Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Nanny McPhee

I'm going to give you a review of Nanny McPhee, which I saw today, but first I want to mention a couple of news stories that caught my eye - and since the review will feature some spoilers, I thought I'd save that until last.

The first news story I actually caught on the radio initially - and my immediate reaction was that the English government, or its Education Department at least, has run completely mad. A rather scary notion, but I didn't know what else to conclude when I heard that Whitehall have suggested a National Curriculum for under-5s ! As if children in England weren't already tested nearly to death (and certainly to boredom !) already. The poor beggars are already given SATs at 7, 11 and 14, then they take GCSEs at 16, AS-levels at 17 and A-levels at 18 - not to mention the fact that if they decide to risk the debt burden, they get tested every year of an undergraduate degree ! Geez am I glad I'm not a parent ! The government seems to have this twisted idea that testing kids to boredom actually promotes learning, but in my limited experience, it's doing quite the opposite. I help to moderate a discussion forum on World War One poetry, and we regularly get students coming along asking us either "What does poem X mean" or quoting an essay title and expecting us to give them the answers. And when those of us who are regulars (and I freely admit to being the biggest culprit in this) demur, we get abused and accused of being arrogant (and that's the repeatable repsonses). I was frankly astonished, too, when I was doing my undergraduate English & History degree just a few years ago, to find that students fresh out of A-level studies regularly asked lecturers if such-and-such would be in the exam. After the first couple of times, I asked one of my tutors why the students were asking this (to me) bizarre question and was told that they "learn to test", in other words they won't bother reading or studying something if it's not going to come up in their exams. The concept of learning something for the sheer joy of learning is, apparently, dead for the vast majority of students - and what a crying shame that is. We are raising a generation of children and young adults who do not take any pleasure in learning for the sake of expanding not only their own knowledge, but the sum total of humanity's knownledge. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm appalled and worried by this attitude because it's going to mean a diminishing number of scholars - and that will mean the dumbing down of society and the watering down of culture.

The other news story that caught my eye was in yesterday's Guardian: "Children's authors don't want their books used for joyless comprehension tests" - and who can blame them ? Philip Pullman, Quentin Blake, Jamila Gavin, Michael Rosen, Jacqueline Wilson and Bernard Ashley have outlined their fears about the National Literacy Strategy in a collection of essays called Waiting for a Jamie Oliver: Beyond Bog-standard Literacy which was published this week by the National Centre for Language and Literacy (NCLL). The authors protest about their books being used as texts for language and comprehension exercises, rather than simply being enjoyed. This next comment struck me very forcefully when I read it: "What we object to is having our books treated as if they are frogs ready for dissection, when actually they are live frogs," says the illustrator Quentin Blake, who was children's laureate from 1999-2001. Bernard Ashley agrees: "I don't allow my books to be used for comprehension exercises, and I haven't for 30 years. I write to entertain, and I won't have any kid sweat over something I wrote to delight." And Michael Rosen says: "The literacy hour doesn't encourage the idea that books are for you, that they are yours. It says that they are texts which can be quizzed." Now, I've no objection to "quizzing" a book that I've enjoyed - that's what I do when I write the essays I write. But my first and foremost qualification is that I won't write about a book/series if I haven't enjoyed it. Since I now write essays for myself, not for a qualification, I'm blowed if I'll spend hours reading, researching and writing about something that I don't love.

Anyway, I'll get off my soap box, and rave, instead, about Emma Thompson's fabulous film Nanny McPhee. I haven't yet read Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books - I was loaned them yesterday and I decided that in fairness to the film, I would watch the film first, otherwise I know I would have spent the entire film in muttering to myself "They changed that" - which would annoy me. There's no doubt that Thompson's screenplay is pure fairy tale. Emma Thompson plays the eponymous Nanny with the aid of some stunning prosthetics and a marvellous twinkle in her eye. Colin Firth as the harrassed Mr Brown, father to 7 very clever and quite monstrous children, seemed to spend most of the film in a state of near-terminal bewilderment. Thomas Sangster (of Love Actually fame) was the perfect roguish elder child who is craving the closeness he used to share with his father before their mother died.

Quite apart from the pure fairy tale ending which sees Mr Brown marry young Evangeline, who despite her rather aristocratic name, is "only" a scullery maid, but who loves the children, unlike Celia Imrie's appalling, money-grabbing Selma Quickly, who reveals her true colours at the wedding ceremony - the thing that most appealed to me was Nanny McPhee's transformation from the warty, snaggled-toothed, lined, big-nosed (believe me, Nicole Kidman's hooter in The Hours could not compare !), old woman, to a rather charming, twinkling middle-aged woman. Each time one of Nanny McPhee's five lessons (not all of which had to be learnt by the children, I might add) was mastered, her appearance altered, until at the end of the film she was clearly recognisable as Emma Thompson. If you get the chance, go and see this film. The strongly British cast - apart from Firth, Thompson and Irmie, it features Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Derek Jacobi (I, Claudiaus and Brother Cadfael), Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote) - appealed to me a good deal - and it's clear that although the period is unspecified, it is set in Britain, rather than Hollywood !


Kelly said...

That Guardian article is so interesting! A discussion recently at Book Moot focused on how Louis Sachar's "Holes" has been completely ruined by curriculum in the States. What a shame. Good for those fabulous writers for standing up for the magic in their texts.

I wonder if "Nanny McFee" will be released in the States?

Michele said...

Yes, I also thought "Good for them" when I saw the headlines... I liked the comment about books not being frogs, to be dissected !

I don't know about "Nanny McFee" [sic], Kelly, but according to the Net, "Nanny McPhee" will be out Jan. 27 2006 in the US. (Sorry, I'm teasing you over the spelling !)

Kelly said...

No problem. I forgot the spelling just after reading your post, so I deserve it :)

So, they've left a January release for this one. They must not have much confidence in its translation to a U.S. market. Still, I'm glad I'll have a chance to see it.

Camille said...

Well, my movie dance card is about to be very full with Harry, Narnia, King Kong, Pride & Prejudice coming out soon. It will be nice to have something to look forward to in Jan.

Nanny McFee sounds wonderful, I love my British actors.
-------- ---------- ---------

The testing thing is...I cannot even begin to speak rationally about this...

The great thing about my old library was it was a "test free" zone. I even banned AR testing in the library. I really HATE AR (or Reading Counts) because it is becoming the de facto reading incentive program at most schools.

"Hey kiddies, did you like that book? Well run over to that computer and see if you can answer witless question about the plot. Aww...didn't do so well? How do you feel about the book now?"

I failed the test for Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, myself.

The best way to get kids to read is have a librarian who LOVES the books and can talk about them with excitement and passion and match kids with books. (That is another soapbox for another day.)

I just know that the more we test these kids and standardize the curriculums the less and less they seem to know about ANYTHING.

There are many factors at play here. Testing is not the reason kids are mentally lazy and will not engage with the material (because so many of them will not) BUT it has pared down WHAT and HOW we teach so much, there is not time to introduce subjects that COULD fire up a child's imagination and make them a well rounded person.

I used our library time to reach into history and the arts because I knew I could share things with them they would not get anywhere else. (Like Flanders Fields and poppies)

Michele said...

Kelly, I rather think it's a case of the schedule being too crammed what with HP, Narnia 1 and Kong all coming out in the next few weeks, not to mention the various films that aren't getting simultaneous worldwide releases and aren't massively anticipated fantasy films ! I noticed the large number of films coming out in the US in the next 2 1/2 months when I was checking to see when Nanny McPhee would open. Anyway, you got W&G before us !!

Michele said...

Camille you're as bad as Kelly ! It's Nanny McPHee - Ph, not F ! ;-D

As for the testing thing, hooray for you banning tests in the library... I've no objection to the idea of teaching children the rudiments of maths and reading before school (after all, I learnt to read so young I have no recollection of learning - my Dad says I was under 3 when he taught me) - it's the whole idea of a regimented, government-enforced curriculum that gets my temper hot...

I intend to see if the library can get me the Waiting for another Jamie Oliver title as I'm interested to see what the authors have to say about not having their books dissected like frogs... Of course, I'll review it if I can get hold of it.

Anonymous said...

I have just read these comments when looking for background on Nanny McPhee, which I saw with my 14-year-old son this afternoon (Melbourne, Australia - it opens on 12 January here). Funny thing, that in the car on the way home he was talking about how studying Holes this year (which he had previously read and loved, and seen the film and loved) was destroyed for him by studying it in English this year. Coincidence to hear his comments echoed - even about the same book - this very day.

Michele said...

It's a crying shame that children everywhere are being put off reading by the nonsense of testing them to death...