Halycon day of love to a Bee Gees soundtrack

1st May 2009 at 01:00

For some people today, the first of May, is about reaffirming the rights of workers. Other people reaffirm the right to jump into a bone-crunchingly shallow river from a bridge in Oxford. And I like to imagine that there are still some - at least in a few remoter corners of our rural catchment area - who reassume the annual rite of spit-turning a lottery-selected May virgin over a fire while plump, apple-cheeked local children dance cheerily around a maypole.

For a few of us, however, the First of May is about something else entirely. It is a day for celebrating the fine old Bee Gees song of that name, recorded in 1969 in their pre-castrati days. But what we remember, in particular, is the wonderfully enlightening 1971 children's film Melody where we first heard it.

Watching and discussing the film, also known as SWALK, should be a part of every child's personal, social and health education. It never seems to be screened on television, but some selfless force for good has now uploaded, to much acclaim, its particularly inspiring "First of May" scene on to YouTube (I recommend the full six-minute version, with the subsequent dialogue).

I learnt so much from Daniel Latimer, played by child actor Mark Lester, the 11-year-old schoolboy hero of the story. What an excellent role model. He introduced me to the notion that falling in love with a girl might not be that "sissy" a thing to do after all. He also taught me an invaluable, lasting lesson about relationships of all kinds: try always to be honest, kind and gentle. He also encouraged me to keep wearing a school satchel throughout a first date - something that we should all follow to the letter.

Daniel finds love in the form of schoolmate Melody, played by Tracy Hyde - she who was serene, joyful and so bewitchingly beautiful. How I yearned to swap places with him. The story is of young, truly innocent romance between the two, at a London school staffed by dull, gowned and unsympathetic teachers.

The film admittedly has its sillier moments. Daniel and his friend are both beaten by the headteacher simply for underperforming in Latin - a pretty far-fetched scenario given that there were no league tables for heads to worry about at the time. There is also a hopelessly dated scene at a school disco where the teaching staff are seen boogieing on down with the kids in a wholly gauche and embarrassing manner. At one point the twirling headteacher shrieks "Sock it to me!" at the bemused young onlookers. I am sure no teacher today can relate to such a scene ...

For a while, perhaps, the film is not much more than a precursor to Grange Hill, but when the "First of May" begins it then starts to reach out and touch the finest, warmest of emotions within. I still remember how the song began to sweep imperiously across the cinema as the young couple escaped their stark, dismal school surroundings and set off for a picnic in the long grass of a London cemetery.

Anyone would want to fall in love in such a manner. It is how I want my own young children to fall in love one day. This was not today's love-talk, in one ear, iPod in the other. There was no texting or Twitter with friends elsewhere. Just pure, innocent, devoted, loving, caring and apple-sharing.

We like to think that today is an age of sexual and emotional liberation for young people. In some ways it is. But this is also the age of the tyranny of Cool, where most young people - boys in particular - feel they are breaking some kind of social law if they display too much affection, let alone confess the "love" word to anyone. This tends to continue into adulthood. Yet if the honest, open communication of love could become part of our make-up at an early age, then maybe much of the misunderstanding, hurt and strife in so many people's later relationships could be avoided. Show 10 or 11-year-olds a film like this in that PSHE lesson and it might just help.

It's possible I've just turned into some crazed old crank in believing one film might make a difference. A university radio DJ recently told me that somebody in England repeatedly writes to scores of university DJs pleading with them to play Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto" every hour. The correspondent is convinced that all troubled young people will turn away from crime when they hear this song.

We certainly need to be wary of believing too much deluded hogwash about previous ages of innocence. Nonetheless, there remains a peculiar poignancy in this film. Just after the song has finished, Melody talks to Daniel about a married couple's tombstone nearby. The woman had died on a September 11th, he on a July 7th - dates with no significance at the time of the film, but now resonant of a surely harsher and more hateful world for our children today. Yet the scene and song somehow still leave a deeply inspirational, optimistic glow: "But you and I, our love will never die, but guess we'll cry, come First of May."

Stephen Petty, Head of humanities, Lord Williams's School, Thame, Oxfordshire.

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