What can we learn in one minute fifty seven seconds?



One minute and fifty seven seconds – not much out of a busy day, and certainly very little time to do justice to the experiences of a seven year old child.

I can remember a couple of occasions in my life when I thrilled to the experience of being on the sea in a relatively small boat. One of these trips, out of Brixham harbour in Devon, on flat calm waters was to catch blue and silver mackerel, which made a fine supper during a brief family holiday. Many years later, as an adult, a far more exciting journey was experienced from the Isle of May in the Scottish Firth of Forth returning to the mainland following a week living on that quiet and desolate nature reserve. On this particular journey huge waves crashed across the boat as it pitched and rolled through the white crested peaks and troughs of a savage sea. However, as the skipper of the vessel manoeuvred a familiar pathway with apparent nonchalance back to the safety of the tiny port of Anstruther, where we knew warmth and shelter awaited, I was neither fearful for my safety and that of my family, nor apprehensive of what lay ahead.

How different then were my experiences from those of seven year old Malak who features in the first of a series of “unfairy tales” recently launched by UNICEF. These short animations combine the power of art and music to convey a simple but harrowing message about the plight of children fleeing Syria in search of a safe haven where they will not be shot at, bombed, or forced from their homes. Sadly, this is a story with which we are all now so familiar. So, will a simple animated film make any difference?

This was a question I asked myself this morning having watched “Malak and the Boat”, and I am still unsure that I have an answer. The title “Unfairy Tale” applied to these short animations is a subtle play on words. As children many of us are brought up with fairy tales; fables that often become ingrained within our national and cultural identities. Those of the brothers Grimm, or Hans-Christian Anderson, or Perrault have become classics of literature, much loved stories with which we became familiar in our early years. The play on words in the title of these brief animations, with an emphasis upon how “unfair” life can be for so many children and their families is an apt juxtaposition for a series of short films that convey a desperate message. (As a matter of fact, many traditional fairy stories have sinister undertones which have in some instances terrified rather than entertained the children to whom they were read.)

UNICEF’s “unfairy tales” are beautifully made and compelling. They are also short enough to hold the attention of even those who live busy lives and claim to have little time to think. But I am still unsure whether they are likely to have the impact that their producers intend. I find myself asking, who will see these films? They came easily to my attention because I am well connected to media outlets and newsfeeds that consider children’s rights, but I am unaware of them having been placed in a position of prominence beyond these. Are UNICEF therefore releasing these films only in the direction of those individuals and organisations that have already demonstrated concern? If this is the case, can they possibly hope to have an impact?

Whilst conveying the brutality that is a part of the daily lives of so many children and expressing a message that we all need to hear, I wonder if these carefully crafted works of art can possibly change the attitudes and approaches of governments, organisations or individuals who for so long now have been confronted with the horrifying images of children in distress washed up, and not always alive, on the beaches of Europe? Many of these destitute children appear to have simply become a daily feature of our television news programmes and have often been relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers. Can the efforts of UNICEF in producing these films possibly have any effect?

We have already seen that attitudes towards the ever growing population of refugees fleeing war torn countries have been conveyed in words of sympathy, empathy, and sorrow, but of late these emotions have been more frequently transposed by fear, hatred and resentment. But as the images of suffering have become a nightly feature of our television screens I would suggest that the most common reaction has now become one of indifference. Will yet one more bold and impassioned approach to gaining understanding, such as this from UNICEF change any of this?

These are the imponderables that I found myself addressing this morning as I began my comfortable journey to work. I have no answer, and indeed I suspect there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, we must applaud those who are making bold efforts to keep the plight of desperate refugees to the forefront of our minds. The UNICEF films may, or may not make a difference, but at least as an organisation they are taking affirmative action, both through this media and their actions on the ground, to support those who are suffering as a result of the carnage inflicted upon Syria.

I post “Malak and the Boat” here for you to see for yourself. It will take a whole one minute and fifty seven seconds from your busy schedule today to watch this film, and even longer if you then decide to send it to a friend. Perhaps after watching you can help me to find answers to some of the troubling questions I have asked above. If so, I would like to hear what these are.

Click on the image below to watch “Malak and the Boat”


It may not be a classic but…

A film that clearly has a devoted following

A film that clearly has a devoted following


I have been a daily reader of The Guardian Newspaper for at least the past thirty years, and have become familiar with many of its excellent feature writers and journalists. The Guardian covers topical news items in depth and often with a critical perspective, but sometimes an article attracts my attention more for the quirky nature of the story than the seriousness of the content. It was one such feature that held my interest this weekend.

Under the heading “Bollywood Romance that Keeps on Giving” Sharin Bhatti from Mumbai reported how, having been shown every day since its release in 1995, the management of a cinema in that city had decided to take the film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, (roughly translated as “The Brave-Hearted Will Take Away the Bride”) described as a Bollywood Classic, off its schedule. The film, starring the actors Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan apparently tells the story of an Indian couple who fall in love whilst on holiday in European, and recounts how the boy tries to convince the girl’s parents that she should marry him rather than the boy that her father has chosen for her. (I haven’t seen the film personally so can’t tell you more than this). The film is the longest running in the history of Indian cinema.

Almost immediately after removing the film from its schedule the cinema management found themselves with mass protests on their hands. The manager Mr Manoj Desai described how he was overwhelmed by the public outcry and felt that he had no option but to reinstate the film. The record is therefore likely to be extended well into the future.

The choice made by The Guardian to publish this article, may result from a lack of other more serious stories, though I like to think that news of this nature, is designed to raise a smile by reporting one of the more amusing incidents that whilst seemingly trivial in nature, clearly does matter to some people. My own decision to reflect on this article is influenced by a similar situation encountered whilst cycling through the magnificent countryside of Ireland a few years ago.

After several rather wet days in the saddle, pedaling through the rugged and weather beaten landscape of County Mayo and Connamara between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, on the west coast, we arrived in a little town called Cong. Here we pitched our tent in the lee of a wall to gain some shelter from the impending storm. Having settled our place and secured our bicycles Sara and I made our way to the campsite office and were provided with the usual warm Irish welcome and furnished with information about the locality.

Cong, we were informed was famous for having been the location of a Hollywood movie, which has “put the area on the map.” The film described, directed by John Houston and called “The Quiet Man” starred the screen idol John Wayne, and Maureen O’Hara and was made in 1952. So proud of this film are the people of Cong, that throughout the summer season it is screened free of charge every evening in a small cinema located on the campsite.

The predicted storm arrived, and so it was that the evening saw us making our way to the cinema to watch this Technicolor epic. And so began one of the most bizarre evenings I can recall. Having settled down into our seats we observed that the audience comprised other members of the campsite community, alongside local people for whom this was a regular, and in some instances, nightly venture.

Throughout the film a lady sat next to us knitting a sweater, when the film was finished she informed us that she came to the cinema every evening, every summer. Two other ladies who sat near us, without a doubt had a similar record of attendance, as they knew every line of the film and managed to recite them from the opening until the final credits! Elsewhere, members of the audience unpacked sandwiches or opened picnic baskets and proceeded to share in their evening repast. In all honesty, the film is far from a masterpiece, telling the tale of a misogynistic Irish-born American from Pittsburgh, who travels to Ireland to reclaim his family farm and meets and falls in love with the fiery Mary Kate Danaher played by Maureen O’Hara. However, watching the audience served very well to keep us entertained and also provided welcome shelter from the lashing rain.

Since that visit to Cong, which has much more of interest than The Quiet Man to offer the visitor, we have often laughed as we have recalled that evening in the campsite cinema. Never before have we experienced an evening at a film that has done so much to bring a community together. This was a cinema going experience like no other. The film seemed almost peripheral to the social experience.

This weekend’s Guardian report of the emotions stirred by a Bollywood film gave me cause to recall that enjoyable visit to a beautiful town in Ireland. I would happily return and repeat the experience tomorrow.

A film that provides a social event for locals and visitors to Cong in the summer.

A film that provides a social event for locals and visitors to Cong in the summer.

A Bravura Performance

The actor Eddoe Redmayne with the great mathematician Stephen Hawking who he so eloquently portrays on film.

The actor Eddie Redmayne with the great mathematician Stephen Hawking who he so eloquently portrays on film.

I sometimes think that I don’t go the cinema as often as I should. I have to admit that part of this is a rather personal curmudgeonly streak, which finds the perpetual rustling of sweet wrappers, and the sickly smell of popcorn rather irritating in most cinema environments. As a regular theatre goer, I have been somewhat spoiled by audiences that tend to be respectful and appreciative of the performers on stage, and possibly more aware of their fellow audience members. The current popularity of film in this country is an indication that I am probably alone in my exasperation, and I suspect that if I want to see the latest offerings on the silver screen, I will simply have to subdue my irritation and go along with the modern cinema experience.

On Saturday evening Sara and I visited our local cinema to see a quite remarkable performance by the actor Eddie Redmayne as he depicted the life of Professor Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. Playing opposite the actress Felicity Jones who was also impressive in the role of Hawking’s first wife Jane, Eddie Redmayne played the role of the eminent mathematician and scientist through his Cambridge University days, and his subsequent achievements, as he developed his theories around time and assumed his role as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Both the acting and the cinematography were a real tour de force.

Understandably, the film was little concerned with the complex theories and mathematical principles that have  characterised Professor Hawking’s work, but dealt in large with his physical deterioration as a result of motor neurone disease, and the impact that this had upon his family life and relationships. At times I found the film almost too painful to watch, as for example in a scene where Hawking tries desperately to scale a set of stairs, a task that clearly demands all of his physical strength and mental determination. But in general, the film is, in that rather clichéd expression, “life affirming” in telling the tale of a remarkable and determined man who overcomes enormous challenges to achieve great things.

As is inevitably the case after watching such a powerful and moving piece of art, it takes some time to fully reflect on what has been seen. However, a number of details from the film reminded me of many of the initiatives that I witness on a regular basis from teachers in schools. The very physical nature of the acting of Eddie Redmayne and his immense skill in representing a man whose body changes significantly over the course of time was hugely impressive. But equally informative and represented in a subtle and unobtrusive manner in the film was the response of Felicity Jones in the role of his wife. The adjustments that she made to her attention and care of her husband, reminded me of the actions of so many teachers and parents with whom I have worked over the years. The commitment to an individual who is so highly dependent, and the selfless changes in life style made by a caring adult, designed to provide maximum support, was brilliantly depicted in this film, and true to so many situations that I have seen in other families.

Equally moving was the respect which was shown to Stephen Hawking by those closest to him, including his academic  colleagues. These people who know him well can see beyond his disability in order to appreciate his unique individuality, irreverent sense of humour and outstanding intellect. This contrasts strongly in the film with the attitudes of some members of the audience at a concert in Bordeaux attended by Hawking, who show their apparent  distaste for his presence in the theatre. Their reactions, based solely upon ignorance and prejudice showed why many disabled people still find themselves uncomfortable in such a public forum.

A further potential point of interest to teachers watching this film, relates to the efforts made to enable Stephen Hawking to communicate after he loses his voice. The empathetic approach adopted by a speech therapist, played by Maxine Peake, who initially introduces a simple communication board to her charge, will be familiar to many teachers. The eventual provision of a voice synthesiser shows the liberating effect of matching appropriate resources to the learner. This interface between the professionalism of the teacher, the respect for the individuality of the learner and the determination of that individual to overcome his own learning difficulties, gives an excellent portrayal of the power of a considered approach to teaching.

I am sure that this film will encourage many who see it to reflect not only upon the devastating impact of a progressive disability, but also upon the importance of maintaining high expectations of individuals in this situation. I hope that it may also encourage more people to see how important it is to enable learners, who happen to have a disability, to take some control of their own lives whilst being offered support on their terms.

Viewing this film was a wholly positive experience, so much so that I can even forgive the woman behind me who must have unwrapped a kilo of sweets during its showing!



Marmalade sandwiches, mayhem and revolution – all in one bear!

Mischievous, amusing and often prepared to challenge conventional thinking. Paddington Bear is a hero to many children.

Mischievous, amusing and often prepared to challenge conventional thinking. Paddington Bear is a hero to many children.

The period leading up to Christmas in the UK has a built-in, comfortable predictability, which I’m sure ultimately contributes greatly to the cosiness of the festive season. Houses and streets are illuminated by flashing lights of variable quality and taste, Christmas markets become a feature of almost every town, carol services provide one of the few occasions when church pews can expect to be full, and the tinny music that characterises shops throughout the year gives way to equally discordant renditions of kitsch Yuletide pop songs.

Similarly predicable, and anticipated with equal amounts of enthusiasm or indifference, is the inevitable Christmas blockbuster film, released just in time to attract an audience of children and families as they get into the mood for the coming celebrations. Sometimes these films prove to be a great success and well beloved of the public, in which case they will become an annual feature on our Christmas television screens. Others appear as a damp squib and disappear, forgotten to all but a few cinematic diehards, never to be seen again.

This year there is considerable ground for optimism that the major end of year release, a film based upon the adventures of Paddington Bear, a long established hero for many children and not a few adults, will be a great hit with audiences. Reviews of the film have been wholly favourable, and the few people I know who have seen, it state categorically that it is a joy for children from the ages of five to ninety, (why it is unsuitable for ninety five year olds I don’t quite understand). The film Paddington appears to have achieved that elusive quality, shared with others such as Mary Poppins, of being able to attract both adults and children alike to enjoy a shared cinema experience.

Michael Bond, the eighty eight year old creator of Paddington Bear recalls how

 “I bought a small toy bear on Christmas Eve 1956. I saw it left on a shelf in a London store and felt sorry for it. I took it home as a present for my wife Brenda and named it Paddington as we were living near Paddington Station at the time. I wrote some stories about the bear, more for fun than with the idea of having them published. After ten days I found that I had a book on my hands. It wasn’t written specifically for children, but I think I put into it the kind things I liked reading about when I was young.”

“A Bear Called Paddington” the first book was published in 1958 and has been followed by many others. The bear, attired in duffle coat and hat became an immediate favourite with children and continues to educate and entertain through his extraordinary mishaps in everyday situations. I have always found the character appealing, as he often rails against bureaucracy and petty regulations, challenges convention and cant, and has a strong sense of justice. When reading the books to children I have at times felt that I could hear the author’s somewhat non-conformist voice coming through the text.

This morning on BBC Radio 4 Michael Bond was interviewed about his books and the film, and made a number of interesting observations about how childhood has changed since he first started writing the Paddington books more than fifty years ago. In particular he reflected on the fact that children are expected to grow up much more quickly than they used to, and that they lose their innocence at an early age.

Clearly we cannot turn back the clock. Notions that there was ever a “golden age” of childhood are probably unfounded and change is inevitable. But there was something particularly sad in the tone of voice with which this respected writer suggested that the pressures on today’s children are greater than in the past.

It is indeed sad that the time to play and explore, that was a formative feature of many of our earlier years, is now undervalued by many who make and implement educational and social policy. Although the pressures are not as great here in the UK as in some other countries, the rush to formalise learning and leave the adventures of play behind is increasingly apparent.

Thank goodness for the joyous spirit that can still be instilled in children by writers such as Michael Bond. I do hope that for many years to come, Paddington Bear will be thriving on his favoured diet of marmalade sandwiches and debunking the pomposity at which he has laughed for the past fifty and more years.

Michael Bond wrote a new short story of Paddington Bear to celebrate his new venture into film. To hear the actor Jim Broadbent, who plays a major role in the film, read the story, click on the link below.