CBeebies Land is a small dystopia inside Alton Towers, a theme park where people sometimes get their legs chopped off by a rollercoaster called The Smiler. There is a gothic mansion by Augustus Pugin, the Nietzsche of cushions, which has been allowed to fall into ruin, because it is less important than the Runaway Mine Train and a ‘ride’ covered in plastic frogs. It broods like Manderley; around it, people play with water cannon and eat sugar until their eyes are dead. I was going to suggest that parliament convene at Alton Towers while the Palace of Westminster is repaired, so they could feel the Pugin; but they might be maimed by The Smiler.
CBeebies Land is populated by a range of bouncing adult ‘characters’, who I fear are depressed, and fictional characters who are either as fiercely conservative as the butler in Downton Abbey — Postman Pat, who looks like Tam Dalyell, or David Cameron, who looks like Igglepiggle — or primary-coloured blobs that scream and fall over, and are therefore more likeable. It is inspired by the BBC toddler channel CBeebies, about which I will say this: if you know it, I can tell you nothing. If you don’t, you do not want to know; it is a Cyril Smith-shaped novelty cake exploding and then asking you to lick his iced face.
I mount Postman Pat’s truck and wobble around a track with fake sheep; I do not know if Postman Pat’s postal service is privatised but I don’t actually deliver any letters, so it might be. There is also a boat ride narrated by Derek Jacobi — he doesn’t say ‘let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out’ because he does not have to — and a rollercoaster branded with a polar bear who thinks that he is David Niven. CBeebies Land is not really a place, and it is not supposed to be: it is an operating television in the middle of the field.
There is a restaurant: the Little Explorers Lunch Box. It is a yellow shack roughly the same shape as the Bates Motel; I suspect, in this land of transformation, it could become the Bates Motel in 15 minutes, with Mummy barely changing expression to change role. A yellow blob with eyes smiles out of a fake window, like custard thrown in rage. Photographs of fruit bounce across the signage. The floor is a photograph of grass; the wall is a photograph of cows so well-lit they might have wandered out of cow Vogue; the lamps are wooden clouds; a child’s painting of an apple hangs on the wall, like an ancient, remote god. It is a rebuke. Since we are technically, if not spiritually, in Staffordshire, which has farmland, this quest for a dream farm is depraved, but not quite pointless, because it is not an homage to rural life. It is an homage to rural life brought to you by TV; that is, an homage to TV, and in this it succeeds completely.
CBeebies Land knows the covetousness of children. So it gives them a paper box — a photograph of a lunch box — which the parent must assemble. Then the child picks a sandwich, a packet of crisps, a drink and a sad piece of fruit — it may be the last fruit — for £4.25. Adults get sagging paninis, salty sausage rolls and Pringles, which is a type of crisp for crystal meth addicts who eat crisps when they cannot get any crystal meth, and so seek the crisps which most resemble crystal meth, which are Pringles. The Little Explorers Lunch Box is a brightly coloured bunker dreaming of a world it both yearns for and despises; thus it teaches children more then they sought to know.
CBeebies Land, Farley Lane, Alton, ST10 4DB, tel: 0871 222 3330.