Sexy, villainous, user friendly

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Laurence Alster casts an eye over the latest media studies A-level texts

Teaching TV Sitcom. By James Baker. Teaching TV News. By Eileen Lewis. Teaching Scriptwriting, Screenplays and Storyboards for Film and TV Production. By Mark Readman. Teaching Digital Video Production. By Pete Fraser and Barney Oram. All BFI Publications, pound;19.99 each.

Studying the Media. By Tim O'Sullivan, Brian Dutton and Philip Rayner Arnold, pound;16.99. Key Concepts amp; Skills for Media Studies. By Vivienne Clark, James Baker and Eileen Lewis. Arnold, pound;12.99.

A2 Media Studies for OCR. By Jacqueline Bennett, Tanya Jones, Julian McDougall. Hodder and Stoughton pound;12.99. Teacher's Resource pound;74.99.

As the number of students of AS and A-level media studies keeps on increasing, so does the number of textbooks catering for them - and these books certainly wildly fluctuate in the quality control department.

From the books selected here, those grouped nearest the gold medal standard are the quartet from BFI Publications. Each book adopts a similar format, with details of relevant syllabuses, sample schemes of work, suggested teaching activities and downloadable worksheets being especially useful.

There is copious advice on how best to deliver a particular topic, exemplar material is carefully chosen and analysis is often acute yet accessible.

These and other plus points are most evident in James Baker's excellent Teaching TV Sitcom, an absorbing and eminently usable primer that, alongside perceptive case studies of Friends, Frasier and The Office, covers the history of the genre as well as its forms and conventions past and present.

Nearly the equal of Baker's book is Eileen Lewis's Teaching TV News, especially impressive for several stimulating worksheets and a well-written review of the links between the polity and television news. While one or two lazy comments are rather a pity ("events in Vietnam" is hardly an apt description of so protracted a catastrophe as the Vietnam War) this is still a valuable resource.

Also recommended are Mark Readman's Teaching Scriptwriting, Screenplays and Storyboards for Film and TV Production and Teaching Digital Video Production by Pete Fraser and Barney Oram, both of which offer systematic and sound advice on more practical matters. That said, Readman's helpful case studies as well as his plentiful and inventive worksheets give his book the edge over Fraser and Oram's which, though methodical and sensible, stresses the obvious - on technical help, say, or how to manage students - a little too often.

The word "sexy" has its uses, certainly, but it still comes as a bit of surprise to read of a media studies textbook described thus. But there it is in the third edition of Studying the Media, part of one of several encomiastic judgments on the first edition of Tim O'Sullivan, Brian Dutton and Philip Rayner's book: "A sexy book which is very user friendly."

If "sexy" means nice-looking, then the term does indeed apply to the third edition. This is a very attractive textbook, pleasingly laid out and with many well-chosen pictures, some in colour. But "user friendly"? In some respects more than others, perhaps. While sections on broadcast news, postmodernism and the "effects" debate are very good, coverage of other matters is sometimes less impressive. All too often, difficult issues are explained in an altogether inappropriate conversational tone and there are far too many spelling ("villian", "annihalation") and other errors either of fact or omission. In books as in life, handsome is as handsome does; so while Studying the Media is by no means a bad book, as much care taken on content as appearance would have made it an even better one.

There are no colour plates in Vivienne Clark, James Baker and Eileen Lewis's Key Concepts and Skills for Media Studies, but a book that offers so many instances of outstanding student work cannot be anything other than appealing and, ultimately, probably very effective. Intended mainly for AS-level students, the book is nowhere near as comprehensive as some others, but the topics it does cover - notably, analytical skills, TV soap opera, new media technologies and media ownership and control - are dealt with systematically and sensibly. In addition, teachers will be particularly grateful not only for good advice on exam preparation but also a section on production skills which shows that inspiration only becomes achievement through method. Equally, leaving aside one that advises students to "research Althusser's theories" - a punishing task indeed - there are some very engaging activities. All told, this solid, accessible and imaginative volume will bring as much help as pleasure.

At one point, Key Concepts and Skills explains precisely why Mary Whitehouse, the former president of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, was at one time so important. Mrs Whitehouse also turns up in Jacqueline Bennett, Tanya Jones and Julian McDougall's A2 Media Studies for OCR, but her leadership of the NVLA goes unmentioned. The impression given is of an individual pest but no more. The omission is typical of a book that, though far better than its feeble AS companion volume, still lacks polish. Good as certain sections are - on the OCR advanced practical production and critical research study, for example - too many others are pedestrian and occasionally simplistic. As for visual and intellectual appeal, what should one make of a book that, characteristically, passes up an opportunity to suggest something really interesting about media-celebrity links with no more than a caption - "Football" - plonked under a stamp-sized picture of David Beckham?

Laurence Alster teaches media studies at South Downs College, Portsmouth

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