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Viva Victoriana;Curriculum Materials

Raymond Ross joins a party of primary children as they find a treasure trove of 19th-century films

I remember once a television interviewer saying to the late Enoch Powell, "The way you speak, Mr Powell, you'd think we still lived in the 19th century." To which the maverick right-winger replied, "But we do, we do."

And there was, when you think of it, a great deal of truth in Powell's observation. Industrialisation, the division of labour, the rise of modern nationalism all have their roots in the 19th century, as do many of our political, social and even religious institutions. And the same is true of science and technology. Victorian studies undoubtedly help us understand our own century.

This is perhaps why Victorian projects have long been popular in primary schools, a popularity which eminently pre-dates Mrs Thatcher's putative "Victorian values".

Now, Glasgow Film Theatre provides an unusual way to expand such projects through the use of film - a Victorian invention. In a series of workshops for upper primary classes, initiated in June and to be repeated in February, 1999. GFT's education officer Vanessa Paynton guides the pupils through topics covering science, transport and children in Victorian Britain.

The workshop on science which I attended at the GFT with Primary 6 pupils from Notre Dame in Glasgow proved to be a hands-on experience with children realising the invention and development of cinematography through using "flick books", zoetropes, photographs and film, finishing with the opportunity to design their own poster for the first ever screening of "moving pictures" in Glasgow.

The workshop was based around the screening of short films from the late 1890s, including Dr MacIntyre's film of 1897, the first to show moving X-ray pictures of the human body. As Paynton pointed out, many of these films displayed the Victorians' fascination with transport with titles like Horse Drawn Traffic, Tram Goes Through Southampton and Through Miller's Dale, which captured the view from the front of a steam train in 1898.

For children brought up on a diet of Disney, Spielberg, Babe and Mr Bean, you might expect them to demonstrate little more than boredom when faced with an array of black and white shorts. But, truth to tell, they were captivated and anxious to make points about speed, transport, clothing, safety and clean air.

When an early example of "film trickery" was pointed out, it was apparent the pupils could appreciate the early sophistication of the film sequence.

"It's a way of showing how it was an age of incredible and fascinating progress with so many different types of invention," says Paynton. "The Victorians were obsessed with governing the natural world and controlling it.

"Film enlivens teaching about the Victorians, because it provides accessible primary material. I'm asking the films to speak for themselves and I'm also using them as a starting point for discussion as well as analysing them as primary sources," she says.

The workshops are cross-curricular, as the films and extension work relate to history, science, technology, writing and art.

"These workshops are not designed as an end-of-term treat. Glasgow Film Theatre education is about events which are interactive and instructive," says Paynton. "And they are curriculum-based."

The popularity of such workshops is proved when you consider that in 1997-98 around 6,000 pupils and media studies students took part in GFT organised events including outreach work which takes Paynton into schools around Glasgow and central Scotland.

The GFT Victorians project combines material about life and work in Victorian Britain, while showing how film was invented, how it works and how it was developed - including examples of colour film such as The Butterfly's Metamorphosis, where each image was painstakingly hand-painted.

That was made in 1903, two years after the death of Victoria (or Mrs Brown as she is now captured on celluloid). But, had she lived to see it, there's no doubt she would have been as amused as the P6 pupils of Notre Dame.

* Further details on The Victorians and other GFT education projects from Vanessa Paynton, Education Officer, Glasgow Film Theatre, 12 Rose Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 332 6535

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