Fit subjects;Reviews;TV

13th November 1998 at 00:00
ZIG ZAG: Tudor Life. BBC2 September 21-October 29. Teacher's notes pound;3; resource pack pound;13.50; video pound;38; CD-Rom pound;39.95. Tel: 01937 541001. Age range: 7-9

Children are invited to turn detective in this series looking at the lives of ordinary people during the rule of England's longest-running dynasty, writes Robin Buss

The Tudor period is always popular with children - and so it should be. Its monarchs make up the most interesting dynasty in English history, with lengthy reigns (Elizabeth) or extremely short ones (Edward VI), and indulged in several kinds of excess (Henry and his wives, Bloody Mary).

Like their rulers, the people of the 16th century seem in many ways familiar to us, and in others distant. And their buildings, literature, paintings and everyday objects have survived in large enough numbers for us to form a fairly good picture of the lives they lived.

It is around such evidence from Tudor times that this autumn's seriesof Zig Zag was built. In each of the 20-minute programmes, the presenters, Mark Simpkin and Marsali Stewart, take a topic and invite us to work out the answers to questions about everyday life 450 years ago. They teach us, at the same time, how social historians go about their work and suggest we try to explore similar resources for ourselves - to recognise and look at Tudor buildings, for example, noting how they were made and the sort of people who might have lived in them.

Sensibly, the first programme sets out to achieve a measure of identification by choosing childhood as its topic, and asking how children lived in Tudor times. What clothes did they wear? What were schools like (for those who attended them)?

Portraits, documents and even tombstones may give an idea of how upper-class children were dressed, but there is little evidence, here as elsewhere, about the life of the poor. The Mary Rose proves a godsend.

Shakespeare is brought in to give us his lines about the schoolboy "creeping like snailUnwillingly to school". And the school in Stratford that Shakespeare may have attended is presented as evidence of what the schoolboy was reluctant to confront. Otherwise, literature gets less attention than it deserves as a resource - and the open-air museum perhaps a little too much.

On the whole, though, the series is well-designed for children in the target age group and likely to hold their attention. Each programme starts with three questions - why was a knife needed in the schoolroom? Which of these vegetables was not eaten in Tudor times? Why did little girls walk around with spindles in their hands?

The presenters guide us round the relevant locations, without too much forced enthusiasm, and there are dramatisations. All the pupils will be struck by some of the peculiarities of Tudor life - sugar plates, for instance, windows so precious they were removed for fear of thieves, and housewives emptying slops into the street. At the same time, they should absorb an understanding of where the knowledge comes from and how to assess their sources.

They may be more inclined to imitate Shakespeare's whining schoolboy when presented with some of the activities in the resource pack. This consists of a useful teacher's guide, including activity sheets, plus a set of full-colour photocards. The last probably accounts for the high price of the pack, and could be the least useful item.

"This is a fascinating resource," the teacher's guide tends to say, hoping your group of seven-to-nine-year-olds will sit poring over a picture of Elizabethan London, patiently abstracting all available information from it. Perhaps you should not expect to make such complete historians of them yet, but in most respects this series is a good introduction to life in the days of those five interesting monarchs.

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