14th September 2001 at 01:00
THE WAR CHILD. Understanding history through drama and theatre: a source book for schools The National Trust in association with Derby University pound;12.50

I once was a Norman, by command of the late Professor John Fines, who wrote the introduction to The War Child. My Norman task, as befitted a Noble, was to extract Domesday survey information from a group of vili plebe (common folk - teachers in reality) who could speak only English. My native tongue was French. It was a real historical problem, it required no props, no dressing up, and no script, yet it generated lively role-play as well as a chance to reflection on the problems of the past.

This is precisely the stuff of The War Child, in which the historical facts are provided but children do the thinking for themselves.

The recreation of the evacuation of children to Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, during the Second World War was clearly an exciting and successful project, although its view of the past through 21st-century eyes and concerns gives it some eccentric readings of the events. One character in the "play" has lost a son in the war, and because she is bitter towards the Germans she is characterised as racist and bigoted. Another, a refugee whose five-year-old sister was murdered by the Germans, is said to have an irrational hatred of them.

Recreations rarely fall down on drama, but often falter over facts. Dressing up can threaten authenticity (at worst Velcro fastenings and plastic lunch boxes). John Fines's answer to this was not to bother - dressing up was rarely essential. And then there is poor research that can lead to asking wrong or anachronistic questions. For teachers, accuracy is a duty, and although only a history anorak would get into a lather over a minor detail, we must strive to ask the right questions. The actor who relied on a video of Hope and Glory for historical background really should have tried harder.

Workshops and discussion are fine for refining drama, but no amount of reflection will unearth historical fact. Nevertheless the project deserved its success - long may such drama thrive. But as a source book, The War Child is found wanting; there are better books on the subject.

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