Winning ways with words
LRTV: A LOOK AND READ SPECIAL. Age group: 7-12.BBC2, Mondays, 10.40am. Repeated Fridays, 10.25am. "LRTV - The Writer's Kit", Pounds 10.99. Teachers' notes, Pounds 2.00. BBC Education, BBC White City, 201 Wood Lane, London W12 7TS. Software for Archimedes, Pounds 25.50. Longman Logotron, 124 Cambridge Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 4ZS
LRTV opened with the mixture we've come to expect on day-time television: garish sets, gruesome quiz shows, fatuous interviews and couch-bound presenters with ego all over their faces.
Although LRTV is only a send-up, there are moments when you would almost believe you were watching the real thing apart from the fact that Cliff Hanger, Lloyd Stickler ("The Big Brain Tickler") and the rest of the "personalities" are all played by school children.
LRTV, which owes something to Drop the Dead Donkey and Press Gang, as well as Bugsy Malone and the Beano, might sound like fun, but not like the obvious format for an educational programme. In fact, it succeeds admirably in being just that, offering 7 to 12-year-olds plenty of valuable help with English.
It is, for instance, an excellent launching pad for a course on media education. They might be silly, but the off-camera antics highlight that for every unflappable presenter, there is a clutch of back room boys and girls being thoroughly flapped. They'll realise, too, that except for the mistakes that find their way onto It'll be Alright on the Night, nothing gets onto the screen by accident. Everything they watch is the result of other people's decisions.
They'll also learn that most television, for all its bonhomie and seeming spontaneity, has been carefully scripted. To emphasise the fact, the episodes revolve around the trials and tribulations of young Nas, the new boy in the station's script unit who finds he's got lots to learn if he's to keep those autocues filled and the presenters from drying up.
He discovers the mayhem that can ensue if he doesn't plan, make notes, redraft and do all those other worthy tasks that English teachers rave about and children find such a drag. But if children can see how such activities are relevant in preparing a television show, they'll also recognise that they are important in their own writing. For instance, young Emily's interview (with a cow, as it happens) goes hopelessly wrong because she hadn't pre-planned her questions. The point won't be lost on classes, even if they are laughing.
There are alarming gaps in Nas's education. He doesn't even know about parts of speech, so the rest of the team have to come to his aid. In the episode to be broadcast on May 15, he has to learn about adjectives so he can describe the sets in his proposed new soap. By a strange coincidence, adjectives crop up in that week's quiz show, and play a vital part in Cliff Hanger's description of a wanted man. Repetition of this kind won't guarantee that children will get the idea, but it can certainly help.
Nas learns the importance of punctuation: without full stops, a news story becomes gobbledygook; without question marks, the quiz master is stymied; wrongly placed exclamation marks can make a tender declaration of love sound like the final throes of a nervous breakdown. Nas's attempts to get things right are thwarted by Vin and Virn, a pair of mischievous viruses that lurk inside his computer carrying out acts of arbitrary sabotage on his text.
Seven-year-olds might think that this stretches credulity a little too far. But those of us who try to earn a bob from writing, know for a fact that there are dozens of the blighters lurking in computers.
The laughs in LRTV are rarely added extras, but are usually integral to the educational point being made. For instance, one quick sketch features a couple of convicts who have been put behind bars for trying to save ink by economising on full stops so "they ended up with a very long sentence". Boom, boom!
If viewers don't like that joke, they needn't worry: in this fast and furious show, you never have to wait long for the next. And for teachers who think that it's going to take more than a few belly-laughs to bang home the basics, there is a comprehensive range of support material.
The teacher's notes are brimming with bright ideas for exploring the topics touched upon in the programmes. There is a very colourful LRTV The Writer's Kit that contains 24 photocopiable worksheets, eight resource cards and a couple of posters.
Longman Logotron has produced software that features the dreaded Vin and Virm. It contains over 40 exercises that give pupils a chance to experience for themselves some of the headaches that face Nas.
There should be enough here to fill many a long English lesson and to tempt pupils into launching their own television station.
You could end up with a classroom packed with Annes, Nicks, Kilroys and Mr Motivators. You have been warned.