The day I let go of my TV prejudice;Opinion

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
Broadcasters hate to admit it, but we do have our prejudices. My own are, of course, mild and harmless - I would rather have my nipples pierced than willingly have music by Bartok or Wagner used on a programme with which I am associated, for example. I just can't stand them.

I doubt that I will ever again make a programme in which I have to sit in a small room interviewing convicted paedophiles, as I did 10 years ago. The documentary won me my first major award, but only at the cost of feeling that I had somehow spent a week smearing myself with filth, which would never wash off.

Curiously, you would expect TV journalists like Trevor MacDonald or Martin Bashir would rather have nails driven through their skulls than give an hour of peak-time TV to racists; but they concluded that their recent interviews with the five suspects in the Lawrence case were worth the disgust they surely felt. I cannot judge that, but I can say that since fewer than 5 million watched - low for such a hyped first show, in a prime place in the schedule - most people didn't share their view. They shouldn't have bothered. These creeps did not deliver anything new; they were not worthy of the talent lavished on them.

I have, however, made a discovery about one of my deepest professional prejudices. Like most people with a background in the media, I always assumed that educational TV and TV for schools are a) the same thing and b) both crap.

A recent evening at the Royal Television Society's Awards for Educational Television opened my eyes. The received wisdom in the industry is that this is territory for people who couldn't make it in the big league. I began to suspect that this wasn't true when Jon Snow, the evening's host, casually pointed out that he presents a schools programme; as one of the broadcasters' broadcasters you can't imagine him appearing in anything substandard.

I then got excited by the thought that I might have discovered a brilliant new talent among the presenters on show, only to be told she already had a Radio 1FM slot and hosted Top of the Pops regularly. Finally I was put in place when my own series, The Windrush, which had just picked up the Best Documentary Series of the Year award at the main Royal Television Society ceremony was beaten to the educational prize by the BBC's "Computers Don't Bite" campaign.

From the range of programmes I saw, which included drama, documentaries, entertainment shows as well as pure teaching video, educational producers are taking their place among the medium's elite. The top prize-winner, an innovative game show about health called The Drop Dead Show, was directed by a former colleague from my current affairs days, and looked full of energy and invention. The fact is that neither educational TV nor its subset, TV for schools, any longer bear the stamp of the underfunded and the undertalented.

That suggests two things. First that schools now have teaching aids of such high quality that they ought to be registering a major positive impact on the performance, both of schools and children. Second, that David Puttnam's argument that the stars of the media in the 21st century will be great teachers has some force in it.

Think of the new big names on the box: Carol Vorderman, Charlie Dimmock, Ainsley Harriott and the sainted Delia Smith. They all do exactly the same thing: they teach. It may be about cookery or gardening (though Carol is dangerously close to becoming the nation's schoolmarm) but they are educating nonetheless.

With the arrival of the Internet and digital interactive TV, the line between instruction and entertainment is getting fuzzier by the day. How long before Cilla's Classics, or Michael Barrymore's Maths Class show up? Not a moment too soon, I'd say.

Trevor Phillips is a programme-maker and broadcaster.

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