There is a break-the-ice game we play with young foreign visitors. We ask them to list 10 things that immediately spring to mind when they think of Britain; then we do the same for their country. Japan means overcrowding, cameras, a bullet train speeding past Mount Fuji. Germany means Mercedes cars, sausages, pool-side towels . . . You get the picture. Britain, rather sadly, evokes images of rainy weather, Princess Di, poor food and grumpy people.
Nations become stereotypes and it often takes a major news story to change the picture. South Africa equalled apartheid until Nelson Mandela; Russia meant Communism until the Iron Curtain was pulled open. And Brazil? Burgeoning population, rainforest devastation, coffee and football?
Brazil, however, as the new series of programmes, Brazil 2000, sets out to suggest, is changing. This change is gradual and largely unnoticed. There is no one major causal event that is going to hit the headlines, rather a succession of minor and subtle shifts in emphasis. The changes, although minor, appear to run deep. Throughout the programmes, and apparently throughout Brazil, optimism is the key.
Optimism, of course, is nothing new in geography teaching for schools. It would be hard to teach in any other way. But these programmes are refreshingly and strongly positive. They cover many topics: city life in Rio, contrasts in farming, work patterns in Sao Paulo and the use of resources as exemplified by the Carajas iron ore mine. Throughout, bad news is avoided. Life on the margins of Rio is described with no mention of begging, street children and prostitution; farming in the Amazon Basin looks at forest clearance with little reference to its well-documented ill-effects; and boom town mineral exploitation is portrayed in terms of economic benefit with few social costs to count.
These are facts about the programmes, not criticisms. Indeed, they may be seen as distinct advantages, the only way the popular image of Brazil can be altered. Viewers in the intended secondary school range are likely to be impressed and influenced. Everything about the production is polished and convincing, as has always been true with The Geography Programme.
In particular, the case studies appear real. These are believable individuals telling their stories; there is a fly-on-the-wall veracity about them that will probably stick in viewers' minds long after the aerial shots and broad introductions have been forgotten.
Enough has been said on these pages in the past about the perils of sponsorship in educational broadcasting and publishing, but it may be worth noting that Brazil 2000 is "developed in partnership with BP". BP is also involved with the production of the associated teacher's resource packs and photo packs that will supplement the programmes. Unfortunately, these will not be available until early 1997, which might encourage teachers to video now and watch later.
Interestingly, these programmes, with their distinctively new message about Brazil, appear at the same time as the pack Brazil in the school. This latter resource, published by the Brazilian Embassy in London, has been sent free to all secondary schools and paints a similar picture to Brazil 2000.
There is a bit of serious lobbying going on somewhere, and probably not before time. Brazil is changing . . . perhaps they might even stop winning the World Cup.