Can TV fiction get in the way of hard facts?

Published date: 15 January 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


THE MOMENT when the teacher wheeled out a TV and video was always a magical one.

I attended Bryn Coch School and the Alun School in Mold, both of which, from time to time, used a mixture of film, fiction and documentary to teach various subjects.

I have fond memories of watching Yes Minister during my politics A-level sessions and the show, once all the jokes, storyline and silliness was pared away, gave me an insight into what it was that civil servants actually did.

With the centenary of World War One this year, stories from the trenches will undoubtedly be heard in schools across the UK.

However, Education Secretary Michael Gove has triggered arow by accusing shows like World War One comedy Blackadder Goes Forth of creating “myths”.

He said: “Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”

He claimed that the “fictional prism” of dramas like Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder depicted the war as “a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”.

Teaching guidelines in Wrexham and Flintshire are set by the Welsh Government but Mr Gove’s comments do provoke an interesting question: Does fiction have any place in the classroom?

Dr Tim Erasmus, deputy headteacher and former head of humanities at Mold Alun School, was the one who introduced me to Yes Minister.

He said: “From one perspective, I can see where Michael Gove is coming from.

Blackadder is a satire. It very much presents the idea of lions led by donkeys. It’s a very particular way of looking at the Great War.

So why use it in a history lesson?

Dr Erasmus said: “We would utilise satire to illustrate differing viewpoints. I think that’s okay as long as people are aware that what it depicts isn’t an absolute truth.

“It’s a relatively biased view. It’s not the job of a teacher to present their own historical position.

“It’s all down to how it’s presented and it has to be done so with care. It has a place alongside text books, contemporary sources, photographs, academic essays and other evidence.”

Yes Minister focuses on MP (later PM) Jim Hacker and civil servant (and later Sir) Humphrey Appleby.

Hacker attempts to implement policy changes and Appleby does his best to stop him.

It is a sitcom based on machinations, underhand politics and manipulation.

Dr Erasmus said: “It gives you an impression of the civil service and its relationship with our elected representatives, the power relationship between the permanent secretary and the minister.

“It too is a satire and puts across a satirical, cynical reflection of the situation. The diaries of Tony Benn, and Barbara Castle’s diary,  don’t necessarily agree with that view. They say they worked very well with the civil service and had very good relationships.

“I showed Yes Minister because it showed something abstract that academic papers couldn’t. But there’s a real danger to using fiction. I wouldn’t want my students to go away thinking: ‘Yes, that’s how it always is’.”

There is a long history of fiction being used to make the humanities more human.

Dr Erasmus said: “Think about the industrial revolution and the references made to Dickens. He coloured our perceptions of it.

“Youngsters are introduced to World War Two through books like Carrie’s War (which tells the story of a brother and sister evacuated to Wales). I think it’s fine as long as it’s done with sufficient care.”

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