Less news, more truths;TV;Television;Reviews

27th November 1998 at 00:00
BELIEF FILES: Issues. BBC2. Age Range: 16-18. BBC2's latest 'Belief Files' series depended a little too heavily on archive material, says Michael Duffy.

This term's Belief Files presented a series of ethical debates. Each programme is about an issue that raises dilemmas of rationality and faith. Abortion and "sexuality" are included, although this programme deals with homosexuality only. "Belief and Suffering", "Belief and Gen-etics" and "Belief and the Death of Diana" are the other topics.

All the programmes follow the same format. They depend heavily on extracts from the BBC's vast archive of news and documentary material, with commentary from believers of Christian and non-Christian faiths woven into them.

Sometimes the commentary is genuinely revealing. Michael Buerk, for instance, looking back on his moving reports from the Ethiopian famine ("You had this overwhelming sense of the absence of God") conveys to us what it means when real faith is tested to its very limits. Rabbi Lionel Blue, reconciling his homosexuality with Old Testament prohibition ("The Bible says, if thy eye offend thee, pluck it out - but we don't do that, do we?") is humane and reassuring.

Much of the clerical commentary, though, is evasive and unconvincing, and it doesn't help that it is often shown against a fussy and distracting newsreel background. There is too much actualite, as it were, and not enough verite.

The trouble is that in the classroom even good material, unless it is carefully chosen, can be distracting. The lengthy extracts in these tapes come from programmes such as Panorama, Heart of the Matter, Everyman and Future Watch, and they tend to reflect their producers' needs much more than those of teachers. Though there are some notable exceptions - a powerful sequence from Panorama, contrasting a 24-week and over termination clinic with the premature baby intensive therapy unit next door - is a case in point.

Most of the clips are chosen without attention to difficulties of understanding or interpretation. In the "Genetics" pro-gramme, for instance, there is a discussion on eugenics, where the term is explained only by uncaptioned Nazi archive material projected behind it. So it is interesting that out of all this material, the section that most clearly explains a religious position - the aim, I take it, of the series - is the one where Gabriela Pearse explains the Buddhist attitude to suffering, by reference not to film or video but to a printed cartoon story of the Buddha's life and teaching. The moral is that a story, in this case of the mother, the dying baby and the mustard seed, doesn't need to be "reality" to be effective.

With adequate teacher support materials - especially for that first unit on mourning for Diana, which conspicuously fails to probe the gulf between feeling and believing - these criticisms would be minor. However, BBC Education had no such materials available at the time the pro-grammes were transmitted, but reports that a 40-page teacher pack will shortly be available from BFSS National RE Centre, Brunel University, for pound;7.50. The BFSS Centre itself says that it will be a 20-page pack, and that the price will be pound;4. There are no videos of Belief File: Issues available either. Teachers who missed it will, therefore, have to wait until all five programmes are repeated on June 23 next year, from 2 to 3.40am.

Readers can draw their own conclusions from all this, but either way, the series looks uncomfortably like a piece of schedule-filling. That doesn't matter, of course - as long as teachers don't use it that way, too.

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