Since the Magic Roundabout aired in the 1960s, it has been commonplace to suggest that the makers of children’s television must be on drugs. Judging by today’s offering, the substance they can only be on is prozac.
Due to a complicated set of circumstances, I have found myself spending large portions of my lockdown days with small children, getting acquainted with kids’ TV of the modern age. It has been quite an education – and not the kind I remember from shows like Play Days that dominated my own childhood.
Take the children’s favourite (and adults’ torment) Peppa Pig. Ignore for a moment the lurid acrylic colours and surrealist artwork reminiscent of Picasso. The world of Peppa raises some worrying questions.
For example, why do some animals wear clothes and live in houses, whereas other animals are naked and live behind bars in the zoo (a zoo which is cruelly visited by Peppa and her friends on a school trip)? Is this the bleak world of “some animals are more equal than others” envisaged by George Orwell? Come to think of it, is it a coincidence that the pigs come out on top? And let’s not even get started on the horror of the pet competition, in which an insufferable young elephant brings a poor enslaved gecko to school.
And why is so much of the action staged on a huge hill? Is the show, in fact, an allusion to the Myth of Sisyphus, who was cursed with rolling a giant stone up and down a mountain for all eternity, and has become the embodiment of existential angst – a feeling uncannily relatable to parents forced to watch Peppa?
Peppa Pig has, I have discovered, sparked the kind of online flamewar usually reserved for celebrity scandals. One psychologist has claimed it turns kids into “emotionless zombies” (but then, people have been saying that about TV in general since it was invented). Even parents who let their children watch it have concerns about Peppa’s bad behaviour towards her little brother.
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Oona in Puffin Rock is another story entirely. She adores her baby brother Baba, whom she is always rescuing, and is a far more relatable heroine. In fact, the whole show is a relief after the garishness of Peppa, with proper adventures rather than hackneyed mundanity, all narrated in lyrical Irish accents.
But Puffin Rock is no bastion of equality. Puffins, shrews, rabbits, seals, and even clams get voices and narrative arcs, but the seagulls who share the island are mute, characterless templates of evil. Why the speciesism?
And then there’s the messaging, which is, shall we say, not subtle. I accept that children’s TV these days is supposed to be a good influence, but the moralistic tone of some verges on the puritanical. Cosmic Kids, the series of yoga classes that has gained worldwide popularity since lockdown began, is a brilliant way to keep children both entertained and exercised. But do all the yoga adventures have to end with an ethics lesson? Apparently, the moral of The Very Hungry Caterpillar was that things which taste nice are bad for us so we must only eat healthy food. I don’t remember that from the original – and since when is eating a hole through a watermelon and a slice of cheese such a crime?
Then again, it’s even worse when they get the message wrong. I was a fan of Ben And Holly’s Little Kingdom – it’s set in a land of elves and fairies, so at least there’s some authorial justification for all the glaring plot holes. But when Princess Holly is allowed to add a new competition to the Elf Games, what does she choose? “Looking pretty.” I’m not expecting a full cast of pint-sized feminists, but I thought we were past such overtly outdated gender stereotypes in the next generation’s entertainment.
The obvious answer to all of these objections is that adults overthink. The shows are designed to appeal to children (sometimes as young as one), and are not meant to make sense. Concepts and colour matter more than narrative integrity. And in this respect, they are probably tamer than their predecessors.
Do Peppa, Oona, or Ben and Holly really compare to the grotesque aliens of Tellytubbies, the distressing human-puppet relationships of Sesame Street, or the acid dreams of Zippy and Bungle in Rainbow?
Still, this feels different. I’m no expert, but didn’t children’s television used to be primarily about, well, entertainment – realms of bizarre fantasy that mirrored (if their stream of consciousness is anything to go by) the inside of the young minds they were intended for? Education was always in there, and the real-life presenters have always had the wide-eyed mania of people dosed up on fluoxetine and caffeine, but not every show was a civics lesson sugar-coated in hyped-up perkiness to make it palatable.
And it’s this new lack of the wonder that leads adult minds to wander down the rabbit hole, asking who funds the shadowy organisation that is Paw Patrol, and where are all the grown-up animals in Bing? When the worlds were weird and wonderful, we didn’t query the ways in which they fitted together, and were better able to suspend our disbelief. But when they look too much like reality – just a version of it skewed towards nameless authority and blatant favouritism – they risk becoming increasingly unheimlich, dystopian nightmares that Orwell and Kafka could only marvel at.
That’s my theory, anyway. But maybe I just need a few Magic Roundabout episodes to help me remember the magic of children’s TV.