Zig Zag - Units

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This in a brief overview of all 51 individual units of Zig Zag. Click 'read more' for more details of each unit individually.


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The Normans

A look at life during and after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Through the magic of the television studio Sheelagh meets William the Conqueror's brother Bishop Odo, who explains the circumstances of the invasion, the Bayeux Tapestry, how castles were built and and how life worked for the peasants.


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Hungry Times

Accompanying Zig Zag's unit on The Normans, this two-part drama serial tells the story of a Saxon family in the year 1086, struggling after the Norman invasion in the face of new laws, curfews and plagues on their animals which leave them hungry and desperate but still proud Saxons.



A state-of-the-art look at early 1980s computer technology for junior pupils, including computer games, robotic arms and a flight simulator, and ways that schools have used computers to help with their projects on The Normans.



Sheelagh and Paul travel in the 'Spaceship Zig Zag' on the first stage of a rocket journey, investigate the beginnings of space travel, landing a man on the moon, and the other planets in our solar system.

From 1986 this unit was joined by two episodes on Spaceship Earth which consider Earth as a spaceship and look at its resources and weather. Those two programmes have a separate page on this site.


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The Olympics

A unit of programmes inspired by the Olympic Games, and shown every four years to tie-in with the actual games. Regular presenter Sheelagh Gilbey is joined, for this unit only, by Wayne Laryea.


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The Arabs

A look at the Islamic religion, the historical influence of Arabic culture on the UK, and the modern Islamic world.


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The Eskimos

A look at how people live in arctic conditions and how life works for modern Inuit people in Canada, including interviews with the women and children living in Canada in the 1980s


Topical Programmes

For a while in the 1980s Zig Zag presented one Special programme each year, not directly related to the units being shown in the rest of the term and usually on a topical subject. For the first two years these Zig Zag Special episodes covered the Domesday Project enterprise organised by the BBC, and later took on other topics.


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Gardens and Growth

Programmes about growing plants and flowers told through the context of gardening, including plentiful timelapse film of plants growing, and retellings of stories about gardens including the Bible story of the Garden of Eden and the Greek myth of Persephone.


Over to You

Encouraging viewing pupils to make their own puppet shows, cameras and animated films by talking about the history of existing methods and showing schools at work on projects.


Spaceship Earth

A pair of programmes about the planet Earth, first its rocks, volcanos and mountains, and then its weather.


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The Greeks

A look at Ancient Greece through studio recreations of everyday houses, schools and workplaces. Sheelagh meets historical figures and goes out to explore the sites of battles in Greek wars.


You and the Media

Programmes about human communications, framed through media studies. There is an overview of the history of human communications from cave paintings, consideration of calligraphy, how pictures can express meaning without words, and how peoplecan give different accounts of the same events.



A two-part BBC wildlife film by John and Simon King, called Mordicus the Buzzard and originally shown for a general audience on 23rd and 30th November 1984 as part of the series Three in the Wild. It was edited down and repeated on Zig Zag with new introductions for school viewers.

In the third episode Simon King talks to Zig Zag's Sheelagh Gilbey about how the film was made.


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Winter Festival

Films about how children take part in Christmas-related celebrations in three different European countries, covering the Festival of Lucia in Sweden, 'Sinterklass Day' in the Netherlands, and traditions in Finland.


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Paul Coia takes a journey across Canada, from Toronto to British Columbia, reporting on modern and historical aspects of life, including the building of the railways, gold mining, lumberjacking and log birling, Totem Poles, and the beaver.


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The Vikings

Paul Coia visits historic locations to discover how the Vikings came to Britain and what they did after they arrived.


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The Saga of Gunnar Goldhair

A historical drama serial in two episodes, set in a Viking settlement at Jorvik in England.

Gunnar returns from exile to the settlement of Jorvik, where his father had been put to death for making false coins. He speaks to the inhabitants, Saxons and Vikings, and finds a community under the thrall of the local 'moneyer' Grim the Greedy.

Gunnar is determined to find justice for his father, but comes under suspicion himself when one of his neighbours is murdered in the street.


The Channel Tunnel

Three topical programmes about building the Channel Tunnel - still several years from completion at the time of broadcast. Looking at the historical importance of the English Channel, how animals and humans build tunnels, and the opinions of people against and in favour of the Channel Tunnel.


Rush, The Fallow Deer

A BBC wildlife film by John and Simon King following the life of a deer born in the New Forest, originally shown for adults on Christmas Eve 1985 and serialised for Zig Zag.


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Getting About

A unit about map-reading, finding your way in an unknown area, and getting to know your local area better.

The bulk of each episode is taken up with a dramatised treasure hunt around the Isle of Wight, in which Tony Aitken tries to help a boatyard threatened with closure by following clues to local landmarks and following directions.


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Wildlife Safari

A look at animal behaviour in different ways, with regular presenters Sheelagh and Paul joined by animal expert Nick Davies, and helped by film from the BBC's natural history archives including the David Attenborough series Life on Earth. Animals behaviours are linked to human behaviours, such as the number of people who need to be in the Zig Zag studio to make the programme, linked to animals working together.


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Programmes about the history and events at two cathedrals, in Lincoln and Derby.


World of Work

Following two groups of school children who have set up 'mini enterprises' running their own businesses from their schools, one growing pot plants and the other making "Toffee-Poppy-Choc" sweets.



The Odyssey

A retelling of stories from Greek myths of Odysseus, along with features about schools undertaking project work in areas such as archaeology, pottery making and poetry.


Let's Face It

A set of programme about the face, including police photofit identification, communicating emotions through facial expressions, and the history of portrait painting. The final episode includes a look at the puppet charicatures from the Spitting Image TV programme.



Various approaches to the subject of water, including the water cycle, hydraulic power, canals and erosion.


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Trees and Man

A look at children planting trees in the countryside introduces a two part serialisation of the Oscar-winning animated film The Man Who Planted Trees from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, telling the story of a shepherd who transforms an arid wilderness.



Programmes on various aspects of technology such as how a bicycle works, how a supermarket is operated, and techniques used in a theatre.


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Tales from Europe (1992)

A selection of traditional stories from countries all across Europe, re-told and animated for Zig Zag.

The episodes are presented by the enterprising Molly, who burrows her way across Europe in a 'hypersonic mole' vehicle, accompanied by her teddy bear Esperanto. Each week she goes underground and drives the mole to a new country, observing it's geography and lifestyles through her periscope before telling a children's story from that country accompanied by puppetry or animation.


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The Anglo-Saxons

Paul Coia finds out about the Anglo-Saxons by visiting sites such as a reconstructed village at West Stow and the remains of a monastery in Jarrow. He meets the 'ghosts' of characters from the past who explain their lives and interests.

The first three episodes include a re-telling of Beowulf written by Kevin Crossley-Holland, with illustrations and a traditional story-teller.

The last three episodes include the filmed drama serial The Raven and the Cross, as originally shown on Merry-Go-Round in 1974.


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Zig Zag's nature specialist Nicola Davies looks at trees from many different angles, including how they grow from acorns or seeds, how they are used in making cricket bats or wood sculptures, for energy as charcoal, and to makepaper. Stories from around the world related to trees are narrated by Colin Baker.


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Roman Britain

Presenter David goes to find out about Romans in Britain by visiting historical sites. In an ancient box he encounters a virtual guide called Marcus, who shows him pictures and maps, and explains how Rome itself started, the invasion of Britain, the Roman army, and life for people in Roman times. A lamp with magical powers allows David to meet other figures from Roman times who explain what they did.


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A guide to mapping skills in which Sally Gray drives round the country challenging local schoolchildren to use different techniques to create maps of their local areas in Somerset, Lancashire and Aberdeen.


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Where You Live, Where I Live

A study by young investigators of two contrasting areas, the village of Stanton-in-Peak in Derbyshire and the nearby Manchester city centre.



Kenyan youngsters Evangeline and Nana introduce viewers to their contrasting home lives near Mount Kenya and in Nairobi. There is also a traditional Kenyan story told in most of the episodes. An additional final episode, added later, presents a helicopter tour around the country.


Food and Farming

Charting the history of agriculture from the prehistoric hunter-gatherers to modern farmers using satellite tracking.

The programmes visit Aston Scott Historic Farm in Shropshire at different times of the year, including in the spring when two newly born lambs are named Zig and Zag.


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Geography UK

Presenters in each of the four nations of the United Kingdom explore the links between the landscape and the local people in distinct ways - looking at a Scottish river, the weather in Wales, a village, town and city in Northern Ireland, and environmental issues in England.


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Danger Detectors

Encouraging children to think about health and safety, the presenter meets the 'danger detector' part of his brain and discusses various potentially dangerous situations with him, and encourages children to think about their own 'danger detectors' when cooking, crossing the road, visiting a farm or near water.


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Ancient Greece

A mixture of documentary and drama about society in Ancient Greece.

Greek presenter Crissa Venetti visits modern Greece to explore its history and takes part in recreations such as a masked theatre production and an ancient Olympic race.

Meanwhile two "imagined" characters from ancient times talk about their lives and interests. Stephanos, a potter, and his slave Lydos, an artist, describe their trades, discuss events, and Stephanos tells stories including the myth of Theseus in programme 1, and the Wooden Horse of Troy in programme 2.


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Village, Town, City

Local children from four distinct places in Britain use their geographical skills to investigate their local areas and how the land and services are used.

The unit covers the village of Hendon in Suffolk, the town of Porthmadog in North Wales, the city of Leeds in England, and a farm at Princetown in Devon.


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Making It Work

Programmes about the design and construction of a new habitat for tropical animals at Marwell Zoo, linked to school projects on design and technology.


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Footage of children at work on art projects both in their classrooms and out in the world, plus meetings with professional artists, to inspire viewers to develop their own art work.


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Different periods of British history are explored through time travel and short dramas.

In modern times a boy called Rory encounters Maud, a time-travelling student from the future. Together they find out about historical invaders of the British Isles, chronologically the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.

Maud has a computer-based tutor to help her study the past, who can show maps and diagrams to the two children, and uses evidence of the past to show reconstructions of how people might have lived. These dramatised reconstructions, telling stories from the various time periods, form the bulk of each programme.


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Water, Air, Land

A unit of programmes about environmental sustainability. A presenter known as The Director co-ordinates young Zig Zag investigators in Cardiff, Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire and Spain, looking at how people use water, air and land, and deal with waste, in ways that don't destroy the environment.


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Tudor Life

A mix of drama and documentary to show how ordinary people lived during the reign of the Tudor monarchs.


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Children investigate different weather patterns with the help of BBC weather forecaster Helen Young and dramatic film from Australia and Canada.


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A Walk Through Time

A look at a British town developing over thousands of years of history. Tony Robinson sits on a bench in a computer-animated town, describing and pointing out the differences while the town changes through history from the Roman period, the Anglo-Saxons, the Tudors, the Victorians, the 1950s and the present-day at the turn of the 21st Century.



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An exploration of the city, mountains and coastlines of France as the presenter Josette travels around the country meeting local children and tradespeople in different areas.


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Tales from Europe (2000)

A selection of folk tales and myths from different countries around Europe, re-told using puppets, animation, illustrations and other techniques. Each story is introduced with documentary film about a town in the country where it is set.

These 15 minutes programmes were edited down from the original 20 minute Zig Zag Tales from Europe programmes first shown in 1992. The fictional structure from the 1992 episodes with a woman called Molly tunnelling around Europe to observe the cities and read the stories has been removed, but the original narration of both the documentary sequences and the stories by the character Molly (played by Denise Coffey) is still present.


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Snapshots: Children in the Second World War

Examining the lives of children during World War II using archive footage froma variety of sources, interviews, and some reenactments from fiction.

These programmes are presented as 'Snapshots' as they make up a shorter-than-usual unit of just two episodes, each composed of short segments on specific topics which could be used in isolation.


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