Snappy narrative

19th January 1996 at 00:00
How We Used To Live: From Iron Ways, Age range 7 to 11, Channel 4 Tuesdays 10.25am, repeated Fridays 11.40. Teachers' guide Pounds 3.95. Pupils' book Pounds 9.95. Resource pack, including audio-cassette, Pounds 31.14. Video of five programmes Pounds 35.25. Educational Television Company 01926 433333

Picture the scene if How We Used to Live had been a Hollywood movie, rather than a primary history series.

The executive director would sit at the head of the table, chomping on a cigar, minions nodding eagerly as he goes over the storyline for the latest series. "Now, the hero is a bit cut up because his girl has died of consumption - very sad: I like that. He goes off to South America, right into the jungle. OK, we can budget for that. He saves a man from an alligator - good, very good: it's got romance, it's got action, it's got an exotic location. What I don't see is why that is the moment for a debate on the development of the miners' safety lamp."

But so, in fact, it proves, for the man Robert Stephenson (for it is he) has just rescued from a nasty death in the wilds of Colombia is none other than the railway pioneer Richard Trevithick, and what else should two 19th-century engineering inventors discuss in such circumstances? Trevithick's first words on being hauled out of the river are "Sir, you have saved the life of a Cornishman" - I would have expected something stronger, but this is for primary schools - which sets young Stephenson going because, as a Geordie he bears a grudge against the Cornish for pinching all his dad's best ideas.

Dad, of course, is George Stephenson, who did not limit himself to railways: he invented a lamp that was proof against the deadly "fire damp" - methane gas - that claimed so many lives down the mines. The only trouble was that Sir Humphrey Davy was busy inventing much the same device down in Cornwall, and the unschooled Stephenson senior soon found himself embroiled in a bitter patents battle. He finds himself in similar trouble when he starts drawing up plans for his railways, and he is ridiculed by a hostile Parliamentary Committee for his lack of education. Ah, but who was it ended up on the five pound note in the end?

As ever with How We Used to Live, the plots are simple and the characters convincing, yet there is hardly a wasted moment: in one section we encounter mine safety, industrial espionage and the work of children in the pits all within a couple of minutes. Elsewhere, the easily-forgotten role of religion, and Quakerism in particular, in industrial development is given its due.

Although the central drama episodes are centred on the life and work of the Stephensons pere et fils, the two documentary programmes look at the remarkable Darby family of Coalbrookdale, who revolutionised the iron industry, and at the endlessly fascinating figure of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Any work on the development of railways is almost bound to have openings for local history work, and the teachers' guide has useful ideas for how to set about it as well as background notes on each of the programmes. Move aside, Pride and Prejudice: Mr Darcy may have got his shirt wet, but he doesn't tackle alligators and he can't calculate a decent railway gauge.

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