Up the Orinoco;Reviews;Television

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Landmarks: Rivers of the World. BBC2: Mondays 11.40am-12.00. Rpt Fridays 11.10-11.30am. Age range: 11-12

Young American cinema audiences are likely to shout out "fast-forward" if their movie gets a little dull. This type of behaviour hasn't yet spread to British schools, but even if it had, you can put away the remote control for this series of five films. They come from the sit-back-and-enjoy school of educational productions.

The enjoyment comes for a variety of reasons. First, there is the choice of rivers. Hands up who knows where the Angara rises, or which are the main towns on the Orinoco? It's simply refreshing to see these rarely studied waterways, admittedly alongside old favourites such as the Mississippi and Nile.

Then there is the approach. It's reminiscent of Blue Peter - without the presenters. Now we'll tell you an interesting legend about the river and here's a hydro-electric power plant with big machinery; let's see how little Dimitri lives happily with his family, and now it's time for four key facts about an issue of social interest; and here's a bit of film we prepared earlier.

The films are great because they are slightly surreal, partly due to the eclectic editing and approach, but also due to the subject matter. The communist propaganda films of "volunteers" building dams in temperatures approaching minus 50xC are quite marvellous, while the scenes of American-Indian people catching, cooking and eating tarantulas will bring a response from any class. Look out for the cities close to the Angara River that have been deserted because of pollution. We may all have imagined a ghost town, but a whole ghost city?

But what about suitability for the intended audience? Key to this question is the degree of preparation and follow-up. Although each film may well entertain, and even excite, young viewers, it will still take work to derive maximum benefit. The subtitles are key: "The Nile: river of life" and "The Danube: transport on the river" are typical examples. This is crucial information to enable students to focus their attention. But finding supporting information is often a problem, and it's here that the two accompanying publications come into their own.

The programme note booklet Landmarks Summer 98 provides a page of support detail on each film. The text simply, but valuably, retells the film's narrative. Dotted here and there are spellings of place names you may not know, statistics and extra snippets of information. There is also a photocopiable exercise sheet for each river.

Taking you further is the resource pack. This also contains a greater depth of information and more photocopiable exercise sheets as well as full colour photo-cards and a fold-out map. There are notes on aims, plans and expected learning outcomes.

Getting back to our American cinema audiences, it is common practice to run test screenings of feature films before they go on general release. The audience reaction can lead to quite heavy editing. Does the BBC take the same approach I wonder? Were these shown to 11-year-olds before their first broadcast? It's a question worth asking as this series seems a little schizophrenic in style. Just as we are settling down to a reassuring case-study, we flip into travelogue. From there it's a single-issue documentary short. Does one style work better for children than another? Which bits are most memorable? Only by showing and asking will we learn best how children benefit from such resources as these.

The programmes and books span the primarysecondary divide well. The printed materials provide good support to the programmes, which are varied and interesting but, perhaps, a little unsure of themselves. A great starting point for - lest we forget to say it - a really exciting topic of study.

* Graham Hart

The resource pack costs pound;12.99 from BBC Educational Publishing, Freepost LS2811, Wetherby, West Yorkshire LS23 6YY. Tel: 01937 541001. A video pack will be available from July

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