Blight on the landscape;Reviews;Television

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
MIDDLE ENGLISH: Under the Hawthorn Tree. Channel 4 videoAge group: 11-14.

Robin Buss watches an adaptation of a novel about 19th-century Ireland which does its bestto mitigate the horrors of hunger

This adaptation of Marita Conlon-McKenna's novel, in four 20-minute episodes, tells the story of three abandoned children during the great Irish famine of 1845-48. Designed to be used in combination with the novel and with the accompanying study guide, it offers material for both English and history, as well as for media studies and other curriculum areas.

The plot is relatively simple. When his potato crop is destroyed by blight, John O'Driscoll goes to seek work on a government relief scheme building roads, leaving behind his wife Margaret and their four children. The youngest child dies of fever and conditions get worse for the family until, in desperation, Margaret decides to go and find her husband.

She asks a neighbour to keep an eye on the children, but their landlord discovers that they are fending for themselves and tries to have them sent to the workhouse. Instead, they escape and set off to find their mother's sisters on the other side of the country, in Castletaggart.

The study guide suggests how pupils can explore the transfer of this narrative from book to film, and aspects of Irish life in the mid-19th century, together with a variety of incidental matters, such as herbal medicine, architectural follies, work-houses, absentee landlords and the folklore of the shrub that gives its title to the book.

But the main focus is, of course, the Great Hunger itself. Here, the guide provides a general history of the period, filling in the facts behind the stories dramatised in the novel and the film, and noting the decline of the island's population from eight to six million during the second half of the 1840s.

This is grim stuff. However, the film, made for Channel Four and RTE by the Young Irish Film makers in Kilkenny, does a good deal to mitigate its young audience's suffering. The sets, with their neat, whitewashed cottages and clean-swept streets, suggest an historical theme park rather than the real thing. There are repeated shots of the O'Driscoll family artistically arranged in front of its cottage door, like the models in a Victorian genre painting. The actors, for the most part, look decently nourished. The Irish landscape, too, works against the theme of desperation and hunger: the woodlands are bursting with lush greenery, the streams - as one of the children discovers - are full of fish and the coast is like a picture postcard.

One scene does argue that the famine was man-made, but that accusation is not pursued. Both here and in the study guide, there is a determination to be even-handed about the causes of the disaster; there are even accounts of good landlords to set against the bad. And if some of the acting and film-making are slightly stilted, this is unlikely to bother most of the target audience, who will easily be able to identify with the O'Driscoll children in their plight.

The larger question is whether a topic such as the famine is suitable for study by 11 to 14-year-olds in this form, if the reality has to be toned down in order to avoid distressing them. Perhaps they should just have been left to read the novel . . .

Marita Conlon-McKenna's 'Under the Hawthorn Tree', published by O'Brien Press, costs pound;3.99 for one copy, pound;3.49 each in sets of 20 or more. The study guide, also published by O'Brien Press, is pound;4.95. The video costs pound;14.99. All resources are available from Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ.Tel: 01926 436444

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