Sunday, 19 August 2012

Secs, Lies and Videotapes

Secs, Lies and Videotapes

I see myself as a normal teacher, but sometimes, and that is only sometimes, I think I can help to improve society a teeny, tiny bit. Tirelessly for the last few years, I have been working to improve the cinema experience for all citizens of our fine nation. But what does he mean? Well, we have all been there.  You are watching a very dramatic moment in a film and a voice rips apart the dramatic tension like a cheese grater on cheese. Or, you are trying to follow the convoluted plot of a story and the person behind you starts eating nachos and crunches their way through the whole scene, unaware that a major plot development has been revealed and that the ending will not make sense to a viewer without this golden nugget of information. Therefore, I see it as my way to improve society, by modelling how to behave, and how not to behave, in all kinds of public entertainment venues.

I am, of course, referring to the watching of the humble video in lessons. (For those that are fussy – I mean video in the loosest sense. I include DVD, Betamax, cassette tape, YouTube clips or any other medium of storage for audio / visual material). In the past I have had several people say to me: ‘Watching another video in English today?’. They say this dripping with envy and mistrust. It is true: English does involve watching some videos. However, the experience of watching a video is never simple and easy. Hopefully, what follows will give you some food for thought, or some new ideas.


‘Adopt cinema positions’ is a common phrase in my lessons. It is then followed by a hive of activity as students move chairs, blinds are closed and the lights are switched off.  Then, I say my ‘video mantra’, which involves the follow questions:

Teacher: What are the rules of watching a film in lesson?

Class: Don’t talk and face the telly.

Teacher: Why do we have to do this?

Class: Because Sir doesn’t want to visit a cinema with us in it if we talk.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, they respond. It is obvious, but it sets the tone. The video is the thing to capture their interest. I love films and television and I think in the modern age students are becoming less and less engrossed in a story. It is quite common for most of them to sit watching TV at home with a Facebook on a laptop, while texting a message to a friend and chatting to someone else in the room. I do it at home with Twitter and TV. Therefore, I think it is my duty to help them become engrossed in a story. Take away the distractions.

I think the way we watch things has changed dramatically over the last decade. I think ‘X-Factor’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ have made it acceptable for us to critique programmes as we watch them. Listening to some classes watch a DVD is like having the director’s commentary switched on. They will criticise the special effects, acting, costumes, lighting, music, staging and anything else they see fails below their high standards. Everyone is a critic nowadays. Only one or two people can make an insightful comment like Gary Barlow or Simon Cowell. Sadly, most classes resemble a class full of Louis Walsh – they prefer Wagner over something good. Or even worse – they behave like Mel B and make a negative comment about everything, just to provoke a reaction from people or the teacher.  I think setting the rules for the experience is important. And, if they don’t stop criticising and talking, switch the film off. It is amazing how they quickly modify their behaviour and make themselves the perfect film viewer, when they know the alternative is work.  

Oh, and always have something to do if it fails. Technology likes to make our lives unpredictable.


Make sure you have set the video up beforehand. I once spent a good ten minutes searching for a place on DVD, whilst the class got increasingly restless and agitated. Sadly, the DVD was one of those free DVDs from a Sunday newspaper, which unfortunately didn’t have any chapters or scenes, so I had to fast forward the whole film to find the one bit in ‘Great Expectations’. I turned ‘Great Expectations’ into such a ‘Bitter Disappointment’. Two minutes preparation beforehand saves you minutes of agonising dead time in a lesson. 

Also, make a note of where you have got to on a DVD or video. Don’t leave it up to the students. Certainly use it as a way to recall the plot or events of the video, but have a note. A class full of students can, and will, generate thirty different answers at times. I tend to put a post-it note in the DVD case and just write down the timings. 


Most students are keen to brag that they have seen SAW 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, and that their parents let them. I am very cautious when showing films and the age rating is paramount. If it says 15, I will not let them watch it if they are below that age. You could get their parents’ permission and I think with watching films it is better to be safe than sorry. An overly cautious teacher is much better than an irate parent.

Watch the film beforehand. I know it sound obvious, but it is easy to do. No time the night before? Well, it says it is a 12, so it will be fine. I did that with a documentary once and the f-word was mentioned a few times and caused a few problems and a red-faced teacher.  Furthermore, I run the ‘Film Club’ at school and you’ll be surprised at the amount of swearing or sexual content in a 12 certificate film. You don’t have to censor things, but have a little conversation at the start of the film that stops the class overreacting. Telling them that there is some swearing or nudity stops it becoming a big deal.   


All adaptations of novels are lies. Harsh, I know, but it is true. No matter what film you are watching it is never the same as the original text. It is a director’s viewpoint or the screenwriter’s viewpoint. It isn’t a true representation of the real thing. It helps students to build a picture of the world that the characters inhabit and it might be close to the original story, but it will not replace the original thing – the novel or the play. I think having this concept in your mind is helpful when using an adaptation in lessons.

Two interesting questions relating to this ‘lie’ idea are:

What differences are there between the novel and book?  

Why are there differences between the two?    

The most recent film version of ‘Of Mice and Men’ opens with George on his own in a train after the events of the novel. As we all know Steinbeck’s novel opens with the lovely description of the Salinas River and the local setting. Why should the director lie to us in this way? The cad! Getting students to think about this difference is important to understanding how and why Steinbeck structured the novel’s opening in the way he did.  The director clearly did this foreshadowing at the start of the film to show us George’s pain. It shows us how the events of the story traumatise him and it creates an image of him being lonely and without a companion or friend. Plus, he is travelling alone and sits in the shadows. Added together, these aspects make us see the story in a new light. The novel’s original opening shows us a peaceful setting disturbed by the arrival of George and Lennie, which symbolises how these two characters bring trouble with them. Why should the director show us a different opening to the story? To add more drama? To focus on the characters rather than the setting? To raise questions about the fate of the characters? This all, however, raises questions about the choices made by a writer and a director, and helps students to see meaning behind the choices made.

I am preparing for teaching ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and I am struggling as there seems to be no film version that is remotely close to the original novella. Each director has tried to control the story and I think that is the problem with the story: it has an undefinable story or style or genre. It is like its main character. A mixture of different things. Most directors have added female characters to add depth to the story, which is a very masculine story of a world dominated by men.  Some directors have shown the story as a linear narrative and the audience follow Doctor Jekyll’s decent into Mr Hyde as a simple journey. These choices make me more aware of the choices Stevenson made with his novella. However, it doesn’t help me with my class. It looks like I will be using a creaky BBC adaptation and focusing on the differences. 

Some students find it difficult to separate the ‘lie’ from the ‘truth’ when talking about texts. It is common for students to refer mainly to a film version of a story rather than the original text.  Guns tend to be replace swords in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for many essays, for example. Why do they do this? Visual memory is possibly easier to recall. I think it is my job to make the differences between the ‘lie’ and the ‘truth’ explicit. I should be exploring the differences and discussing why those changes have been made. A possible activity with a Shakespeare text could be to decide on how the story could be modernised. What would you have to change to make it relevant for a modern audience? What time period? Where would it be located? The recent RSC version of ‘Julius Caesar’ is a great example of a modern interpretation of the play with its setting of the story in a politically dangerous climate in an African country.

Sometimes, adaptations are too good. Baz Luhrmann’s version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is so good that students’ memory of the story is clouded too much by this version. That is why I prefer to show a mixture of versions, rather than one version alone. This isn’t helped by a lack of versions available for some stories. However, I quite like the BBC versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Not the recent the ‘Hollow Crown’ season, but the series from the late 70s and early 80s. Why? Well, they are devoid of realism in places. You can see painted backdrops, wobbly sets and there is some awkward direction, but they are clearly a play. They look and feel like a play. Look at any film of a Shakespeare play from the last ten years and you can clearly see they are a film and not a play. Films are often glossy, smooth, musical and realistic, whereas a play isn’t always realistic, smooth or glossy.  Furthermore, I prefer the black and white versions of Charles Dickens’ stories for a similar reason; they make the stories less realistic and more fantastical. Something otherworldly.


A TV coma is the common position for students when watching a video or DVD. They slouch and stare at the television screen and the only life you might see is slight flickering of their eyelids as the subconscious screams for some kind of activity.  It is so easy to make watching a video a passive experience. Sit down, shut up and watch. But, we want their little grey cells to work. Here are some ideas that I have found helpful in getting them to be less passive when watching a video:  

Pause to think and discuss: Stop the DVD and give students a question to answer based on that point in the DVD. For example: how does the director show Brutus’s mental torture in this scene? Or, why set this scene in Julius Caesar’s home?

Questions: Write a set of questions which students answer while watching the film. Try to give them a few minutes between each question, so they don’t miss one question while answering another.

Review it: Thanks to Julie Blake’s ‘The Full English’ for this idea. Get students to review the film and make comments on its strengths, weaknesses and tips for improvement.

Spot the differences: Get students to spot the differences between the original text and the adaptation.

Finally, think about when you are going to show it. I showed a version of ‘Julius Caesar’ period 5 on a Wednesday after a very busy week for the Year 11s, thinking that it would be suitable as they would be clearly tired. Half of them fell asleep. And I mean sleep – heads on desk and eyes shut. The rest were borderline conscious or daydreaming. One student wanted to do lines just to cope with the tiredness. They got nothing out of it. I thought showing a DVD was a rest for them; it wasn’t. They needed to use their grey cells and I assumed they would automatically.

Right, I am off to watch another DVD and enter my own TV coma. 

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