Daytime TV: Good works

Gary Day on improving tales of tearaway urchins, soaraway barnets and electromagnetic attraction

February 26, 2009

If you lived in late 18th-century Gloucester, you wouldn't get much of a lie-in on Sunday morning. Shrieking, breaking glass and the yelps of terrified pets would have put paid to any prolonged shut-eye. The perpetrators were ten-year-olds. Exploited all week in factories, they were out for revenge on Sunday.

But one man had had enough. His name was Robert Raikes, editor and proprietor of the Gloucester Journal. His solution to youthful high-spirits? The Sunday school. Raikes was not the first to organise Bible reading and the teaching of basic skills on the Sabbath, but his venture's success gave the movement a huge boost. By the mid-19th century, Sunday schools had spread to every major town and city.

Huw Edwards presented Sunday Schools: Reading, Writing and Redemption (BBC Four, Tuesday 8pm). It was an enthralling story. Learning to read and, in some cases, write changed the children's behaviour, though not that of their employers, who continued to push them up chimneys and force them to operate machinery that snacked on their limbs.

Events in France brought worries about Sunday school to the boil. Teach people to read and the next thing they'll want is a revolution. Some reformers in the 19th century thought Sunday schools held back the development of state education. But when it eventually arrived, Sunday schools continued to flourish at least until the mid-20th century when rock'n'roll dislodged the rock of ages.

Ann Widdecombe recalled a Sunday school outing to the seaside where she spent the afternoon riding on donkeys. When she ran out of money she scrabbled in the sand to see if someone had dropped a sixpence. She found a shilling. She was thrilled. That was two more rides, which made her late for the coach. The great thing about Sunday schools, she recalled, was that they instilled Christian values.

Huw himself was a revelation. So much more substantial than the collection of pastel shades that reads the news. Leafing through the literature of socialist Sunday schools he was surprised to find that it was not virulently anti-capitalist. Which goes to show, he mused, that "preconceptions are rather dangerous things".

Yes indeed. But how are they formed? That is the question. Huw sighed over the passing of Sunday schools. "One day we'll wake and realise what we've lost." Isn't that always the case?

Spotlight (BBC One, Tuesday 10.35pm) itemised the difficulties one in five children has in learning to read. Dean suffered from ADHD, which made him a bit of a handful. He threw shoes at mum Nicola from the top of the stairs. There was nothing wrong with his aim. She showed us her tattoo - Dennis the Menace reclining on a heart with "That's my boy", minus the apostrophe, inked above. "The system's a disgrace," said Nicola. Northern Ireland's Education Minister smiled reassuringly and said she was "determined" to do her job. No doubt that was a comfort to all concerned.

The Book Quiz (BBC Four, Monday 8.30pm) lasts for only half an hour. It needs to be twice that length. Then Kirsty Wark will have time to ask the contestants some questions instead of just managing to read through their CVs before the credits roll.

At 30 minutes, The Culture Show (BBC Two, Tuesday 10pm) is too long. Mark Kermode's hair continues to amaze. A heavy sculpture on top of his head. If it collapses, he will be crushed to death. Mark handed out Kermodes, little statues in the shape of himself, to scriptwriters, directors and actors that Hollywood had overlooked but he had not. It was all very postmodern.

The presenter, Lauren Laverne, showed Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, both soon to appear in Waiting for Godot, Beckett's original notebooks. They were surprisingly full for one who dealt in emptiness. Lauren, dressed as Estragon or perhaps Vladimir, asked, "Can Godot engage with the credit crunch?" Apparently, the play might prompt theatregoers to be more aware of the problem of homelessness. Yeah, right.

Brian Cox continues his quest to give us a modicum of scientific literacy (Horizon, BBC Two, Tuesday 9pm). Can we, he wondered, make a star on Earth? It would solve all our energy problems. But so far we have managed to produce only celebrities.

The problem is how to generate sufficient heat to overcome the electromagnetic force that keeps nuclei apart. At a sufficiently high temperature, they collide and one becomes a neutron. A positron and a neutrino appear, and they make an isotope of hydrogen called deuterium, which becomes helium-3 and then helium-4. I think. It sounds like EastEnders where the clash between Jane and Zainab sets off a chain reaction with other characters. But it can't be that complicated, surely?

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