Last Christmas my wife bought our three-year-old son one of the most ingeniously evil products of the 21st century. At first glance it looks like an innocuous DVD compilation of television programmes for toddlers. However - and this is the evil bit - it has a special feature that enables the DVD to play an endless selection of random episodes.
Who could possibly want this feature? Crack addicts? Kidnappers?
I feel bad enough when I realise that I've left my children watching television for three hours. It's so easy to do, particularly when you have so many important things to do. Like blogging.
I feel particularly guilty when my sons start to plead with me to turn the television off and as an act of atonement, I invariably end up taking them somewhere wholesome like a nature reserve or historic building. Then, for a couple of hours, we can pretend that we are a perfect family and I am giving them an idyllic childhood.
I blame the weather. The English winter is usually a miserable time of year, with short, dark, damp days that don't lend themselves to going outdoors. It's only four months long, but that's enough time to go stir crazy with two boys who, like dogs, need to taken out for exercise every day. We always aim to do that, but on cold, rainy days the temptation to put on the television is hard to resist.
My oldest son is obsessed with watching movies. That's actually a very good thing, as it's meant that I've been able to introduce him to films like A Matter of Life and Death, North by Northwest and Planet of the Apes. However, he can't watch these in front of his young brother, so they usually end up watching CBeebies.
In many ways CBeebies is very good. There are no adverts and the programmes, nearly all of which are home-grown, aim to educate as well as entertain pre-school children. However it is so nauseatingly nice and goody-goody.
I don't normally agree with A.A.Gill, but I couldn't help smiling when he wrote, in his usual provocative way that:
'As far as I can tell, which isn't very far, all children's television is policed by committees of single-parent lesbians, nursery assistants, social workers, outreach-policy face communicators and possibly Esther Rantzen. Everything is made to inculcate simple, short messages about honesty, kindness, inclusivity, cosiness and the sensible eating of organic, unprocessed food.'
I'm hard to please. I would be the first to moan if CBeebies wasn't like this, but there is something nauseating about the way it is handled. Gill continues:
'I'm all for moral television. But kids TV now isn't about good and evil. It's about constructing the image of a world where there is no evil at all, no sharp edges, nothing but cute lessons without blame, a bland conformity and lots of hugs. By chance I caught a Tom and Jerry cartoon this week and by comparison it was astonishing. It seemed so fabulously anarchic and naughty, a world made up entirely of danger and death. And it was so funny.'
Perhaps that is the problem. CBeebies is never funny. It never dares to appeal to the dark side of little children - the part of their brain that thinks it's hilarious to hit others on the head with a shoe or stamp on a small creature. CBeebies is stage one in a programme to raise a generation of balanced, empathic and unprejudiced adults, but will it have the opposite effect?
It's good to see that organizations like the BBC are trying to be forward-thinking and make programmes that aren't always dominated by white, middle-class people, but do they have to do it in such a cackhanded way?
Take Balamory, for example. For the uninitiated, this is a programme for toddlers set in a small village on a Scottish island. I don't know that much about Hebridean fishing villages, but I would imagine that they don't have huge ethnic minorities. However, Balmory is a multi-cultural community informed by mutual respect and inclusivity:
That's a good thing isn't it? So why do I feel so nauseated by Balamory's anodyne vision?
I think it's because I can sense people ticking boxes. The programmes may no longer feature an almost entirely white, middle-class cast (with a token loveable/criminal working class character), but the people making these programmes are mainly graduates from nice backgrounds and they seem to have rather crude approach to casting that smacks of tokenism.
My younger son hates Balamory. He say's it's boring, but can't tell me why. I suspect that it's not silly or funny enough to engage him. His favourite series is the Wiggles - an Australian programme featuring four men who like they've been made redundant from Star Trek:
After listening to 'Wiggly Party' for the 53rd time (and I'm not exagerating for dramatic effect), the music tends to grow on you and I have become a bit of a Wiggles fan myself.
I like the Wiggles because it's very good at what it does - entertaining small children - and doesn't try to educate or preach. The songs are catchy and, most of all, it's nice to see men of my age (who have been ethnically cleansed from British children's television) jumping up and down without doing their backs in: