Television

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
AMERICAN VOICES: A History of America 1917-1941. BBC History File pound;7.50

One of the most imaginative creations of the New Deal was the Federal Writers' Project. Acting on the principle that "they've got to eat just like other people", Roosevelt's relief director Harry Hopkins set a team of writers the task of interviewing 10,000 Depression-stricken Americans.

Scholars consulting the typescripts in the Library of Congress can find countless stories that illuminate the times. Starry-eyed immigrants arrive from Europe with "bright hopes"; business men and women admit that they had been "living too high" in the 1920s; poor white Southern farmers struggle to feed 13 "chillun"; black sharecroppers complain that they "can't eat cotton"; unemployed New York vagrants despair when they "can't back up no more". Meanwhile, for New Deal administrators, "the whole thing was so exciting".

Pupils can now hear 24 of these "American voices" in five new programmes for the BBC's "History File'". Avoiding the technological gimmickry of time tunnels and computer buttons that marred some recent television for schools, this series looks at interwar America through extracts from interviews re-enacted in appropriate dimly lit settings and interspersed with archive film, hotographs and songs.

Although the actors lack the authenticity of real witnesses (such as those in the Imperial War Museum's new Holocaust Exhibition) they do justice to the men and women they impersonate. I felt that I was actually listening to the voice of Katharine Korona as she arrived from Poland in 1916 "naked in these so few American clothes", of storekeeper Mary O'Keefe letting her customers take goods on credit for as long as she could manage, and of Baptist pastor Walter Coachman remembering his "pappy" as a "good Christian negro" but "too meek".

Pupils from Year 9 upwards will gain much from this vivid oral history, which could profitably be used as the basis for coursework projects as imaginative as the FWP itself.

Linking the interviews is an intelligent commentary spoken in transatlantic tones designed perhaps to appeal to the American market. The series uses a broad brush, but it avoids the over-simplified picture painted in some educational broadcasts. The boom is not crudely contrasted with the bust; and Herbert Hoover is not portrayed as the villain vying with the heroic Roosevelt. This resource enables history to speak volumes in the classroom.

Vyvyen Brendon is head of history at St Mary's School, Cambridge


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