I think I might be a bad parent; whenever my wife is out, I plonk our two-year-old daughter in front of the television. The other day we watched a rainbow nation of children marching around the British countryside singing ‘Let’s make sure we recycle every day’, and I realised that something has changed in children’s programming since I was little. These young recyclers are from a show called Green Balloon Club, which is ostensibly a wildlife programme, but the song had more in common with one of those Dear Leader dirges you see in North Korea. It wasn’t education, it was propaganda.
The purpose of children’s stories has always been to educate as well as entertain. I was brought up on the Railway Stories by Revd W. Awdry, which later became the TV series Thomas the Tank Engine. These stories have a strict moral code: when an engine misbehaves he is chastised and often punished by the Fat Controller. In a story that terrified me as a child, my namesake Henry the Green Engine refused to leave a tunnel because he didn’t want the rain to mark his new paint job. To teach him a lesson, the Fat Controller had him bricked up in the tunnel. The lesson was clear — don’t be vain about your shiny new paint job.
Compare this with a programme on CBeebies (the channel of choice for my daughter) called Mike the Knight. Mike is a knight in training and each episode consists of a ho-hum quest such as stopping the local Vikings stealing pies. He’s not a very like-able figure, Mike, arrogant and stupid, just the sort of character who might benefit from a bit of bricking up in a tunnel. Through over-confidence he initially fails in his quest and becomes disheartened. Rather than tell him where he’s going wrong, his companions — a couple of camp dragons and his sister — bolster his confidence and eventually, with a bit of luck and a lot of help from his friends, the quest is completed successfully. Everyone then tells Mike that he ‘has saved the day’.
From the Railway Stories to ‘Mike the Knight’, the world has changed from one where your actions have consequences to one where self-esteem must not be dented even if you’re an arrogant dimwit. Education is now about therapy rather than discipline. Some programmes take the therapeutic line further and move into the realms of cognitive behavioural therapy, actually trying to change specific behavioural patterns rather than just bolster self-esteem. Sesame Street was conceived by a group of academics, psychologists and educationalists with the aim of promoting tolerance, politeness and racial harmony as well teaching English, maths etc. As a child, I never enjoyed it. I think I found it too obviously educational — I preferred the pure entertainment and whimsy of the British programmes such as Bagpuss and Button Moon — but watching it now I can see the appeal. Yes it’s worthy but when you have Jim Henson doing the puppets, Maurice Sendak involved with the concept and a guest appearance from Linda Ronstadt, it’s hard not to be entertained.
Strip away the showbiz, production values and humour from Sesame Street and you are left with something like Tommy Zoom, probably my least favourite. This programme mixes live action with animation. It opens with a real boy, Tommy, who misbehaves — doesn’t eat his lunch, say — then cuts to a cartoon sequence where Tommy becomes a superhero called Tommy Zoom and does battle with the evil Polluto (geddit?). Here Tommy learns that his wasteful behaviour is destroying the planet. The point is clear: behave or the environment gets it.
Environmental peril lurks in the background of so many programmes now that after a while one doesn’t even notice. It functions much like the Empire in the children’s books that I inherited from my parents. It’s not the environmental message per se that grates — after all, The Wombles is essentially a programme about recycling. My beef is with the didacticism of it. There’s no charm, humour or proper narrative. The message has become more important than the story. Shows such as Tommy Zoom and that bloody recycling song are designed purely to influence children’s behaviour. I worry that my daughter will end up like Parsons’ children in Nineteen Eighty-Four, who report him for shouting ‘Down with Big Brother!’ in his sleep. It doesn’t help that they’re often luridly animated, like visual tartrazine.
Now I am sure that the CBeebies producers would argue that these programmes are for children not for adults — but they forget that we have to watch them too. The genius of programmes made by Cosgrove Hall in the 1970s and ’80s, such as Danger Mouse and Count Duckula, was that they appealed to all ages with plenty of jokes aimed at adults. The reason why old episodes of Sesame Street stand up after all these years is because it too appeals to adults; Linda Ronstadt is there to stop the dads from switching channels.
So is there any hope? Will I end up being shopped by my daughter to Lewisham’s Recycling Police for not sorting my bottles properly? Happily, there are still some programmes being made that have a little charm. As a family we love Charlie and Lola and Third and Bird, but most popular of all with my dad friends is Octonauts. This is a cartoon which owes much to Thunderbirds, James Bond and Jacques Cousteau, and concerns a lavishly funded marine rescue organisation (I always wonder where they get their money from). They are comically over-equipped considering their mission is to rescue beached whales or help hermit crabs find new shells. They are led by an anthropomorphic polar bear with a BA pilot’s voice called Captain Barnacles. Their motto is Explore, Rescue, Protect — but there is no overt environmentalism. Mankind is not destroying the planet. It’s just good clean fun and the theme tune is brilliant.
Perhaps I shouldn’t get worked up about what my daughter watches. After all, the Wombles didn’t teach me to recycle, I am still vain and foolish despite a childhood immersed in the Railway Stories and 40 years of Sesame Street haven’t turned America into a multicultural paradise. When the constant preaching gets too much, I can always take my daughter with me to the pub: ‘Oh look, it’s your mother!’