ENGLISH TIME:GET THE MEANING, Age group: 11-14, BBC2, Mondays, 11.20 11. 40am. Free programme guide, BBC Education Information, White City, London W12 7TS. As advertisers know, celebrities get taken seriously. Put a carton of soap powder in Danny Baker's hand or a bag of crisps in Gary Lineker's, and we, the punters, immediately add them to our shopping lists.
BBC Education has followed the lead, and this new English Time series has recruited a galaxy of stars to sell the idea that it's worth studying texts more closely.
It's strange seeing Linford Christie discussing Blake's "Tyger, Tyger", and there is also that bloke who plays Trig in Only Fools and Horses, the soppy nurse from Waiting for God and lots of those other faces we can never quite name.
As well as the stars, each of the five episodes features pupils from various schools employed, not as extras, but playing a crucial role in showing that "the words on the page are just a starting point". Indeed, the first programme starred a schoolboy, Joseph England, playing the lead in a dramatisation of Jan Mark's delightful black comedy, How Anthony Made a Friend. He's a precocious nine-year-old who oozes original sin, rejoices in his contempt for the rest of the human race and looks disturbingly like a young Michael Portillo. Pupils from Trinity Academy, Edinburgh analysed the story and quickly uncovered some of the text's subtle complexities.
The grumpy secretary from Drop the Dead Donkey fronts the second programme in which six "fact finders" from Whitmore High School, Harrow, try to find the truth about vegetarianism in the welter of literature issued by the various conflicting pressure groups. They quickly learn that there are more ways of deceiving than simply telling lies. They assess the impact of emotive language and discover how illustrations and layout can be every bit as persuasive as the words themselves. Not just an admirable lesson on the wiles of propagandists, but the information presented also provides a useful starting point for a class debate on the issues raised.
A selection of poems by Blake, Eliot, ASJ Tessimond, Eleanor Farjeon, George MacBeth and others are nicely read by celebs and school kids and it was a clever idea to have Cat from Red Dwarf linking an episode devoted to cats in poetry. The contributors then use the poems to explore the ways in which poets exploit rhythm, rhyme and imagery to create their effects.
The chalet maid from Hi-de-Hi! helps pupils from Elliott School, Putney to analyse the ubiquitous television game show by involving them in comedy sketches that parody its various styles and conventions. Sadly, although ITV is the home of the quiz show, all the illustrative clips are selected from the BBC's output and the worthy Big Country Quest or the dire Pets Win Prizes are hardly typical of the genre. The producers probably made a mistake in treating the subject in a frivolous way as this surely signals to a young audience that popular television isn't worthy of serious study.
The final episode, the best in an excellent series, shows how actors interpret a script. Different companies are shown performing an extract from the scene, the mechanicals' first meeting in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's an inspired choice easy enough for younger secondary pupils to understand and packed with jokes which, unlike most of Shakespeare's, are still funny. There is a marvellous version by Northern Broadsides set in a works canteen; another from the BBC Shakespeare series and two from RSC productions.
A drama class at Hartcliffe School, Bristol then discusses the various interpretations before staging the scene for themselves. They decide to cast a girl as the irrepressible Bottom and suddenly the familiar lines seem to have a decidedly feminist ring. Proof, indeed, that the words on the page are just a starting point.