Schools television

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
* Pick of the week: Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore, BBC2 Sunday, September 248-8.50pm

Robert Hughes's series about his native country, neatly timed to lead into the start of the Sydney Olympics, is proving to be one of the meatiest things on television this autumn.

Last week, Hughes looked at the idea held by many Australians that they live in a classless society; or, more precisely, in a society where everyone belongs to the middle class. To test this idea, he went back to the fundamental historical division between convicts and settlers, and discovered some interesting distinctions between the populations of Sydney and of Melbourne.

This Sunday, he digs further under the Australian skin, past and present, examining the changes that have occurred since he was a child, when "everyone", as well as being middle-class, was assumed to be white and of British or Irish origin. This was never the case: Hughes meets a fifth-generation Australian whose ancestors arrived from China in the 1890s, with family members from Papua New Guinea, as well as from all over Europe. He discovers that "the migrant Australian changes Australia as much as Australia changes the migrant". Australia, like Britain, claims to be a multicultural society; but what do we mean by "multiculturalism"? Perhaps the Australian experience can throw some light on our own.

* SCHOOLS SPOTLIGHT: Classic Short Prose C4, Wednesdays from September 2011-11.25am. Rpt Thursdays, 10-10.25am

This excellent three-part series for The English Programme starts with a vivid telling of Edgar Allan Poe's horror story, "The Tell-Tale Heart", read by Joss Ackland and interspersed with comments from film director Neil Jordan, who talks about Poe's life, the technique of his storytelling and how this tale might be adapted for the screen. As he points out, Poe's narrator never gives any reason for killing his victim and we cannot be sure whether the heartbeat that pursues him is an illusion, a reality or the sound of his conscience. In fact, much of the power of the story comes from such uncertainties and imprecisions, which leave us with no rational explanation for the nightmare. A splendidly craggy Ackland gives his all, and excellent visual material heightens the atmosphere.

The second story, by contrast, is Sylvia Plath's "Superman and Paula Brown's New Snowsuit", a sensitive, sometimes self-consciously "poetic" memoir of a childhood incident, read by Edie Falco, with comment by the poet Claire Pollard. The pictures, reconstructions and old photographs suggest the texture of suburban family life in 1940s Boston, while the first line of the story ("The year the war began...") marks the huge leap to this cosy, safe environment from the dangers outside. As well as being about childhood, this is also a story about the first intimations of childhood ending, and about the imperfections of the world, symbolised by the oil stains on a girl's white snowsuit.

The trilogy ends with Mich le Roberts's "Your Shoes", in which a mother reflects on her runaway teenage daughter. Roberts herself describes how she originally came to write the story at the request of the charity Shelter, and what she hoped to achieve. Are the last two classics? Not yet, but not so far off for us to need recourse to the Trade Descriptions Act.

* BEST OF THE REST: Correspondent: No Experience Necessary, BBC2, Saturday, September 23 6.50-7.35pm

This week's correspondent follows two Latvian girls as they try to escape from the dire poverty of the former Soviet republic and find jobs in the West. Sue Lloyd-Roberts traces their supposed future employer to the owner of a burger bar in a somnolent little town in Galway, who once advertised for a waitress on the Internet. His name and address have been appropriated for the purpose of getting an Irish visa, currently not too difficult for East European immigrants. If the girls had accepted the job, they would almost certainly have ended up not in Galway, but as prostitutes in England, forced to work by pimps holding their passports to ransom. As this disturbing film points out, the police are usually content to expel the girls as illegal migrants, rather than use them as witnesses against their exploiters.

* BEST ON RADIO: Aire and Angels, Radio 4, Monday, September 25, 2.15-3pm

The afternoon play on Radio 4 this week is Louise Gooding's dramatisation of the love affair between the poet John Donne and Ann More, the niece of Lord Egerton, to whom Donne was private secretary. They met when Ann was only 14, and her father had ambitions to make a good match for her; Donne did not come into that category.

Their friendship turned to love, inspiring Donne's best-known poetry, and eventually they were secretly married. A happy ending, then? Not altogether, given the disastrous effects on Donne's career, which produced his famous quip: "John Donne; Anne Donne; Undone."

Robin Buss

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