THE ENGLISH PROGRAMME: Passwords.
Channel 4,Age range: 14-16.
Aleks Sierz watches a series which is bound to get pupils interested in poetry
Teachers trying to get pupils interested in poetry now have a valuable resource - he's called Simon Armitage. Not only is he one of Britain's most gifted younger poets, but he has a real knack for communicating what poems mean, how they are put together and why they should be studied.
Star of Channel 4's Passwords for GCSE English, Armitage not only has one programme devoted to his own work but also appears in others as a clear and confident guide to the critical evaluation of poetry. The first three programmes deal with individual poets - Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and the late Ted Hughes - the final two with themes: "Hearts and Partners" (love and sex) and "When the Going Gets Tough" (death and fear).
Covering five poems, the first programme sees Armitage walking in Yorkshire, showing us the moors where he grew up and reciting his verse. He then examines each poem in terms of meaning, style and form, pointing out how he "likes to boss forms around" to show that he's in charge.
To explain the untitled poem which begins "I am very bothered when I thinkof the bad things I have done in my life", he revisits his old secondary school, Colne Valley High. Telling the poem's story of a boy's cruel juvenile trick - he heats up a pair of scissors and hands them to a girl whose fingers get scorched - Armitage visits the lab where this happened and then asks today's pupils what they think about the poem.
The teenagers' replies provide extra material for classroom discussion, so it's a pity that their names are not given. After a short session in which they assume that Armitage's poem is a true story, he mischievously subverts this idea by pointing out that the poetic "I" is not necessarily him. It could be just a dramatic literary device.
Carol Ann Duffy's programme has a slightly different feel. In it she talks to Liz Lochhead about four poems, including "Before you were mine", which is a kind of love note to her mother, May Duffy. The best bit of this episode is when May talks movingly about the "unnerving" sensation of having a poet daughter writing about her - "peeling you like an onion".
The Ted Hughes programme seems the most powerful. He was too ill to appear when it was made, but Simon Armitage is on hand to discuss the work with his usual cool lucidity. And Hughes makes his presence felt by reading his poems in an extraordinary, hauntingly bardic voice. Pupils from Queen Elizabeth School, Barnet, then talk about their responses, through collages and artwork to his poems.
Of the themed programmes "Heart and Partners" is a good mix, featuring the incomparable John Cooper Clarke performing, in typical high-velocity fashion "i wanna be yours". Another highlight is Chris Eccleston reading Andrew Marvell's "To his Coy Mistress" which is followed by the ubiquitous Armitage explaining its meaning in plain language.
Passwords is produced in association with the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board (NEAB), which claims 70 per cent of GCSE English pupils. With Heinemann, NEAB also publishes the NEAB Anthology, a revised collection of poetry and prose which takes the place of Visible Voices, the 1994 anthology which featured William Blake, Seamus Heaney and Gillian Clarke. The changes were made in response to teachers who couldn't face teaching the same set of poems year after year, and to help examiners vary their questions.
* The NEAB Anthology is available free to every teacher and student who signs up for NEAB GCSE English exams in 2000 and 2001. Teachers' notes and other support materials are available from Heinemann and a revision book will be ready in February 1999. For teachers with the time, equipment and patience to access the Internet, there are other materials on the Channel 4 web site.
The 'NEAB Anthology' is available from the NEAB, tel: 0161 953 1180; the video of 'Passwords' is available from Channel 4 for pound;19.99 tel: 01926 436444; revision book and other resources from Heinemann, tel: 01865 888080; web site: http:www.channel4.comschoolsonline_resources