Mr Moth discusses CBeebies and the rational adult
I am still on the island. Days pass, I have no idea how many, and they all seem the same. Every day brings fresh madness, every day is my worst day ever, every day brings me closer to the source of that infernal music. The music! It haunts my sleep. I cannot dream.
When I became a father in May 2009, I thought I was at least slightly prepared for it. Like every parent before me, I found out very quickly that I was not. It’s not just the sleepless nights (not as bad as you’d think), or the dirty nappies (only sometimes as bad you’d think), or the endless worry (worse than you can imagine), it’s the time. There’s so much of it, and your child expects you to fill it for them. Hello, little creature. What do you want? Everything? Oh. Can I read you a book? Shall we play with these toys? Shall we sing songs? Oh god, I’m exhausted. More books? More toys? More songs? Can’t I just sit for … more books! More toys! More songs! Enough! I love you, but enough!
So you switch on the telly, feeling guiltier every time, just to give yourself space to breathe, and if you’re sensible (and you have access to it) you’ll switch it to CBeebies. No ad breaks, a public-service remit, a decent budget (In The Night Garden…, for example, had a budget just over £14m for its 100 episodes), bound to be good for you, ameliorate the guilt. And it’s always there. CBeebies has become, for better or worse, an extra childminding option.
Faces, their expressions fixed and terrible, leer out of the undergrowth at me. Are they real?
When was Rainbow on? Don’t bother Googling: it was on at lunchtime, on ITV. A burst of colour and froth aimed at children, then it was pretty much back to regular telly until about four o’clock when we entered the liminal zone of Children’s Television. BBC or ITV, both had things in their favour, and things working hard against them. Phillip Schofield locked in his Broom Cupboard, adverts for Big Yellow Teapot, blah blah let’s not get too “Remember spacehoppers?” about it all. The point is that scheduling for children has (since the days of Watch With Mother through the Firmin/Postgate era right up to the launch of the dedicated CBBC/CbBeebies channels in 2002) been an interloper in the daily schedule, often bridging the gap between daytime broadcasting and Prime Time on the two main channels. Sure, it turned up elsewhere, but on BBC1 and ITV, the post-school 4-5:30pm slot belonged to children, with an option on the half hour to the news if The Flintstones was on. Adults really weren’t invited. But they were there, all the same, waiting for the real telly to start. Everyone knew a bit about children’s programming.
Multi-channel broadcasting changed all that. While channels exclusively dedicated to children were not a new thing elsewhere (America has had Nickelodeon since the late seventies), in Britain it was revolutionary, especially for parents of very young children. Now it inhabits its own channels, and we all time-shift and everyone has a telly built into their face – and only those carers for children stuck at home with nothing to watch but what their children watch knows what’s out there. Every day, they stare into the abyss. And what stares back?
Voices emanate from the rocks themselves. This island is cursed, it is alive, do you understand me? The island is alive.
Some of it is terrible, properly horrible, maddeningly awful. The bad ones fall into three categories: the preachy, the twee and the boring. Sometimes they are all three. Waybuloo, with its mind-bendingly tedious stories, lisping pink girlies – it seems, incidentally, to be a policy decision that any girl appearing on Waybuloo will wear some item of pink clothing – and trite messages about learning, sharing and doing bloody yoga. Driver Dan’s Story Train is just dull, like Peter Serafinowicz is doing it as community service. Mighty Mites is technically a war crime, but that falls into a special category of bad – shows involving Sarah-Jane Honeywell. Let’s not dwell on that thought, and that’s not even the worst part.
Yesterday I stumbled across a glade, ruins of an ancient temple to some forgotten god, its Cyclopean architecture strewn about the clearing by some monstrous hand. Evidence of occupation here, many overlaid footprints. I shuddered at the thought of the insane melodies accompanying whatever dark rituals took place here.
The worst part crept up on me slowly. At first I was content to simply loaf about on the sofa as my daughter watched the television, watching in a kind of idle bemusement. “What,” I thought, in common with a billion others, “are these people on? Ninky Nonk and Pinky Ponk? Are they for real? Haha.” Once I had got over my initial cynicism, though, something started to happen. I started to watch. “How can you not love Makka Pakka?” I asked myself. You can’t. You can’t not love Makka Pakka. Makka Pakka, Akka Wakka, Mikka Makka Moo. Makka Pakka, Appa Yakka, Ikka Akka Ooo. Hum Dum, Agga Pang, Ing Ang Ooo. Makka Pakka, Akka Wakka, Mikka Makka Moo. I typed that out without reference to external sources. Took me ages to learn it, but I did it because it made me happy to do so. Because I had something to bond with my daughter over? Oh, for sure, but also I just wanted to. Read it again. Don’t you want that in your head?
Some days, my work colleagues ask me “Did you have a good weekend?” and I am halfway to saying, “Oh, yes, it was great because …” and I realise that the end of the sentence is “it was a Tombliboos episode of Night Garden!” That’s not a good weekend. It’s not even a good evening. In fact, if pressed, I would have to concede that it isn’t even a good half hour.
Time – I don’t have enough time. I feel the precipitous rush of every hour passing, a clock clacking, my time drawing near.
One’s brain sits in neutral, so, with the engine idling, other forces start jumping up and down on the accelerator. Good shows became appointment telly. Bad shows became excuses to weave deeper meaning into banal rubbish. Take the wonderfully acronymic Grandpa In My Pocket, which I can best describe, watched straight, as a howling storm of terrible. But look at it another way: is it the story of a boy whose grandpa can shrink himself using a magic cap and get up to all sorts of mischief? Or is it a deeply disturbed old man; dyspeptic, depressed and half-maddened by some tragic event – the loss of his wife, perhaps – and the boredom of living his twilight years in some anodyne seaside town? A 76 year old Terry Collier (Grandpa is played with misanthropic zeal by James Bolam) with all his old resentment of authority and domesticity who takes symbolic revenge on his neighbours, imagining himself to be a demoniac imp, hurtling with unnatural speed through tea-parties, sandcastle contests and am-dram pantos? His grandson sees a man on the edge and, not without feeling for the mentally unstable Grandpa, plays along, but is always fretting that “Grandpa has gone too far this time”. He knows it’s mere days before his beloved aged relative is found naked but for a flat cap pretending to be a garden gnome in Mr Mentor’s back garden.
I was humming the theme to Chuggington long before I was paying attention to the narrative. To be fair, Chuggington has one of the best theme tunes on television, possibly due to a melodic lift from the Milky Bar jingle in the verse. It was only when I happened to sit down and actually watch an episode – Heave Ho, Harrison! – that I started to think “Hey, this is really great stuff!” Really? Is it really great stuff? Up there with The Wire, is it? A CGI cartoon about talking trains learning how to do train stuff in a weird steampunk world of anthropomorphic engines and their human charges? (It doesn’t even address some of the fundamental questions such a situation raises. Like, are the Chuggers autonomous, sentient beings who have chosen the life of, well, trains? Or are they artificial intelligences, created to serve their human masters? If so, are there safeguards against them turning on the people of Chuggington – like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, or even RoboCop’s Prime Directives? No-one ever brings this up, and until Old Puffer Pete is found with blood and brain matter smeared on his cow catcher I guess no-one ever will.) I still love it, though, and will defend it hotly against its detractors. I choose to watch it. I have opinions on the characters. I think, for example, that it is madly out of character for Vee – seemingly a vast computer controlling Chuggington via a network of loudspeakers – to shout “HONK YOUR HORNS!” at the start of the theme song. It’s unseemly. She’s cooler than that!
Some days I think of little more than which ZingZilla I hate the most. Is it Zak, with his ridiculous posturing, Panzee with her squealing insipidness (Panzee, not coincidentally, is played by Sarah-Jane Honeywell), or Drum, a character so brazenly token one wonders why they didn’t call her Tokena the Handy-Capable Monkey and get it over with? But no, the answer is always Tang; whiny, passive-aggressive Orang-utan Tang, whose full awfulness I didn’t even get until my wife pointed out that he always sounds sarcastic.
Drums. Drums in the deep. They are coming.
Mention the above programmes near a group of parents and watch the opinions flow out. These are all sane adults, and they all have something to say about CBeebies shows – not detached cynicism but impassioned beliefs. There are vicious factional fights between supporters of Octonauts and those who champion Chuggington as the best CG cartoon. I’ve seen Gigglebiz described as creepier than Psychoville and funnier than the Fast Show (it is both). Column inches have been dedicated to deciding who is the more fuckable – Nature Chris or Mr Bloom?
Does this make us better parents? Children of CBeebies age are pretty weird, so it’s probably good to have some shared dementia. Before this, parents would talk to their children, play games with them, read books, engage. Do we not engage? Of course we do, though I don’t doubt for a second that every single parent who has sat their child in front of CBeebies hasn’t felt the pang of guilt, that feeling that they should be doing all those things parents used to do. But this isn’t a replacement, it’s an extension of that. Parents and children enter the same worlds at the same time and come out with more in common. Mikka makka moo.
They win. They have won already. I have given in to their wild Bacchanals. I gibber and prance in the darkness with them. My mind secedes. That was the best Big Zing ever.
MrMoth loves kids so much he wrote a book for them