His own face was extraordinarily easy to read. Malcolm’s thoughts flitted over it almost as clearly as if he had spoken them. It was the strangest part of the whole horrible experience. He had never been able to tell what Malcolm was thinking before.

The Ogre Downstairs, Diana Wynn Jones

If you read a lot of books, you’re considered well-read. But if you watch a lot of TV, you’re not considered well-viewed.

Lily Tomlin, 

An Uncommon Scold, Abby Adams, Simon & Schuster (Nov 1989)

Alienation: A Tea-Time Treat

I recently wrote about The Changes (1975) as an example of the alienation from society which children’s television dramas reflected as the UK’s postwar social contract was torn apart.

Whatever the reason, the shape of children’s dramas was rarely the reassuring US superhero narrative arc of the dangerous outsider being heroically repelled. Rather, we may almost take it for granted that the pillars of establishment we meet in a CBBC drama are either corrupt and malevolent or stupid and ineffectual. Village leaders will try to stone children as witches, or turn out to be in league with an ancient evil stuck in a black hole. Parents will be distant or absent at best, or actively obstructive at worst.

Of course, if you are going to have a young protagonist, narratively it helps to set them up as having to act without the safety net of adult assistance. Famously, Roald Dahl disposed of the hero’s parents in James and the Giant Peach by casually having them eaten by a rhino in the opening pages. 

But there is more to this than just upping the stakes for our heros. Britain since Suez was a place where the people in charge were more likely to be wrong than right. The nation learned that, at best, authority figures were just making it up as they went along. Just as likely, they were lying. 

The writers who grew up through that humiliation of the 1950s Suez fumbles, lived through the upheavals of the 1960s settled into their writing career in the 1970s. After all that had happened, is it surprising that they spent the next 30 years drumming the same message- Do Not Trust Power- into their viewers? 

Alternatively, you could argue that children on the cusp of adulthood are naturally alienated from adult society, but no longer fully in the childhood state. Is it any wonder that children’s dramas are filled with only children? Every child feels themselves alone. 

Some dramas tackled this head on. Archer’s Goon, an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ superlative book of the same name, deals (as every one of her novels do in one way or other) with the problem of families. Screaming sisters, unreliable fathers, gods and monsters in the family. Who wouldn’t feel out of place and unsettled trying to develop a sense of self in those circumstances? The creators’ understood that the children watching were likely struggling with the same emotions, even if not actually fighting a family of wizards while doing it.

Children struggle to find their place in adult society under even the best conditions. And writers, trying to make sense of both their experiences of society and to communicate them to children, have to balance reassurance with warnings. The magic comes when the writer and the children both recognise each other as co-conspirators. When each whispers, in view of the grown ups, but unheeded by them “We are not like them.”

With extraordinary perceptiveness, she realized that each grown-up must kill the child he was before he himself can live. Nesbit’s vow to survive somehow in the enemy’s consciousness became, finally, her art—when this you see remember me—and the child within continued to the end of the adult’s life.

Gore Vidal, “The Writing of E. Nesbit”, NYRB, Dec 1964

The stillness of Waybaloo

They float down out of the screen. Huge heads, enormous eyes. 

Piplings live in Nara. They do yogo (yoga). Cheebies (children) come to visit them. They interact in a strange manner. Then they all do the same yoga moves together. 

Most programmes for preschoolers try to teach something- tolerance of physical difference, say. Or how to eat healthily. Waybaloo structurally fits into that mould. But what does it try to teach? The children and the Piplings usually overcome some minor-key difficulty by cooperating. Or they might exhort a Pipling to achieve some form of personal growth- to face a fear or to solve a mechanical problem. 

What is the lesson? What do the Piplings teach? 

That’s what makes Waybaloo so different from all the other programmes whose DNA it appears to share. This is not a programme about learning how to do something or even how to deal with other people. 

Waybaloo is a programme which tries to give the children watching a toolkit for reflecting, thinking and being still. This isn’t something which has ever been tried via television before. The medium is resistant to the concept of stillness. Moving picture boxes tend not to like it if you don’t move. But stillness- the gaps between actions- are the heart of Waybaloo. 

The Piplings play hide and seek with the children. But the emphasis is on the hiding, rather than the seeking. We see the four creatures looking for places to wait to be found. They waft here and there, peering into hollow logs or drifting to a halt behind bushes. Then, they wait for the children to find them. 

Every child who has ever played hide and seek with recognise the significance of those moments. Waiting to be found, holding quiet and still. 

The problem-solving aspect to the stories is also something different. It isn’t so much the actual solutions to problems which are focussed on. (When you are the owner of an ‘Everything Machine’ you tend not to have to work too hard to fix any little glitches you might encounter.) Rather, we see the process of consideration, collaboration and waiting for inspiration, on screen. ‘Thinkabout’ they call it. How to think, rather than what to think about, is Waybaloo’s education priority. 

And then, of course, there is the yoga. Called to a clearing by the chimes of a crystal bedecked prayer wheel, the Piplings (and later the children as well) go through a simple routine of yoga poses. But here’s a question for you- when did you ever see yoga on the television before? You haven’t. Even exercise shows prefer the jiggling hyperactivity of aerobics. But here, children (on both sides of the screen) are doing yoga poses and stretches at a dreamy slow pace. 

Waybaloo is reaching, stretching upward, to give children a moment of calm and stillness in their day. It also wants to encourage them to accept introspection as a natural and helpful part of a day. It is painful, as an adult, to realise that we have so nearly taken that from them.

Waybaloos on CBeebies

Waybaloos on CBeebies

I hate I Love Kids TV

“Hey, who remembers [insert audience age appropriate children’s television programme name]?”

Anyone who thinks children’s programmes are worthwhile in themselves will wilt when exposed to this question. It comes at the start of a painful stand-up bit or as the introduction to a 3 hour clips show strung together by almost-recognised faces reading words written by Stewart Maconie from an autocue. 

The question really means, weren’t we stupid for loving this absurd world we believed in? It invites us to sneer at our childhood selves. 

It is a betrayal. Children commit themselves to their programmes. Our imaginative landscape growing up is populated by landmarks from our reading and viewing. They are the food that nourishes our imaginative development. Sniggering at the the shoddy sets on Doctor Who or the absurdity of a Magic Door is kicking at the root of the things that we loved when we loved most truly.