Not so quiet on the home front;Radio

1st May 1998 at 01:00
MUSIC WORKSHOP: We'll Meet Again. Radio 3. Fridays, 3.00-3.20am. Age range: 9-12

The study unit Britain Since 1930 is one of the most popular sections of the history curriculum - part of the evidence lies in the number of schools that have entrance-hall displays of ration books and gas masks.

Teaching pupils about evacuees, sweet shortages and the blackout, though, is one thing. Equally important is that they come to understand some of the feelings that dominated people's lives. Not least of these was the permanent ache of being parted from loved ones.

The way into this, as many teachers realise, is through the many poignant songs that were written - or adopted - to express those feelings. The one that sums them all up, of course, is Ross Parker and Hughie Charles's "We'll Meet Again", immortalised thanks to the BBC and Vera Lynn.

The song title is borrowed for this excellent series of Music Workshop programmes, which follows the fortunes of a wartime family split up by evacuation. Each of the seven 20-minute programmes centres on a song of the period - "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", "We'll Meet Again", "Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major", "Quartermaster's Stores", "Hey Little Hen", "Goodnight Sweetheart" and "Sing As We Go".

The dramatic device used is a music teacher - Mr Bradbury - and his class. He tells them about the war years, reading accounts and letters. They ask him questions and he teaches them the songs. We also hear as he plays contemporary recordings of the featured songs and of other music of the time.

The story is evocative and well told. Three children have to say goodbye to their mum and go off to live in the country, away from the bombs. Tom and Betty are homesick, and worried about six-year-old George, who has to live with another family. All ends happily though, with a moving contemporary twist.

Children love such stories. Their empathy with parting and homesickness is real and, as the programme "What's Become of Little George?" makes plain, they are deeply anxious that everything should turn out well.

Let no one think, either, that pupils do not enjoy the songs. There are tunes they can sing, sentiments they can share, and words that are mostly easy to learn - and at the time, after all, everyone sang them, in all manner of circumstances.

At the same time, there are some stiff musical demands here. "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", as sung by the Andrews Sisters, is a joyful tour de force of rhythmic tricks and tongue-twisting diction. Nevertheless, Mr Bradbury's class (actually members of the National Youth Music Theatre) do it beautifully and this ought to convince the average key stage 2 group that they too can manage it.

There are some interesting creative ideas. Nat Gonella sings "Hey Little Hen" and it is certain that this inventive and talented performer - hugely famous in his time - would have heartily approved of Mr Bradbury and his class turning it into a rap with vocal percussion accompaniment.

Musical teaching points are picked out - Vera Lynn, whose diction and breath control were still impeccable the last time I heard her - is used to demonstrate the principles of good phrasing, and a phrase in "Goodnight Sweetheart" is used to construct a C major chord.

The cross-curricular possibilities are endless; there are ideas for art, drama and writing, as well as for English and music. Best of all, perhaps, is the possibility of using the songs and stories to put on a memorable show, of a kind that will send the audience home humming.

Programmes on double cassette tape pound;2; accompanying music cassette pound;6.50; teacher's notes pound;3 and pupil's booklets pound;7.50 per pack of five, all available from BBC Educational Publishing, Freepost LS 2811, PO Box 234, Wetherby, West Yorks LS23 6YY. Tel: 01937 541001

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