Return of the local hero

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Arnold Evans salutes the call by film-maker David Puttnam to make world leaders out of British educational software and multimedia. I visited the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) in search of films that feature education for an article I have to write. I had every intention of being disciplined and systematic but that's never easy on the World Wide Web where there are always hotspots to tempt you away from the straight and narrow.

Cambridge University, for instance, naturally led me to David Puttnam's Chariots of Fire. You remember it - the haunting strains of Vangelis and that poetic run through the surf in slow motion. Apparently, the lens puller for that scene was Len Smith. Not a lot of people know that. Incidentally, Michael Caine's real name is Maurice Micklewhite and his birthday is on March 14 - as is Rita Tushingham's, interestingly enough.

That's the sort of information you have at your fingertips once you start rummaging through the IMDB. It contains data on 66,836 movies, plot summaries, details of cock-ups, biographies, quotes, anecdotes and miles of credits. So if you ever have a compelling urge to know who was Best Boy on Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, this is the place to go.

What makes IMDB different from traditional film guides, or even those on CD-Rom, is that it is constantly being updated - any film buff who visits the site is free to add another gem of information. It's this willingness (a compulsion, almost) to share that has always characterised the Internet. Sadly, it's not going to last for much longer. Big business is moving in, and it can't be long before everything in cyberspace carries a price tag.

There can't be a better reason for getting on-line now in order to have a good snoop around before someone charges you for the privilege of doing so. It is, as far as I can see, the only way we have to prepare ourselves for the traumatic impact the information superhighway is going to have on work, leisure - and especially on education.

Unfortunately the World Wide Web wastes more time world-wide than even Rubik's Cube did in its heyday. I had a deadline to meet and should have been taking earnest notes on Carry on Teaching but I couldn't resist a hop-skip-and-jump to Carry on up the Khyber - that wonderful movie, remembered for the scene in which Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond and a group of beleaguered ex-pats take tiffin. Their upper lips remain stoically stiff as they assiduously ignore the marauding hordes of the Khazi of Kalabar who have surrounded Colonial House. The Brits sustain the small talk and pretend not to notice as the bullets fly that the Empire is collapsing around them.

It was a small hop to another British comedy classic, Local Hero - the story of how the identity and culture of a fishing village would have been obliterated by a brash American conglomerate if it had not been for the guile of the locals. The film, of course, was produced by David Puttnam. Which led me back to Chariots of Fire and then to Colin Welland who wrote the script, and waved his Oscar at the Hollywood glitterati promising them "The Brits are Coming!" Perhaps we never quite got round to taking over Tinsel Town, but Mr Puttnam is certain that there's an even bigger prize within our reach. Britain has outstanding expertise in television, publishing and educational software, so when the superhighway does arrive - and big business moves in - we will be uniquely placed to produce the edutainment multimedia that the rest of the world is going to want to use.

If we don't, somebody else certainly will. It's a simple choice: either we can let the huge American conglomerates erode our cultural identity, or we can cater for our domestic market with material of such a high quality that it will also be a major export earner.

It means, of course, that schools need to educate a work force which is at ease with the new technology and thus capable of delivering the goods. But the harsh reality is that the Brits won't be going anywhere if too many teachers, like Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond and his pals, resolutely stick to the old ways and pretend that the revolution that is undoubtedly happening has got nothing to do with them.

Mr Puttnam, who visited this year's BETT 96 education and technology show as a guest of Learning for Life with Technology (LIFT), told teachers, "This question of marrying education with information technology is probably the central policy issue of our time." And he emphasised that if we don't take up the challenge now, it is going to be too late.

He wants "a new educational system which can flourish in the new climate of the Information Society". We must "work together, industry, government, educationalists, to achieve a confident and practical vision of the future".

"There is no doubt that our children and grandchildren would thank us if we set about constructing it today," he concluded. Cue Vangelis, but forget the slow motion - we don't have time.

* Internet Movie Database: PO Box 1577, London W7 3ZTI'm at

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