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Wisdom of experience

Tony Currie reports on how an Isle of Man school has turned a video project into a big name performance. School videos have become part of classroom life, with end-of-term concerts, fund-raising events, amateur prospectuses and field trips all being faithfully and often shakily recorded for posterity.

But some schools have taken this a stage further, equipping themselves with editing kits, lighting and expensive cameras. For those who want to offer in-demand media studies courses this is a necessity; and for other schools, video equipment is bought as an investment in a multimedia future, where video and computer technologies are combined.

One school that has been thinking big, while keeping the budget low, has been the Queen Elizabeth II High School on the Isle of Man, where the school video not only featured pupils, but comedian Norman Wisdom and actress Caroline Webster, from Casualty.

So Who's Listening Anyway, a half-hour play about bullying, was entirely written, researched, performed, shot and edited within the school, yet has all the gloss and polish of a professional television production.

The project was originally intended as a follow-up to a stage play and subsequent video on drug abuse, but the idea of another stage production was abandoned in favour of the small screen. With the experience from the first video effort, deputy head Julie Harmer decided that this would be entirely in-house, using the school's single Panasonic S-VHS camcorder, a basic edit-suite and vision mixer.

The young production team of 15 and 16-year-olds began by conducting a survey into bullying, finding that its effects were more widespread than had previously been thought. The teaching staff were also surprised to learn where pupils were being bullied, not in the playground or in the toilets, as they had expected, but in the classroom. From the results of the survey, it was decided to focus on the longer-term, verbal bullying inflicted by girls on one another. And when it came to casting the parts, it was decided that real-life bullies would not be rewarded by playing the star bully in the video. However, of those children wanting to appear as bullies, a majority had in fact been victims of bullying themselves.

Norman Wisdom, a Manx resident, took up an invitation to play the lollipop man in whom all the children are able to confide. Stephanie Davies, who played the victim, said, "He's just like you see him on television. He never stopped trying to make us giggle."

The second professional who helped was actress Caroline Webster, who directed the video as well as appearing on-screen. Her link with the production was that as a pupil she had been taught by Julie Harmer at a previous school, and in taking part in the video satisfyingly completed an educational cycle, returning the encouragement she had once received.

The presence of such experienced performers brought out the best in the children, believes Julie Harmer, who herself worked in the role of producer.

"The children worked very hard to bring themselves up to the same standard. Clearly the secret of success is to find someone like Caroline willing to work with your school. The Lions Club funded her expenses, but it was difficult fitting shooting around her and Norman's other paying commitments. In the end we had to shoot the whole thing in just six days."

Meanwhile, in just one evening, sixth formers Zoe Cannel and Kerry Stringer completed their commission to write a theme song with which to end the video. With a little outside help it was duly arranged and recorded.

Caroline and Julie then locked themselves in the school's tiny edit suite, and without the standard professional tool of timecoding scenes, managed to edit with nothing more than the instruction manuals, during their late-night edit sessions.

Spin-offs are numerous. Many who took part have developed new confidence and all found satisfaction in the teamwork. "That was the best bit," confirms sound recordist Gavin Kerruish, "the companionship. How close we got".

Another student, Nicola Cowley, says to other schools planning similar projects, "Don't jump straight in, do plenty of research. Understand your script. Work as a team and don't be selfish. If you don't know the answer, ask somebody."

Some of the participants hope to go on to build careers in the media. Gavin plans to take up drama and theatre studies, Nicola has discovered an unexpected affinity for the television camera, Zoe is contemplating a career in the music industry and Kerry says that "Now I find I watch television differently you're sitting watching for the continuity errors."

Offers of outside work are coming in. Next is a travelogue for the Manx Tourist Board, commissioned as a result of the impressive standards of the school's production. And with cable television on the horizon, the school is looking forward to setting up its own channel, complete with text and local magazine programmes.

The video is available through the Lions Club. For details contact Julie Harmer, Queen Elizabeth II High School, Douglas Road, Peel, Isle of Man

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