Arts blog: Getting kids into Hume with wigs and superheroes

Robert Florence and Iain Connell in Enlighten Up! Picture: Hopscotch Films
Robert Florence and Iain Connell in Enlighten Up! Picture: Hopscotch Films
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THE creators of TV sketch show Burnistoun are back with a philosophy show for schoolchildren, writes Jay Richardson, while Lee Randall meets an artist finding inspiration in hives and honey.

‘How do you get children interested in David Hume? With superheroes, wind and stupid wigs’

JAY RICHARDSON

Teaching philosophy in primary school has been proven to raise kids’ IQ, improve their concentration and emotional intelligence. But how do you get nine and ten-year-olds interested in the Scottish Enlightenment, to absorb the ideas of David Hume, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill? The BBC is hoping the answers lie in superheroes, breaking wind and stupid wigs.

Online now and airing on the BBC Learning Channel and BBC Scotland in the summer, Enlighten Up! seems an unlikely television return for Burnistoun creators Robert Florence and Iain Connell, their first screen roles since the sketch show finished in September. This, after all, is the duo who conceived The Burnistoun Butcher, the serial killer perpetually piqued at being mistaken for the local meat merchant.

And yet, as the two bicker over John Stuart Mill’s greatest-happiness principle, as to whether it is better to be a happy pig or an unhappy human being – with Florence enraging Connell by claiming that “a wee solo on the bum trumpet” is more pleasurable than reading Shakespeare – you can immediately see the similarities with Scott and Peter, those sofa-bound, high-rise sages of Burnistoun, putting the world to rights with an antagonistic patter akin to Socratic dialogue. If Socrates had been a shell-suited bampot.

Moreover, “there are lots of wee guys and lassies who come up to me and tell me they watch Burnistoun” explains Florence, who has a young daughter. Connell has three sons. “Every comedian who has a child views it as an incredibly unique experience. But without wishing to be too worthy, we wanted to do something for ours. We wanted to make something that could play in classrooms but conceivably be a Burnistoun episode. We felt we were still playing to an element of our audience.”

With plenty of visual gags in the accompanying illustrations, Enlighten Up! doesn’t dumb down the subject matter, and the duo found themselves reviewing jokes for scholarly rigour rather than taste.

“Normally when you’re writing sketches, you have a script editor to check and try and make it funnier,” says Florence. “Whereas here, we had academics to make sure the intellectual arguments stood up.”

One Jackanory-style spoof, featuring the pair as stereotypical children’s presenters was a particular challenge. “It was tough to make it funny while not constantly labouring the points. We’re always happy to put in fart jokes but we had to pull back on the darkness a bit. Because how do you get kids asking ‘how do we know if the sun will rise tomorrow?’ without edging towards the cliff of bleak oblivion? It would be every bit as ambitious to explore these ideas for adults.”

•  You can watch clips from Enlighten Up! at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016ty33

‘The Greeks thought of the bee as a kind of conductress of the soul, going into the underworld’

LEE RANDALL

Pollination. Honey. Wax. Propolis. Royal jelly. Even bee venom. We owe a lot to these wee creatures, and yet they’re having a rough time surviving in an environment altered by industrialisation.

Artist Alec Finlay, whose poetry and art often takes as its theme man’s impact upon the natural world, is spending this year as Stirling University’s Artist in Residence under the aegis of chair in creative writing, Professor Kathleen Jamie.

“Bees are such a fascinating symbol, because they’re so often used as an analogy for culture, society, politics, philosophy and economics,” he says. “There’s a kind of hidden narrative in books on bees and bee keeping. For instance Maurice Maeterlinck’s famous book, The Spirit of the Hive, is really trying to think of bees as a way of understanding the human mind. He sees us looking at bees, then imagining someone on Mars looking at us. It’s a kind of way of modelling, from our great distance, and also getting an insight.

“I’m not just interested in honey bees but also solitary bees, and the other kinds, such as Mason bees. One of the works I’m making is a star map where the names of the stars are replaced by the names of the bees. There’s always been an ancient connection, in different cultures, that suggests honey falls from the sky and the stars. Also the stars are another symbol we use – an organisation that we project on to, in a sense. The stars don’t know that they are constellations. It’s not a detailed survey, but it will be an accurate listing all the bees that are currently extant, and that is affected by things like global warming and ecological problems.”

Is this related to the concept of receiving manna from heaven, I wonder? “Exactly that. The Greeks used to see the bees collecting the manna, which is ash and lime, I think, and thought that was honey. Because they saw it lying on the ground and the branches, they thought it must have fallen in the night and that the bees just collected it. They didn’t sense that the bees produced it. One of the early myths of honey is that it is a gift from the heavens. It’s what you might call a creative misunderstanding. The Greeks also thought of the bee as a kind of conductress of the soul, because they saw them going into the ground to nest, and thought they were going into the underworld.”

The main project stems – literally – from the vast amount of reading Finlay’s doing about bees. More than 100 books ranging from scientific works, to books about philosophy, architecture, and mythology. “After I’ve read them, or bits of them, and have written poems – ie, taken the honey from the book – I sacrifice the book and make it into a nest for wild bees. You know bee hotels? They’re like a bird box but full of bamboo canes, because bees like to nest in tubes. The book is opened to make a roof, and I put the bamboo underneath, so I’m giving the books to the bees. I’ll be doing more than 100 books and writing a long blog and a book of poems. It’s about the translation of knowledge into honey, if you like, and a way of saying we have to make more habitats.”

Have there been surprises along the way, as he works on this project? Too many to name, he laughs, then says: “What I’ve enjoyed most is reading some of the older books, which are really a portrait of people as much as bees. For instance in the 19th century a lot of the beekeeping books were written by ministers, who tended to keep bees and were also interested in science. So you have this strange English amateur study happening, and some of those books and their illustrations are very amusing.

“I’ve also got a lovely early-20th-century book in which the author describes how to hunt and catch a bumblebee queen. He says that because they have holes in the ground, if you blow in the hole, that makes the bees come out. He says, ‘It’s best to blow with the side of your mouth.’ I like the interesting dynamic between lore – folk knowledge and stories – and science. And all the folk advice for bee stings. One guy says if you get stung by a bee, immediately try to get stung in the same place. Such a ridiculous piece of advice.

“As a poet I’m drawn to the use of language. It can’t help but give us a picture of society and a way of thinking about relating to nature that might involve sentiment and charm, as well as economics, as well as science, as well as talking about the crisis we’re in just now, and to seeing that amateurism could be one way forward. The more people that keep bees the better. I’m always interested in moments when humans can enact their sense of responsibility.”

• For more information, or to read Finlay’s poems, visit www.the-bee-bole.com