I don’t allow my children to watch television. Instead, we engage in educationally-rich, brain-stimulating activities that… hang on. I can’t keep a straight face any longer. Of COURSE my children watch television. They probably watch too much television. My proudest moment to date with my one year old was the developmental milestone of him being about to sit through an entire programme without losing interest, meaning that E and I could also watch without being climbed on, poked or screamed at.
But children’s television is a double-edged sword. Let’s leave aside its dubious effects on a young, impressionable brain, because a foray into that dark territory of parental guilt serves no purpose other than to make you feel even more crap as a mother, and I am more than capable of feeling inadequate without the help of something that plugs into a wall socket. No, the main issue with children’s television is that as a parent, you inevitably get subjected to it as well.
It seems that kids consume television like they consume food: with a few firm favourites that they can swallow up time and time again without vomiting. E has been through countless phases of ‘favourite programme’, and I approach him being exposed to a new programme with apprehension: Is this the new favourite? Will I get daily requests to see if it is on, to record it, to watch it over and over and over again until my eyeballs are bleeding and I would sell what remains of my soul to watch something else for five minutes? There was Octonauts. For a long time. This, in fact, I actually didn’t mind. It had its fair share of gadgetry, which can only be a good thing, and both E and I learned quite a lot about the natural world. (Please don’t tell me they made it up. It would destroy me).
And then Octonauts was dismissed as boring. We ventured forth into the unchartered territory of television beyond the comforting, padded, primary-coloured cell of CBeebies, to those dens of commercialised iniquity that proffer up a few programmes to fill in the air time between the intoxicating, shimmering world of children’s advertising. These are the places where my child first learned the mantra of: “Can I have that? Can I have that? Can I have that?” as annoying jingles and misleading footage of zooming space rockets (accompanied by tiny writing at the bottom of the screen warning no one in particular that the toy cannot actually fly), talking figures (warning: these figures do not actually talk) and exploding landscapes (warning: these mountains do not actually explode) hypnotise him into a frenzy of purchase anticipation (warning: I will never, ever buy you this, so tough bloody luck, sunshine).
It was then only Jake and the Neverland Pirates that could grace our screen, with their bug-eyes and annoying, squeaky American accents that made me develop an involuntary facial tic. All that bloody asking the viewer for help, just so they could get their sweaty little hands on even more gold doubloons. Do it yourselves, you lazy, pint-sized, vacuous, swash-buckling idiots. I don’t pay my licence fee to do your job for you.
And now, it is all about Scooby Doo. We have left the pirates behind, and spend our time watching a motley assortment of teenagers and a large dog. This programme has everything: a ‘will they won’t they’ hymen-threatening storyline of teenage lust with Fred and Daphne, an intellectual powerhouse nerd-in-heavy-framed-specs in Velma, Shaggy, an inhabitant of the town of Slackerdom who is no doubt a dope-smoker and benefits cheat and an undertow of genetic experimentation gone wrong with a talking dog with early-onset bulimia. Which part of that is not totally suitable for a five year old?
And so it goes on. E’s obsession with programmes seems to last just long enough that I eventually acquiesce to buying those Octonaut pyjamas, or that Jake cereal bowl, or that Scooby Doo bag, two days after which, he announces that Captain Barnacles is effectively dead to him and he’d rather wear an old pillowcase than don that babyish nightwear.
Having not learned to talk yet and only being one and a half – ergo, he has no opinion on anything, let alone the choice of programme – B has been exposed to television that is distinctly age inappropriate. We do try and give him a few moments of CBeebies when E’s back is turned, which is why we ended up watching In the Night Garden the other evening. Now, this was essential viewing when E was his age: I sat through what felt like thousands of episodes. Here is a programme that really does not stand up to close scrutiny, and it gives me a distinct feeling of unease. Firstly, there is the Pinky Ponk. A cross between and air ship and a mammary gland, this bulbous mode of transport has a giant, pale pink breast on the front, complete with nipple. They could not have made a more blatant attempt to hypnotise the breast-feeders in the audience than if a lactating woman popped up every three minutes calling ‘milky…milky…milky’ and pointing at her nipples. Then there is Iggle Piggle, a blanket-dependent, blue-faced idiot, who is marginally less irritating than Upsy Daisy. This woman is a whore. She spends most of the episodes I have seen lifting her skirt and showing everyone her knickers, before kissing anything that moves (particularly anything blue, holding a blanket), before screeching drunkenly into a megaphone like an inebriated teenager who has pre-loaded on supermarket vodka before having one too many WKDs and hogging the pub karaoke machine. And let’s not even talk about the fact that she wheels her bed into the middle of the forest every night…
I find myself musing frequently that kids’ programmes were so much better in my day. Which proves two things. One, I am getting way, way too old. And two, I am also utterly sodding wrong. I call up a few of my favourites on You Tube to remind myself of those seventies masterpieces. First up, The Clangers. Good grief, that programme would give me nightmares now, so god only knows what it did to me back then. Next up, Mr Benn. Right. A weirdo who obviously doesn’t have a job but still leaves the house every morning in a suit and bowler, only to go and hang out in the changing room of the local fancy dress shop. There was a child molester if ever I saw one. It turns out that the bloke who wrote Mr Benn also wrote the Elmer books, which explains a lot. I fucking hate that lumbering, patch-worked elephant. I quickly leave Festive Street and head to Pipkins, where Pig looks like the victim of a botched face reconstruction carried out on the cheap by an unlicensed Czech surgeon after a nasty incident involving an industrial ham-slicing machine, and Hartley Hare seems to be two heartbeats away from being roadkill, such is his look of barely-contained terror and quivering, mangy limbs. So finally, I move onto Fingerbobs. There is a reason you rarely see beards on children’s television outside of the Christmas season, and this man is it.
So, it’s official. All kids’ television is crap. Actually, that is not true, there are a few gems. I bloody love Shaun the Sheep, but I don’t get to watch it as E has long grown out of it and sitting down on my own with the Shaun the Sheep box set is just a little strange for a woman of forty-two. But a lot of it is crap, particularly when you are not five anymore and yet you are subjected to it anyway. But I have one thing going in my favour. E can’t read, which means that as I scroll down the TV listings on the screen and he asks for anything that I particularly cannot bear (such as the snarky, wise-cracking dudes-fest that is the current version of Spiderman) I can put on my ‘that’s a shame’ face, tell him it isn’t on, but I have a cracking episode of Shaun the Sheep all ready to go in the DVD player if he fancies.