Robert the Bruce was here

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Robin Buss follows a history of Scotland with some surprising twists

CHUCK WALLACE'S MIDDLE AGE SPREAD. Channel 4Age range: 8-12.

Chuck Wallace is an American film producer who made the big mistake of turning down Braveheart. However, his boss, instead of demoting him to clapper boy, has told him to go out there and find the story and locations for another blockbuster movie about Scottish history.

The children who will follow him on his quest over the course of these five programmes may not have seen Braveheart (at least, they should not have seen Braveheart - it carries a "15" certificate) but they could well recognise the actor who plays Chuck. It is George Wendt, of Cheers, who seems vaguely familiar even to those who do not watch that series, since he bears a strong resemblance to John Goodman.

Not a bad choice for a front man, as it happens: few 10-year- olds are more naive or less quick on the uptake than Chuck, who is guided through his exploration of Scottish medieval history by Maggie Cook (Frances Carrigan), a personable young woman from the Scottish Film Council. She takes him to different locations around the country where, with the help of ordinary men and women conjured up from the past by a magic video camera, he learns about each place during the crucial 40 years around the end of the 13th century and the start of the 14th .

We begin with Edward I's conquest of Scotland, and the Ragman's Roll, the pledge of loyalty that the English king obliged the Scottish nobility to sign. The second programme covers the campaign of guerrilla warfare waged by William Wallace (a distant ancestor of our hero, maybe); and the third how Robert the Bruce gradually established his title to the Scottish throne. Programme four centres on the Battle of Bannockburn, and the series ends with a summary of events after the death of The Bruce in 1329.

Chuck Wallace's Middle Age Spread is designed to provide material for the "People in the Past" section of Environmental Studies: Social Studies, one of the subject areas of the 5-14 guidelines in Scotland, but it will be a useful resource for teaching aspects of English and Scottish history and particularly timely, in view of the preparations over the next few years for devolution of power to a Scottish Parliament.

The television programmes wear their erudition lightly, but in reality contain a good deal of information about the Scottish Wars of Independence. This is supplemented by the accom-panying teacher's guide, containing suggestions for activities which seem well-conceived for the target age group and cover a range of areas, including art and design, history and language skills, drama and role-play.

The fact that this is a series primarily intended for environmental studies, rather than history, is inscribed in its underlying philosophy. While Chuck's main concern is to find a good story for his film, with heroes and villains and a true Hollywood happy ending, Maggie has a different view of "what you call history, but what I know as people's lives".

The major historical figures are, for the most part, presented in cartoon form, while those who appear through Chuck's magic camera are ordinary men and women, from different classes and occupations.

At the very end, Maggie herself turns out to have nothing to do with the Film Council, but to be one of these characters, a servant who worked in the household of King James I. As for Chuck, he comes to the conclusion that "this is not a film, but an epic".

As Maggie has been insisting all along, history continues, with no neat conclusions, and what happened in the past shapes how we live today. This series about a period in British history with obvious relevance to present-day events makes the point well.

The video of five 15-minute programmes costs Pounds 14.99 and the teachers' guide, Pounds 3.95. both are available from Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick, CV34 6TZ

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