Songs of the soil

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Robert Burns:alive and kicking

Channel 4

Fridays 11.05-11.20am

Age range: 10-12

The popularity of Robert Burns is growing south of the Border. Martin Reynolds looks at a series that goes back to the poet's roots.

Channel 4 Schools is marking the bicentenary of the death of Robert Burns with this new five-part series. It goes without saying that Burns has his place firmly in the 5-14 guidelines north of the Border but he has now made it as a named author in the key stage 3 English curriculum.

However, the title of the series hints at the challenge that publishers, programme-makers and English teachers are facing to make pre-20th-century classics accessible to a young audience hooked on Saturday morning television. Robert Burns: Alive and Kicking is aimed at pupils aged 10 to 12 and, although Burns and his poetry are the primary focus, the programmes touch on other curricular areas, particularly history and geography.

The series has a punchy, magazine format with a range of styles used. These include dramatised sequences, on-scene reports, news flashes, musicians, plus readings of some of Burns's better-known poems.

The link through all these fast, flowing pieces is Phillis the Fair, a roving 18th-century reporter, as she is despatched to interview the latest popular phenomenon, Robert Burns, the ploughman poet. The first programme "Mice and Lice: Country Life" concentrates on Burns's rural existence before his poems were published. This is Burns, the son of the soil and close to nature. "Would you write me a poem?" asks Phillis to young Robbie, who has just saved a field mouse from a murderous farmhand. Five minutes later, after a tour round the Burns family cottage, the poem To a Mouse is born.

The poetry is perhaps what is best about these programmes: not just hearing it, but also knowing where it originated. The second programme "Amang Ye Takin' Notes" follows the young poet's literary visit to Edinburgh and his first brush with establishment snobbery. The film cuts from the elegant facades of Edinburgh's architecture to the cobbled streets and hovels of the poor.

There is a lot crammed into these 15-minute programmes - possibly too much. In this programme alone we get glimpses of the effects of creeping industrialisation, the attempt by Edinburgh's fashionable elite to anglicise Burns's poetry, plus a recipe for haggis. However, busy teachers at the top end of key stage 2 will use the series as a good starting point for looking at the wider historical and social issues.

The detailed notes and activity sheets that form the teachers' guide provide excellent support for those who wish to go beyond the confines of the programmes themselves and explore the music, art, IT or drama potential.

By the third programme, "A Melodic Din to the Lugs", the magazine format seems to be tiring, but it does succeed in showing Burns's pride and anger about Scotland's bloody history, his uneasiness with fame and his eventual emergence as a poet of the people.

We get a strong sense, particularly in the fourth programme which is devoted to "Tam O'Shanter", of the folklore tradition that he celebrated so well. This programme provides a useful way of looking at the rich language of Burns's songs and poems. Hearing "Tam O'Shanter" read well is music in itself.

At the back of the teachers' guide are copies of the poems and songs featured in the series. Each poem contains a helpful glossary of dialect words and phrases which would be invaluable for teachers who wish to take the obvious opportunity for a bit of mini-research with their classes on word roots and derivations.

Pitching a programme at an audience covering two key stages as this does, can be tricky but this series has enough going for it to make it work.

If the individual programmes have a "bitty" feel to them, a resourceful teacher will tape it and use the pause and fast-forward buttons constructively.

For teachers who wish to delve into no more history than is covered in each programme, then this fast-paced series is enough to show the social and cultural roots of Scotland's national bard.

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