East End girls tune in to Eliot
Shortly after producing Middlemarch I was invited, together with BBC's head of educational developments Angie Mason, to address a large group of sixth-form girls at North London Collegiate School about the making of the television series. It was a predictably stimulating experience being bombarded with searchingly perceptive questions and comments from highly motivated young ladies representing the most privileged sector of our education system.
Later in the staffroom discussion turned on the comments of the then Education Secretary John Patten to the effect that children should not be allowed to watch television versions of literary classics as they would be far better employed reading the book. Experience at NLSC did not support this view but perhaps their pupils were an exception. For the country at large there was no denying the sale of an astonishing 120,000 copies of the Penguin book in the wake of the television series. But Patten was not alone in pillorying television as the enemy of literacy.
His words were still in my mind when some months later I set off to visit Langdon Park School, Poplar, in the heart of London's East End, the polar opposite of NLCS socially and culturally. Since more than 40 per cent of its pupils are bilingual children of immigrant parents speaking a range of languages from Bengali, Cantonese, Somali and Urdu to Arabic, Mandarin and Hindi, it could hardly represent a tougher challenge to the teaching of English literature.
And yet this is what the national curriculum requires and my visit was inspired by a report I had received, via BBC Education, that an earlier television adaptation I had produced of Eliot's Silas Marner was being used in a remarkable way as a vital teaching aid in leading these ethnically mixed and socially underprivileged children to the enjoyment of a classic English novel.
This text had been chosen by English teachers Carol Netcher and Nancy Jenkins partly for its slimness, but also because the existence of a filmed version would open up the chance of a number of different and unconventional approaches. Central to their thinking is the notion that adults and children may well have similar problems in understanding and finding their way into the heart of the work and it is important to try different approaches to encourage pupils to respond to what the book is saying.
In this way text and picture can interrelate. Two mixed-ability groups of 14 to 15-year-olds were involved in the project and early on were introduced to one of the central themes of the novel which is the power of gold and of love. They read the episode where Silas, suffering one of his petit mal fits following the theft of his precious savings of gold coins, returns to his cottage at night to see what he thinks is his treasure lying on the hearth in front of the fire. Slowly the image of the gold merges into the golden hair of the little girl Eppie who has wandered in from the cold and lies sleeping.
Having watched the televised version the pupils were set various tasks identifying sections of text, reading aloud, matching text to picture and discussing meanings. In later weeks reading extended to the whole novel with the video being used as a help to keep track of the plot. They were asked individually to make collages and write short pieces representing one of the characters and using symbols and quotations which then formed the basis of group discussion. The whole purpose of the project is to open up the text and stimulate responses to it which the pupils can then express not only in words but in pictures. only in the last stage does the pupil have to write a creative assignment based on the novel.
When I visited Langdon Park the first group project had been completed and its success has ensured it will be repeated. I went to meet the pupils with no clear plan of what we would discuss. I half expected them to ask about the production itself, the processes of filming. I couldn't have been more wrong. What they wanted to discuss was the book and their own responses to it.
Despite all the linguistic and cultural obstacles these young people had enthusiastically assimilated Eliot's book into their lives and had strong feelings about its meanings and relevances. The text had been unlocked and in a very real sense "literature" had become "life". Eliot's 19th-century morality had taken on new meanings for immigrant working class kids at the end of the 20th century. Their teachers had total belief in their potential. Which is another way of saying never underestimate your audience. Let's hope John Patten's successor at the Department of Education takes a less patronising view of the power of great literature to benefit from partnership with television, and of course vice versa.