Arnold Evans looks at the BBC's long-running documentary series for children
It's a shame that so few teachers have the chance to curl up in front of the television during that golden hour before Neighbours, the news and another nothing-on-the-box night. It would enable them to keep up with the goings-on at Grange Hill and to confirm their suspicions that Blue Peter presenters get younger by the minute. They would also discover that BBC Children's Television is home to a documentary series that is always full of surprises and which can be every bit as riveting as the best in the evening schedules.
The Lowdown,which is now in its tenth year, has won several major awards - and more importantly, a regular audience of 3 million or so young viewers. The secret of the series' success is that its creator and producer, Eric Rowan, has recognised that nothing fascinates children quite as much as other children.
Over the years, his directors - old hands, and a few making their television debut - have naturally focused on some remarkable children: for instance, a teenage evangelist preacher, a wannabe pop star, a chess prodigy, a circus artiste, and Sam, a lad with cerebral palsy and enough oomph to put the rest of us to shame. But they have also paid due attention to the little things that can figure so largely in children's lives: first shave, first bra, first visit to a disco and suchlike.
The new series, which started on April 1, typifies The Lowdown's eclectic approach. "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl" is devoted to Alexandra Nechita, the 10-year old "pint-size Picasso" who has taken the American art world by storm. "Welcome to Cyberspace" features pupils at St John's Comprehensive in Marlborough as they busily set about publishing their school magazine on the Internet.
By contrast, "Skin Deep" follows Lee Mitchell, a 12-year-old boy from Birmingham who is taking part in a unique experiment to find a cure for vitiligo, the disease that mysteriously causes patches of the skin to turn white. "Street Pride" is about "penguins", "pulling your pants up" and the other dance moves being practised by an up-and-coming troupe in Swindon.
"Our New Family" is an upbeat but sensitive video diary of the weeks leading up to a wedding, which will join together not just the happy couple but the children from their previous marriages. Perhaps adults can guess at the inevitable stresses this entails, but what makes the programme so engrossing is that the children themselves are every bit as aware of the emotional complexity of the situation. So, for instance, 10-year old Heather is jealous of her new half-sister - and also knows that she is jealous. What's more, she can articulate her feelings and explain how she comes to terms with them. For an adult audience, it's a joy to hear children speak with such insight and self knowledge. For young viewers in a similar situation (one child in 12 is in a step family), this programme could be of inestimable help.
Of course, there is nothing easy about childhood - and this is especially so for those poor souls courageous enough to volunteer to be ballboys and ballgirls at the Wimbledon Championships. In "Strictly Wimbledon" (broadcast on April 2) we see them being trained by the awesome Mr Wally Wonfor: an ex-RAF sergeant and a disciplinarian of the old school, he seems to have come straight from central casting. Earrings, chewing-gum and hands-in-pockets are top of a very long list of horrors, up with which he will not put. He barks, bristles, badgers and bullies through the months of remorseless training and the two white-knuckled weeks of the competition. On the last day, you'd expect the children to tell him exactly what he can do with his new balls. Instead, the lads thank him with a handshake and the girls queue up to kiss him good-bye. They all love him! They have enjoyed the discipline, the rigorous routine and the old-fashioned ritual. But that's The Lowdown - always full of surprises.