Graham Hart looks at a series which introduces the people of Asia. GEOGRAPHICAL EYE OVER ASIA Channel 4 Thursdays 10.25am. Night-time block transmission, March 28 and 29, 4-5am. Study guide, Pounds 4.95. Educational Television Company: 01926 433333
Steve Bochco, the "Tolstoy of television", responsible for such programmes as Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and now Murder One, is noted for his three- layered approach to episodic story-telling. Each episode of his highly successful programmes contains the end of one story line, the beginning of another and a self-contained story.
The Geographical Eye team also employs a triple-layer approach, but their task to tell a meaningful story about Asia in six 20-minute programmes is much more daunting.
How do you start to provide a picture of the most populous and intriguing continent on the planet? How do you try to reveal a little of the reality without adding to our already diverse and probably confused images of Asia?
If you are the Geographical Eye team you go straight for the detail of human life. You let the story come out through the actions of individuals. And perhaps this is the most important of the three layers: the concentration on people as the critical element in any landscape.
"Bangladesh: Living with Flooding" brings this out most strongly. The families affected by the crippling, storm-driven floods provide a new perspective on what, for most of us, has been just a story on News at Ten.
The parents and children paint a picture of peoples doing the same as us: just trying to get by. Their problems may be of a greater magnitude, but their responses are similar. They act rationally, and sometimes irrationally. they get angry and frustrated. They get frightened and excited, and they work very hard. At heart they are the same.
While people form the first of the three layers, the second layer of the programmes reminds us strongly that this is a "geographical" eye we are using. Each of the programmes cites Asia as a living example of a geographical issue of relevance to the 11 to 14 target age range.
"India: Environment and Industry", for example, is an excellent case study of social versus environmental ambitions. Should the quarries be closed to save the slopes of the Dehra Dun valley in northern India? Yes, but what of the jobs and the local economy?
The simulation is played out for us all: only it's not a simulation of course. This is for real. Importantly, the protagonists show a genuine understanding for the other's case, something that we might do well to learn from. And the paperwork! For any teacher feeling bogged down in the mire, think yourself lucky you don't work in India's local governmental system.
There is also a fascinating insight in this particular programme to the lives of Indians at a public school. Are today's youngsters aware of this aspect of India, or is India just a by-word for poverty and over-population?
The third layer is not so much a part of the main dish, more a sauce poured over it. The sense of Asia, created by a freely roving camera, seeps through the films, infusing the whole series with a strong flavour of the continent. We are never away from the living, breathing world of Asia; it is all around us.
Watch these programmes once; then watch them again with the sound down. The eye is drawn to completely different aspects. The background behind the main action is absolutely riveting. The insides of the homes are possibly the most intriguing if you allow your eye to wander. Ask the students to note what is on television, what street games the children play, how the food is prepared and eaten. In "Bangladesh: Living with Flooding", try to spot the sorterpacker lobbing dead fish at his neighbour. Asia is greatly humanised by these programmes.
There must also be a considerable interest in how these programmes are received by children with an Asian background. I suspect they would be able to expand our understanding of the continent with their reflections.
The six programmes are accompanied by a study guide, a short but valuable extra for teachers. In particular, it can be recommended for its introductory activities that focus upon our pre-conceptions of Asia. Are these three statements true or false? India's population density is double that of the United Kingdom. India can't grow enough food to feed its people. Indonesia is a top ten world oil producer.
How can you look meaningfully at Asia in only six programmes? You can't, but perhaps the series might have looked less at India and taken in one other country: Thailand exemplifies a host of geographical issues, or perhaps Vietnam or Macao for something new.
That's the only quibble. I now revert to Steve Bochco territory by continuing a story I first started when reviewing Geographical Eye Over Britain. The theme continues: these are excellent programmes, ideally suited to the target audience and performing a great service to British educational broadcasting.