Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Nice and the Good

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:


geographyofhope said...

What about Pingu? Isn't he a CBeebies staple? Although not in the Tom and Jerry league he can be pretty naughty, his Dad is a postman and there are no ethnic minority or disabled characters!

I did find it hilarious when one of the mothers at my son's playgroup told us earnestly that she never let her children watch Pingu because he was such a bad example. Needless to say my two sons can't get enough of him ...

Anonymous said...

Cbeebies on tap is enough to drive anyone loopy...I'm afraid to say we've moved on to some advert telly - Sonic on Pop, and Trollz on Popworld. And neither of my two can standblinkin Balamory either..What's the story possibly the worst invention ever.
CBBC can be a bit naughtier too - We like to watch fat children fall down/off things in Raven (so mean!) and children trick each other in the witchy cave programme.
But as for Tom and Jerry - Ol and J know they are banned from watching it until they are 18. Poor things!
Oh - and as for Pingu,- my favourite episode is the mythological one where he gets drunk and wees on the floor. Classic

Lucy Fishwife said...

When I used to work for *cough*waterstones*cough* we had a gigantic cardboard standee of the mad-eyed Miss Hoolie which creeped us all out to the point where we had to draw sunglasses on her in felt tip because her eyes REALLY DID FOLLOW YOU ROUND THE ROOM. Freakish.
Whatever happened to Barbapappa, Ludwig and Barnaby the Bear??

Anonymous said...

Hmm, Barnaby Bear still in where in the world is he? But it most certainly is not the same. And he has a very squeaky accent these days.

Anonymous said...
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Brett said...

Understand your ambivalence. Rest assured that human nature, for better or worse, is irrepressible. A minor classic on this is "Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner", by Vivian Gussin Paley.

Annabel Gaskell said...

The Wiggles - NOOOOOOO!!! I hated them with a vengeance when my daughter was toddling. And the Balamory songs have now re-surfaced from the depths of my brain - I'm singing along with Archie again. Thank you very much!

Our joint favourite was Kipper with Martin Clunes doing the main voice.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Ahem, fewer attacks on we much-maligned white middle-class people if you don't mind Steerforth! T'was they/we what wrote the thrilling stuff about good/evil naughty/good children/anarchic Tom & Jerry cartoons not so long ago, was it not?

Frankly I blame the Liberal hand-wringing element for watering everything down to this diet of bland nicey niceyness. No help to children at all as how are they supposed to cope with the real world if they don't know from the start that they will encouter evil out there and how to deal with/outwit it?

Tyrone Shoelaces said...

I agree to some degree about CBeebies, though I think it's fairly ok at that age to paint the world as rosy. I think things are different over on CBBC. There's a host of interesting dramas, including the long-lasting Tracey Beaker, which emphasises the ups and downs of children placed in care: no one is painted as perfect. I also saw with my eight year old daughter another Jacqueline Wilson-penned piece called Dustbin Baby, about the travails of a young girl who was placed in care after her mother, abused and beaten by her father, kills herself. Is that enough 'edge' for you. I have to admit I thought it might be a bit much for her, but it doesn't seem to have caused her sleepless nights.
On the subject of Pingu, I recall an episode in which the penguin gets shat upon by a passing gull, but helps it to escape from trouble - and as it flies away it shits on Pingu's head again. I think the moral of that story was pretty grey, and very funny.

Steerforth said...

Yes, Dustbin Baby was superb!