Factions forgotten;Television

4th June 1999 at 01:00
What's the Story?. Channel 4 Schools. Video pound;14.99. Teacher's guide pound;3.95.

Age range: 9-11 School Ties Channel 4 Schools Video pound;14.99Age range: 11-14.

Robin Buss watches two stories from Northern Ireland about co-operation

These two drama serials are designed to support English and education for mutual understanding in Northern Ireland. The first revolves around the staging of a village nativity play; the second tells the story of a joint project between two schools from opposite sides of the sectarian divide. All in all, it is the younger age group that gets the more lively film and, in some ways the more thought-provoking.

One solution to the problem of how to encourage the communities in Northern Ireland to live together might be to warn them about the penalties for failing to do so; but if this hellfire approach were really educational, the nightly television news over the past 30 years would have done the job long ago. Clearly something else is needed, and both these dramas prefer to emphasise that differences are legitimate and that living together is not easy.

In What's the Story? an English clergyman comes to live in an imaginary Ulster village and decides that the Protestant and Catholic churches ought to stage a joint nativity play. But each has developed a different version of this event and, though well-meaning, the Rev Mr Winston is a dreadful blunderer.

The only person who welcomes his arrival is the hare-brained Miss McBridge. She grasps the opportunity to rewrite the nativity play as a story about a homeless couple turned away from a hotel because they don't have the right credit cards - the shepherds can become unemployed farmers and the wise men three social workers. The happy ending is already in view: everyone, surely, is united in a dislike of social workers.

The little drama moves along at a good pace, with an amiable but credible cast of characters, helped by wry asides from Samantha, the vicar's daughter, and Neddy, the donkey.

There are no outright goodies or baddies. Mr Winston, tactless though he may be, has plenty of sound ideas, one of which is to ask the child of a group of travellers to play Joseph. Travellers are no more popular with the villagers than social workers, but Mr Winston's initiative proves inspired. The happy ending, though it does require help from Neddy the donkey, develops naturally.

This is not obviously the case with School Ties, though the narrative follows a similar path. Two groups of pupils, one from a Protestant school, the other from a Catholic, are picked to build a monument for the millennium. At first each side offers designs that reflect its culture, but they are persuaded to set aside the more provocative projects and finally unite on one to which both teams have contributed. But hostilities have still not ended, and the device that finally averts disaster seems contrived.

Both series have backup materials, with suggestions for exploiting the stories, chiefly to support the English curriculum. The difference between the two films may be that the older age group is expected to demand a drama closer to everyday life that, despite some comedy, deals seriously with this serious topic - a literal approach that too often lays bare the writers' designs on their audience.

By contrast, What's the Story? has slightly grotesque characters and a pleasing vein of fantasy.

Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 436444. Notes for 'School Ties' can only be found on the Channel 4 website: www.channel4.comschools

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