LISA LOOKS BACK. Channel 4 Schools video (from last term's broadcast). Age range: 6-8
The French writer Charles Peguy said that history begins beyond "the wall of four" - le mur des quatre - which is formed by the grandparents and their generation: on the near side of that wall, the past survives as living memory. It is still living record, rather than history proper, that Lisa explores when she goes to spend the weekend with her mother's parents in this series of five programmes for six to eight-year olds.
The setting is Ulster and the period covered extends from the Second World War to the end of the Sixties. There is a realistic linking narrative: Lisa (delightfully played by Lauren Cheshire) goes to stay with her grandparents while her parents are away in Paris. Her grandfather is a hoarder, so the attic is full of artefacts from his past: gas masks, a washboard, old records, the toys that Lisa's mother used to play with when she was a child...
The programmes make good use of archive film, photographs and dramatisations, and there are resources such as the Ulster Transport Museum to draw on. Finally, Lisa has two magic possessions: a camera with buttons marked "now" and "then", which serves as a means to introduce children to flashback as a narrative device. Second, there's an animated pencil top in the shape of a banana which provides comic relief but otherwise seems to serve little useful purpose.
However present the past may be in the memory of the old, it is defined here chiefly by absence and lack: "when I was young, we didn't have..." is a recurrent theme. What we did have was quaint, inconvenient and probably coloured black or brown. Baths in front of the fire, black-and-white television, meat safes (before refrigerators), washboards, mangles, gas masks, steam trains and teachers with canes all feature in the old folk's reminiscences.
There were a few compensations, such as the games and other amusements that children had to devise in the absence of tele-visions and computers. "It was horrible," Grandad says, speaking particularly about the war. "Not everything in history is good, you know." That message is likely to stick, at any rate.
What will not come across from the series is much sense of evolution through what is, after all, a 30-year period: Lisa's mother and her parents seem to belong to an age in which everything was equally drab and old-fashioned, so that, by themselves, the films are not likely to achieve the objective of developing "chronological awareness" (one aim of the series). The pupils' book and teacher's guide do a lot to correct this. They contain exercises and activities that involve dating different items and identifying objects that were associated with different periods.
Occasionally they get it wrong: it seems unlikely, for example, that Lisa's mother, born in 1953, would have liked Hopalong Cassidy and chosen King Kong as her favourite film, and whatever teddy boys may have thought about themselves, their dress was not what is usually understood by "the height of fashion".
The ideal, of course, is to get pupils to do their own research. "Ask the children to talk to their parents and grandparents about their schooldays"; "interview someone who keeps a small grocery shop"; "visit a transport museum"; "collect some old toys": the teacher's guide sensibly concentrates on this approach. Through such investigation of living memories, the portion that still remains on this side of the "wall of four", one can start to acquire a sense of historical time.
Robin Buss The video costs pound;14.99; the teacher's guide pound;3.95 and the pupils' book pound;4.99. All are available from Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 436446