Saturday, April 19, 2008

Smart shows for Smart kids

It's been a week of ups and downs. The Book Fair was great. I've hit upon a couple of interesting ideas for new books that I'm keen to explore. And there have been a couple of hiccups with current projects. However, several events caught my eye this week and set me off on one of those meandering, mental walkabouts that so often end up as posts to this blog. Like this one. Fancy a walk?

The first event was the tragic death of Mark Speight. For the benefit of my many overseas readers, I will explain that Mark was a children's TV presenter. He appeared on a number of shows, mostly at the BBC and mostly with an art theme (SMart, Art Attack etc.) and was himself a very talented artist. He was also a very funny actor and comedian and was always a hoot when he turned up as a guest on other shows. Back in January his girlfriend - another children's TV presenter - was found dead at their flat. There was evidence of a joint drink and drugs binge and Speight had apparently been in a narcotic stupor while Natasha Collins had climbed into a scalding hot bath, oblivious of the pain, and died of a heart attack. She suffered 60% burns over her entire body. Speight was understandably distraught and never recovered from the loss. He went missing earlier in the month but was found hanged at Paddington railway station this week. My good friend Mad Woman (who turns in a comment now and again as 'Me' ) wrote a very poignant blog entry about the tragedy. Such a waste.

The second event was seeing just how much of the Autumn book trade is geared towards celebrity autobiographies, ghost-written memoirs and TV tie ins. The Book Fair was full of it.

The third was receiving one of those emails that start 'You know you're getting old when you can remember ...' and listed such things as drinking from the hosepipe, eating raw jelly (jello), attaching playing cards to our bicycle frames with clothes pegs so that they made a sound like a machine gun, dillyboppers, clackers and Rubik's Cubes, and wondering what mad stunt John Noakes would indulge in on Blue Peter (Thanks Emma).

And the fourth was catching a re-run of Sean Lock's excellent TV Heaven Telly Hell show. Comedian and writer David Mitchell was the guest and, as the show's format dictates, he was asked to describe his favourite and least favourite shows. Among his favourites, he listed anything starring Adam Hart-Davis, that slightly mad, definitely eccentric, always enthiusiastic middle-aged Englishman who subjects himself to all kinds of ridicule and physical abuse to show us 'What the Romans did for us' or 'What the Victorians did for us' or even how to complete our self-assessment tax returns. Mitchell bemoaned the fact that TV had moved away from using people like Hart-Davis on children's shows, opting instead for presenters in the 'older sibling' mode.

And that's when my train of thought chuffed and puffed out of the station.

When I was a lad, back in the late 1960s and most of the 70s, children's TV shows were dominated by middle-aged men. Pre-school stuff like Play School and Play Away had Brian Cant, Derek Griffiths, Fred Harris and (amazingly) Jeremy Irons. Infant shows like Rainbow had Geoffrey Hayes and Jackanory - a show in which celebrities read out famous children's books - was most popular when Kenneth Williams or Willie Rushton or Brian Blessed and their ilk brought the stories to life. Art shows had oldies like Tony Hart - he who invented the Blue Peter ship logo. Even the animated shows were voiced over by the likes of Richard Briers (Roobarb), Ray Brooks (Mr Benn), Richard Baker (Mary, Mungo and Midge) and the ubiquitous Oliver Postgate (Ivor the engine, Pogle's Wood, Bagpuss, Clangers etc.) And it was a time of wonderful middle-aged eccentricity in the older children's demographic.

There was barmy, arm waggling scientist Magnus Pyke, snuffling beardy botanist David Bellamy, numbers-obsessed Johnny Ball, animal-voicing Johnny Morris, whispering David Attenborough (thankfully still with us and as enthusiastic and sibilant as ever) and the aforementioned John Noakes. Noakes and his Blue Peter colleagues seemed to spend most of their time doing mad things like painting the Forth Bridge, or scuba diving with great white sharks or free fall parachuting. It was great entertainment. But it was more than that. Without us knowing, these TV icons were acting as role models. These tweedy, hirsute, balding, mad men were teaching us how to behave and things we ought to know. They were showing us that knowledge is not a sin, that science and art and books and travel were all there to be enjoyed. They were inspiring.

When I compare that to an average day of children's TV now, I'm immediately struck by how dumbed-down it all is. Kids are brighter and more intelligent now than they have ever been. They have access to more information than we could ever have dreamed of as kids. They also have a much greater range of methods to access it. We had books, TV (3 channels) and radio (4 channels). They have many, many more channels plus CD and DVD-ROMs, interactive computer programs and, of course, the internet - the greatest repository of knowledge in the history of civilisation. And yet, yesterday's BBC listings consisted of (descriptions lifted from the BBC1 website):

Space Pirates ('Captain DJ is very sleepy, he's even too sleepy to look for music to go to sleep to! Luckily, Honk and Tonk have the perfect, if a little smelly, sleep cure.')

Chucklevision ('Sherwood Chuckle: When Paul is mistaken for Robin Hood, the Chucks have to rescue Maid Marian from the ruthless Sheriff of Nottingham.')

Eliot Kid ('The Big Webster: Eliot and his friends decide to go down into the school cellar in search of Big Webster, who knows everything about everything.')

Thumb Wrestling Federation ('Senator Skull v James Montgomery Flag/Vini Vidi Victory v Big Time: The Stash's super sneeze leaves Skull covered in boogers; the two biggest stars in the TWF meet in the quarter finals.')

Basil Brush (Always a favourite when I was a kid but even this has been dumbed down - if that were possible - 'Anil the Sidekick: Basil hires Anil as his new sidekick, but soon finds he made the wrong choice. But will Basil persuade Liam to come back?')

The Slammer ('It's the battle for supremacy between The Slammer and Da Clinkski, as the annual Russo-British prison cup gets underway. In the Freedom Show, two Russian acts go up against two UK performances.')

... followed by scary Anne and The Weakest Link (where the questions are so pitifully easy it should be called 'The Missing Link'). And it was the same story on ITV and any number of other channels showing programmes during the children's TV time slot. All undoubtedly entertaining but also utterly lacking in any learning, worth or social responsibility. If anything, the shows depict young adults displaying anarchic, anti-establishment behaviour. I'm not saying that there isn't a place for this - some of the best comedy is based upon it. But every show? And when the establishment being railed against isn't a bad establishment?

Am I being old-fashioned here? It's possible and I accept that. But when Lord Reith set the BBC its first mission statement to 'inform, educate and entertain... [and] bring the best of everything to the greatest number of homes' I'm pretty damn sure he didn't mean thumb wrestlers firing snot at each other, fart gags, gunge tanks, practical jokes (a clip shown on the David Mitchell TV Heaven Telly Hell episode showed Dick and Dom - two popular BBC kid's presenters - sticking photos of themselves on pensioners' backs and laughing themselves silly as the result), inane talent shows, so-called reality TV (that doesn't represent reality as people's behaviour changes once a camera is on them) and programmes about C-list celebrity wannabes. And it is our children's TV that has suffered the most from serious mission-drift.

Every day the newspapers bemoan the lack of discipline in our youth, the lack of respect and the arrogance of some kids. Is it any wonder when TV shows tell them that this behaviour is okay? David Attenborough would never pin his photo to an octogenarian I'm sure. Johnny Ball would never have demonstrated the wonder of mathematics by covering people in gunge. And I'm pretty sure I haven't heard of any drugs binges involving John Noakes. Or Shep even.

I'm sure that Mark Speight was under a degree of pressure in his work. Well, sorry Mark, but me too. I'm 47 this year and I've known pressure. I've stood behind a riot shield while people who had just hacked one of my colleagues to death with machetes threw petrol bombs at me. I've had to tell people that their seven year old child has been killed under the wheels of a lorry. I've been kicked and beaten so badly that, on one occasion, I was left with spinal damage and nerve damage in my left leg. But I've never needed to resort to hard drugs. The reason is because I was told, as a child, what drugs are and what they do to you. Kids today know more about drugs than I ever did at their age, but the messages they receive are all skewed. Richard Bacon was sacked from Blue Peter when his drugs history was revealed. It doesn't seem to have done his career any harm. Kate Moss's career has positively blossomed since her habit was made public. And Angus Deayton ... did he ever actually go away? Everyone is allowed to make mistakes - we all do. But when those mistakes are made publicly and you are a role model and you don't seem to receive any punishment for it, what message does that send? Mark Speight and Natasha Collins were not, to my knowledge, addicts or frequent drug users. They knew the risks but had the wherewithal to flout them. They played the game and lost. It is a genuine double tragedy that two young, talented people should die like this. But let's not lose sight of the fact that they had a choice. They weren't driven to it by poverty or dreadful family circumstances. We should use their deaths to send the strongest possible message to our kids, just as we should use the media - TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, podcasts etc. - to educate and inform rather than just celebrate the cult of mediocre celebrity or to read about some soap 'star' who's had a pubic lift.

We all want our kids to act responsibly and with dignity and respect. We all, I would hope, want our kids to develop well-rounded personalities and a good grounding in science and art so that they can get good jobs. We all would like to imagine that the BBC spends our licence fee, and ITV its earnings from advertising, responsibly. But in the area of children's TV, I am convinced that they are failing dismally.

Our kids need role models; they need mother and father figures or uncle and auntie figures. They don't need big brother or sister role models, especially if they behave irresponsibly or just plain stupidly. Let's get rid of greed and the acquisition of wealth and celebrity as life goals. Let's bring back knowledge and education ... but not at the expense of entertainment and fun. It can be done. People like Adam Hart-Davis are living proof of this. He may be seen as an anachronism but he shouldn't be. He is an adult presenter whose shows go out in an adult time slot ... but they are exactly the same kind of shows that kids of my generation got to see between leaving school and tea-time. Why deny our kids this kind of material?

Kids are smart. They deserve smart programmes. Our kids need Tweedies, not Tweenies.

Note: I realise that there were any number of excellent female presenters but the majority were younger and, sadly, added as a touch of glamour. Things got much more balanced towards the end of the 1970s and there were plenty of bonkers middle-aged lady eccentrics to enjoy too.

All images (c) BBC Television except 'Rainbow' (c) Thames Television


Lucy said...

I disagree. Kids are smarter nowadays, but they are also less street-smart. They need stuff underlined for them several times BECAUSE they are bombarded with media images. When I was growing up in the 80s we had the one telly and we watched a certain amount of kids' TV - now it's on 24/7 somewhere, kids can literally watch it all day if they want to (I don't let my kids do this however!!!)

As for the programmes you've listed, I don't think they're that bad. Chucklevision was on when I was a kid and its focus seems to be looking out for each other and also owning up to be being daft, that's not so bad I think. Tho as a kid I never liked Chucklevision and my kids don't like it either. they do like The Slammer tho - no big surprise since they like X Factor and Britain's Got Talent too. Whilst some people don't like talent shows cos they say they're dumbing down telly, I think they have their place - as long as there's not too many of them.

Other kids' shows of note nowadays I think include Tracey Beaker, My Parents Are Aliens, Young Dracula, Horrid Henry, Raven & Chute.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks for your comments Lucy. As I said in the post, I may be showing my age a bit here and am happy to accept that. I also do appreciate that there is some programming of worth - whatever you think about the Chuckle Brothers! I guess my main point is the whole role model business and kids' TV is just one facet of it. Parents have the greatest part to play in this - sounds to me like you're a pretty good one. x