing out the resulting gallery map, or they can follow hunches, or examine details of pictures close-to, all by touching the screens. Or they can see a portrait which is not on show: there is space for only a small percentage of the collection on the walls and some are on loan to the NPG's partners, Montacute House in Somerset, Bodelwyddan Castle in north Wales and Beningborough Hall in Yorkshire.

David Saywell, head of IT at the gallery, has designed a system which can be followed in various ways, starting with a particular picture, a group - the Romantic poets, say, or scientists - or following more technical questions to do with techniques or categories such as children or animals.

This is not meant to be a substitute for looking at real pictures and experiencing their size and texture - Henry VIII looming over you is not the same thing as a neatly contained monarch - but there are occasions when no other means are open. Try virtually turning the delicate pages of a book full of Victorian drawings or gradually changing a miniature portrait of the doomed Charles I with 17 fragile mica overlays to provide his story, ending in angelic apotheosis.

This is a fascinating educational resource, all free, including black and white print-outs. There is a link with the National Dictionary of Biography which provides infrmation on the most important sitters; the first 11 artists and photographers of a growing collection have been interviewed - Allen Jones talking about his portrait of Darcey Bussell is one; a context can often be provided - the entire contact sheet from which the most famous picture of Christine Keeler, bare astride a chair, was taken, for example. For further information: 020 7306 0055.

Young people will be centre stage at this year's BBC Proms: "youth", along with "God and music", is one of the themes. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain will have the honour of celebrating the Queen Mother's 100th birthday on August 4 with a concert which will include Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks and Elgar's Cockaigne overture. These were pieces which the then Queen Elizabeth heard with the young princesses at a Robert Mayer children's concert in the 1930s. "A piece of music education which didn't quite work," joked Nicholas Kenyon, director of the proms, in a witty speech at the launch of the season.

Saturday August 12 will be Proms Millennium Youth Day when all the nine national youth and children's ensembles, including choirs, jazz, chamber, wind groups and orchestras will be featured in the afternoon and, in the evening, the NYO will join the National Youth Wind Orchestra to give the premi re of Philip Wilby's A New World Dancing Suite.

On July 18, Youth Project: Scry will showcase new works by contemporary composers written for youth ensembles and including linking interludes performed by Ensemble Bash and the pianist Joanna MacGregor. Among other special youth items is the Blue Peter Prom on July 22, which will feature a guest appearance by Yan Pascal Tortelier.

This year's programme looks a particularly exciting one, including settings of the psalms, Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, poetry proms, a celebration of Bach and many new works and debuts by young performers. The season lasts from July 14 to September 9. Most concerts will take place, as usual, at the Royal Albert Hall, but Proms in the Park, last year's regional, open-air expansion of the Last Night will add a concert in Liverpool to the one in Birmingham. Programmes are now on sale at newsagents. Look out for ticket packages, especially half-price ones for under-16s.

The Polka's production of Tempest is another first. This well-loved London children's theatre is making its Shakespearean debut with a version of the magical play suitable for children over eight. Actors use puppets to help them tell the tale of Prospero, Miranda, spirits, Milanese courtiers, comic servants and the monster Caliban. Until June 17. Tickets: 020 8543 4888.

Heather Neill SECTION:Features NO PHYSICAL FILEAbove: Polka Theatre's TempestLeft: Elizabeth I at the National Portrait GalleryBelow: the National Youth Orchestra rehearses for the Queen Mother's birthday at the Proms

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