Crowning glories

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Jon O'Connor welcomes two history series, but wants the boundary kept between fact and fantasy. Eureka! Romans and Celts Channel 4 Tuesdays 9.30-9.45am Rpt Fridays 9.30-9.45am Age group: 7-11.

Watch Time Treasures BBC2 Tuesdays 9.45-10.00am Rpt Fridays 9.45-10.00am Age group: 6-7

The presentation of history challenges teachers and television programme makers alike. The first task is to make the study of remote experiences and times accessible and interesting to children. The second job is to develop their skills for investigating the past.

Which is where Romans and Celts and Time Treasures come in. Both series have responded to these challenges in distinct ways. Time Treasures focuses strongly on artefacts, an immediate route in to the time period. Aimed at upper key stage 1, its three history programmes in the Watch series are Guy Fawkes, Poppy Day and the Coronation. Younger children often need starting points which have some personal point of contact; they will happily engage with visitors to learn about their experiences, but they also enjoy examining genuine or replica artefacts.

This effort to introduce the importance of artefacts to a younger age-group creates a bit of a mish-mash of styles, though. The programmes sometimes blur the boundary between fact and fantasy, a disturbing feature given the content of the first two programmes - which set out to deal with gruesome episodes, but have ended up as rather superficial and glib accounts. The story starts with a family of dad and two children talking about the commemoration of historical events. The children then whirl away into time and space to join Cleo, a time-travelller with a collection of artefacts. Once inside a box of tricks called the Illuminator, the artefacts bring up a mixture of archive and documentary material.

There are a number of irritating features in this which detract from what was basically a good idea. In the programme, the objects are handled only briefly and with apparent disinterest by the children. Some of the transportations, such as Cleo's sudden appearance, stretch credibility for seven- year-olds and are problematic in today's world where strangers can prove dangerous. The bizarre scenes in which the children arrive, terrified, in the trenches to witness the fatal wounding of their fictional relative, Fred Smith - whose name is apparently on a genuine war memorial - carries some very mixed signals indeed.

It begs the question: why tackle something at all if the history skills, content and issues are not really accessible for the age-group through this medium?

Romans and Celts is a five-part series which uses location rather more than artefacts and leans on dramatisation and a touch of star-quality to provide the interest. The presenter is Jenny Powell, who probably would not feel flattered to be described as a children's pin-up in the press-release. She successfully communicates interest in the story of "long-ago" life as she meets up with her guide, the historically accurate figure of Barates, the Syrian trader and flag-seller.

This approach - one that does not rely on artefacts, but a presenter or the presentation to determine the focus of study and the angle of inquiry - is more difficult for younger children.

But this fairly lavish production hits the spot; with its good costumes and camera work, and simple dialogue, it avoids patronising the age group. The difficulty of reconstructing the Roman world from ruins is tackled with honesty. Shooting took place around several sites of remains around Europe and the programmes explore different aspects of the invasion, including the British response to the Romans' arrival.

There are many incidental bonuses to this satisfying and meaty series - the bizarre image of Roman elephants at the Thames, the concept of Roman coinage as the original European currency.

History teaching resources have to be measured in terms of whether children increase their factual knowledge or their capability for historical study.

Both Romans and Celts and Time Treasures deserve credit for encouraging the next generation to appreciate the country's heritage.

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