Just when he thought he was out of CBeebies Land, they pulled Mr Moth back in…
There is a genre of comment piece – stop me if you’ve heard this before – that turns up fairly regularly. A regular columnist has a child and, a couple of years later, writes a “bit” about how weird CBeebies is. They speak in breathless tones as if they are the first to push through into this secret Night Garden, the sole adult to ever impose a sordid psychodrama on top of the innocent world of Chuggington, discoverer of new worlds in cheap CGI and expensive stop-motion. We would never stoop so low.
Anyway, time continues its inexorable slide to the heat-death of the universe and we all move on. My daughter is seven now, and watches Teen Titans, Yonderland, the rebooted Danger Mouse and so many YouTube videos about Minecraft. I don’t watch those, except Yonderland, so make no comment (except that Yonderland is a staggeringly great piece of telly that you should watch without hesitation). She has passed beyond my sight, television-wise, and we shan’t reconnect until she is a teenager watching old episodes of Buffy with me or whatever.
But, you see, almost two years ago we changed our lives again and now there’s a son in the equation. He’s a bonny little thing and his enthusiasm for the world is heartwarming, but everyone is older now. Having a tornado of energy and excitement barrelling round the house like the Tasmanian Devil is… People, I have nothing left. Nothing. Only CBeebies. And CBeebies has changed, man.
That’s an irresponsible thing to say, sorry. Cbeebies hasn’t changed, which is a large part of its problem, the way we watch it has. The way we watch TV in general has shifted massively in the years since I first wrote about it. Back then, we might occasionally whack a Night Garden on at an unusual time by the magic of “The British Broadcasting Corporation’s Amazing iPlayer Device” via the Wii. It was tethered to the living room TV, low-quality and sometimes stuttered in playback, so it didn’t happen often. Now, though?
A spectre is haunting my house – the spectre of Bing Bunny. I can’t go from one room to another without him popping up. On my phone, on my wife’s iPad, on the TV via the Xbox or Sky boxsets, on the radio. I hear Bing learning a valuable lesson about some bullshit or other through the fillings in my teeth. I cannot escape.
For the uninitiated, Bing is an animated rabbit pre-schooler. He lives just around the corner, not far away, with his carer Flop (NOBODY is a parent in Bing. Only ever a carer) and he is, and this is not a term I throw lightly around when describing four year olds, a cunt. My wife came up with a term to describe white male entitlement when talking to my daughter – “Pinkie Dinkles”. It’s great because it’s accurately targeting the attributes that somehow give white men their (OUR ok, fine, our) power while being funny and dismissive. It struck me very clearly when watching that Bing Bunny is a Pinkie Dinkle* in training; his solutions to problems are rarely co-operative, often violent, selfish, unthinking. He is never admonished for his bad behaviour and almost always gets his own way. His privilege goes unexamined, so anything good in the show is undermined by the knowledge that the central character is literally just perpetuating the patriarchy. Also he pisses himself in the crèche and no one goes “FUCK’S SAKE BING I’VE GOT TO MOP THAT UP WHY DIDN’T YOU GO TO THE TOILET WHEN I SAID?”
Don’t get me wrong, though, there are good aspects to Bing, the show. The adults being withered, featureless sacks is an amazing visualisation of the unimportance of grown-ups to children, also my style goals. Kindness and patience instead of exasperation and botched discipline? Yeah, Flop is a role model we parents (CARERS) can all aspire to. And, in the end, we will usually fail to measure up. Flop never gets angry, never shouts, never has to leave the room for a minute to calm down. Maybe I hate Flop, swanning serenely around with Mark Rylance’s calm, measured tones, more than Bing? Maybe, because Bing is simply a little shit but Flop is the carer I can never be. Bastard.
And I cannot escape. From the moment my son wakes and bashes me with a tablet to shutdown at 7pm, he’s always there. I’m willing to indulge this, and I’m definitely the enabler here, because for the seven minutes he’s watching Bing he’s not asking me for something. Sounds callous? OK, get the washing up done while you have a toddler insisting you read a book about diggers. This is necessary time. So out comes Bing. And, often, more than one episode.
Thanks to the aforementioned streaming, we can now tailor the CBeebies schedule to a perfectly-fitted suit. A huge dose of Bing. All the (perfect, tiny, beautiful) episodes of Patchwork Pals. A chain of Timmy Time. No one need ever see Octonauts again. Have you seen the new Teletubbies? It’s even more batshit than the original (THEY HAVE KIDS NOW, which raises all sort of questions) and having that beamed into your head at 6am is like a waking dream/nightmare. It’s something my son likes, ish, but he also gets bored with the repetition. Whatever, though, the first hint of an objection and we can move on to the next show. This is great, and terrible. On the one hand, he’s never bored. On the other, I’m creating EXACTLY the sort of entitlement I complain about in, oh let’s say Mike the Knight.
Mike the Knight was my first inkling that all may not be 100% wonderful in CBeebies land. He is the Pinkiest of Dinkles, the Prince of Privilege. He barges out of his twatpalace, causes all sorts of shit then, because he is ultimately forced to realise what a dickhead he’s been without actually taking any blame, is proclaimed hero because he fixed it. His mess. This is like getting a promotion at work because you wiped up the turd you’d done on your own desk. Along the way the only person who ever feels any disapprobation is his sister, who is usually, inevitably, portrayed as a pain, a bore, an irritant. Snip. Edited out of the schedule.
Who else is edited out? Peter Rabbit (though singing “PAEDO RABBIT” along with the theme song is an endless joy), whose prosaic CGI scrapes are powered by a turbine attached to Beatrix Potter’s spinning corpse. Not that I think much of B-Pot’s books, but this is a special kind of crap; limp, ugly and lifeless. This is the sin of too many shows – not actively offensive, just passively boring.
That’s not something you could say about Tree Fu Tom, which is a cartoon almost hand-crafted to piss me off. Tom himself is bad enough – the preening shithead – but Twigs? HE’S NOT EVEN PLAYED BY DAVID TENNANT ANY MORE. So when he’s fucking things up like Mike the Knight playing Peter Pan in regional Panto, you don’t even have the fleeting fun of thinking “Heh, that’s Dr Who”, you just have to listen to someone doing a bad impression of David Tennant. And then he and Tom are praised when they save the day even though, nine times out of ten, it was THEIR FAULT IN THE FIRST PLACE. Again. This is a theme.
Even Postman Pat has gone to the dogs. Since losing his job with the Royal Mail, he’s become even worse at his job. Not once in Special Delivery Service (which should be titled Yodel Courier Pat) does he manage to get the package delivered on time or in one piece. Even with a helicopter at his disposal he is incompetent beyond belief. It’s not clear when he started drinking, but it is clear that he’s finding it hard to stop. The sooner he is replaced by a drone the better, imo. But Pat is a local hero. Why? Because he manages to fix the problems created by… Well, guess.
All this is why I’m reliant on a few shows for my kid’s education and entertainment – his edutainment if you will. Because, as I am sure I’ve said previously, CBeebies is actually brilliant and packed with high-quality TV for a (physically) small audience with incredibly specific demands. The number of hits to misses almost doesn’t matter because when it gets it right it does so in spectacular style.
There are many straightforwardly educational shows. Nina and the Neurons tackles various aspects of science and engineering. My Pet and Me is about pets and me (they hacked my webcam). Do You Know is one of those hypnotic “How stuff works” shows for preschoolers. But my favourite adds a little pizazz to proceedings. Andy Day, in-house CBeebies presenter and professional Fatima Whitbread lookalike, got his own gig in Andy’s Wild Adventures a few years ago. With its urgent ska pastiche theme song and David Bellamy-ish “shrinking down to look at animals” gimmick it was a predictable hit, although maybe not big enough to escape radical retooling for its second series.
Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures added time travel and two extra syllables to the theme song (by the time he gets to his “prehistoric” adventures it gives me a headache to listen to). Now working in “the National Museum” (it BOTHERS me that the interiors are the Natural History Museum but the external shot is NOT), Andy has lost the ability to change size but any time something goes awry in the museum he now has the ability to spit in the face of God and travel back to the time of the dinosaurs and put it right. The arrogance of the man! To play with the history of the world just to save his job! And the arrogance of the BBC, to be honest, to reuse their Walking With Dinosaurs footage so lazily.
Learning of a different sort comes from Woolly and Tig. Charming, naturalistic, good-natured, it’s the sort of telly you imagine you’ll get with CBeebies. Tig is believably difficult and the way Woolly, her cuddly spider who comes to life to talk her round when she gets scared or angry or confused, helps her to overcome her problems isn’t taking the Flop approach. He doesn’t say “Oh, not your fault, let’s work round it”, he says “It’s ok to feel this way. Everyone feels like this sometimes and everyone finds a way to deal with it so let’s find yours.”
Oh, wait. Wait. The boys are told that the world will bend round them to make them feel better and the girls are told to adapt, to absorb the blows. FFS, CBeebies. Throw me a frickin’ bone here. Although the lessons of Woolly and Tig are great if applied universally, the evidence of Tom, Mike, Peter, Pat and dozens of others is that they’re not. So please. Give me a show with a female lead who doesn’t compromise. I didn’t intend to get into this position, but here I am. I am raising a boy and I don’t want him to become a Pinkie Dinkle. He ain’t going to learn that from me, is he? Let’s be honest. So I was kind of hoping the damn leftie Biased Broadcasting Corporation would help me out here.
Maybe it can. In a way the trail was blazed a year or two earlier by The Adventures of Abney and Teal, the delightful tale of two down-and-outs dreaming their lives away in Special Brew bliss on a lake island in Victoria Park. Teal, voiced by the singer off of one hit wonder Noisettes, is adventurous and driven, a character with agency to spare. Sometimes she just can’t be arsed with the adventure and fucks off to bed. That’s how you do a female lead, although clearly they weren’t quite bold enough to have her fly solo. Having said that, Abney is a wet blanket and in no sense a bullish Mike the Knight-type. He is, to use the language of the people who are getting ready to spaff their brain-jizz in the comments of this SJW propaganda piece RIGHT NOW, a beta cuck. Old Alpha Bop in the pond is the only grown-up in the show, and he gets no lines so it’s almost the Teal show. And it was a hit! So what next?
Here’s a beautiful thing. In 15 years time, you will be able to run into any student union bar in the land, yell “Sarah and Duck” and be greeted with a loud reply of “QUACK!”. This is a fact. Sarah and Duck should be put on permanent loop in the BFI. It should be praised as the jewel in the crown of the BBC’s children’s programming. It is magnificent. Surreal, warm, genuinely funny.
It’s the anti-Bing. It’s not about learning lessons. Every character is important – Scarf Lady, the Shallots, the Moon… the side characters could have their own show (literally in the case of Flamingo and John, the Bizarro Sarah and Duck – one can easily imagine each encounter with them is a crossover with a show in another universe). It has a female lead who isn’t a smartarse, isn’t bossy, doesn’t simper. Roger Allam’s cosy diagetic narration gives it a timeless feel and if you’re not charmed by Sarah and her bread-obsessed duck sidekick, Duck, you’ve honestly got no soul.
I can’t imagine anyone objecting to Sarah and Duck. It radiates happiness, it is without doubt the kind of show future adults will remember with the strongest affection – the way my generation think of Bagpuss, Bod or the Flumps. It even has Derek Griffiths. The difference, of course, being that it will always be there for them at the touch of a button, on any screen in the house. In the last few years, even nostalgia has changed.
*When I said this to my daughter she looked confused and said “But he’s not white”. It took a me a moment of thinking before responding “He’s just got black fur, I don’t think he is intended to be a… a… rabbit of colour.” I think I’m right, too, as there are characters in Bing clearly portrayed as PoC. If he IS meant to be then oh lord because I would say the way he is drawn to look a little Minstrely is, uh, problematic.