Morality tales drawn from life

17th May 1996 at 01:00
The Channel 4 religious education series Quest, just ended, has brought us Life Stories, a five-part series aimed at 9- to 11-year-olds, addressing sensitive human issues.

The first and last programmes were recycled from Grampian Television's previous RE series Coming Together, but the middle three programmes used the same presenter and format to provide source material to help teachers deal with more "difficult" subjects.

Producer Sandra Arnold's intention behind Life Stories was to give teachers an accessible, unthreatening and yet lively resource which would help them tackle bullying, friendship and "difference".

"Many teachers face these issues in their own lives," she said, "which makes it difficult for them to open up the subjects in the classroom. But the issues are part of the curriculum and because many children suffer silently, and feel isolated because of the things they experience, we wanted to give teachers as much help as possible in giving the children a voice. The programmes get to quite a deep level on occasions, and give credence and value to children's positive and negative feelings."

Arnold and Angela Reith, the series writer, offer a variety of devices in each programme to bring home their messages. Considerable use is made of soundbites, of children's observations or descriptions of incidents from their own experiences. Dramatisations of some incidents are also included, and some simple cartoons and songs by Ben Okafor, a Nigerian singer-songwriter now based in England.

It is almost impossible to produce a series that offers a view of morality without taking some sort of viewpoint, and the producers must be given due credit for soft-pedalling the Christian elements, while allowing Jews, Muslims and Sikhs a fair crack of the whip. But while the series undeniably views issues from a variety of religious standpoints, it is perhaps less objective when it comes to politics.

The second programme. Me and You, which deals with friendship and brotherhood, includes the story of Guru Nanak and the carpenter, whose message "Give your wealth to the poor. Be humble," does rather fly in the face of Conservative Party policy. And programme three - It's Not Fair! - suggests that the supermarket price of coffee is artificially low as a result of exploitation of native labour. "We get low prices because others get low wages. It's not fair." Is the insertion of a left-wing political viewpoint in a supposedly objective religious programme fair?

And if programme four aimed to celebrate the richness of variety among races and peoples, why did it choose a weak story about a young Scots lad, picked on for being different, further diluted with an English narrator whose Scots accent belonged in the music hall? Was it because ours was the only race who could safely be used without fear of recrimination?

Life Stories also suffers from leaden acting and poor timing. The scenes depicting a young girl's response to bullying lost their intended impact because of their lack of realism. When it came to real people, however, there were plenty whose stories were effective, including film of the folk from the Aberdeen-based Instant Neighbour Trust which evoked the instant response of "I'd like to help - wouldn't you?" from my own nine-year old, whose view of the series was a good deal less cynical than his Dad's.

Overall, Life Stories is nonetheless another valuable attempt on the part of Grampian to boldly go where others fear to reach warp speed. It is a bright and engaging series helped particularly by Ben Okafor's songs which, if not quite in the singalong bracket ("the melodies, as sung, are pitched rather high in places," says the excellent teachers' guide) are nonetheless thought-provoking. And if you missed the series, the Educational Television Company will no doubt sell you a video of all five programmes for Pounds 15.

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