Star Turn

January 7, 2000

How do you make Colonel Blimp's contribution to the war relevant to an audience of school-leavers from Bradford? Alison Utley discovers an academic who does the trick.

Our setting is unusual, certainly, but it is highly pertinent. Thanks to many millions of pounds of lottery cash, the seats in the small Cubby Broccoli cinema are far more comfortable than your run-of-the-mill lecture theatre, almost too comfortable as the neon blue lights start to dim.

Once the eyes get used to the gloom, it is possible to make out faces among the packed audience. A jumble of predominantly young, expectant and eager faces.

As Karen Thornton enters, you could be forgiven for thinking she was one of them. A student, that is. In fact, Ms Thornton is education officer at the Bradford Museum of Photography, Film and Television. As such, she spends half her working week teaching on Bradford University's BSc electronic imaging and media communications degree. The Cubby Broccoli is her second home.

Her students, she says, are almost all straight from school, having a mix of humanities and science A levels. "I have been here nearly three years and so I have just seen the third-year cohort go through, and what a change!" she says. "You don't realise until you see it at first-hand how much they grow as people during their studies. They are so naive to begin with."

That has its drawbacks, however. "I never know what to expect when I step out there," she says. "I don't know if I'm going to get shouted down. Or worse still, be met with complete silence. That really is the worst."

The course, introduction to media analysis, examines media forms and structures and relies on interactive, student-led presentations to supplement the lectures.

"We want their analytical skills to develop to such an extent that they inform their own creative projects," says Ms Thornton.

Today's topic is British cinema during the second world war. "We use film quite a lot in the curriculum. In fact, the museum is now a department of the university," Ms Thornton says.

"Being able to come in here and watch films as well as talk about them, it really brings the experience to life for the students."

After about ten minutes of talking, Ms Thornton offers her audience the chance to speak. "OK, you've listened to me for long enough, what do you perceive as representative of British national identity during the war?" she asks. There is a hushed murmuring around the room. Not the dreaded silence? For a moment she looks worried.

"Patriotism," offers someone. "Hopefulness." "Stoicism." It does not take long for a discussion to start, and we move on to hear how the government used a secret weapon - humour - to help prevent the nation slipping into grief. To drive the point home, we watch some clips from Goodbye Mr Chips and learn how the film industry flourished as the ministry of communications realised its huge potential for propaganda. Indeed, the morale of the nation depended on it.

But we must not forget the role of the official ideas committee that was so influential in shaping and indeed censoring the films that were made during the war period. Colonel Blimp reminds us of the ones that slipped through the net, perhaps. And then we take a quick look at Britain Can Take It, a documentary film by United States war correspondent Quentin Reynolds. Powerful stuff.

"The students don't want a potted history," Ms Thornton says. "They can get that elsewhere. These are practical young people interested in using new technologies, so we really have to justify this kind of learning to them. They don't realise until much later how vital it really is."

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