The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

Here’s Not Looking at You, Kids

A passionate defence of the importance of children's media to the creative economy and a heartfelt thank you to the people that make it possible for writers to tell their stories to children.

In his great poem The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin describes a whit weekend train trip from Hull to London. Whit was a popular time to get married so “all down the line fresh couples climbed aboard.” From the carriage windows they watch England flashing by. “An Odeon went past, a cooling tower and someone running up to bowl” until they come to London “its postal districts packed like squares of wheat”.  The journey is “a frail travelling coincidence”. I don’t know a better definition of nation than that phrase.  And I don’t know a better definition of what culture does than Larkin’s observation that “all their lives will contain this hour.” Shared memories lend the frail travelling coincidence some durability.  Of course shared national memories don’t have to come from culture. They can come from sporting triumphs - though they’re hard to come by and the follow-up might be fifty years of hurt.  They can also come from catastrophes, such as the one we are living through right now.

If we’ve learnt one thing from the pandemic it is surely that we interpret the world through stories. When it all began we - and I include cabinet ministers and policy-makers in that “we” - we read it through the lens of movies like 'Contagion', in which the thin veneer of civilisation might crack under the strain of shortages and fear, so that we might at any moment start eating each other or at least start hitting each other with toilet rolls.  When that didn’t happen,  when - on the contrary - we started shopping for our elderly neighbours,  putting rainbows in our windows and having socially distanced street parties, we saw ourselves in a kind of reboot of the Blitz spirit.  We even found ourselves a hero with unimpeachably World War Two credentials in Captain Tom.

So what story is British television telling our children right now?

We’ve placed our children under incredible stress.  We’ve asked them to park up their education, their friendships, their social and sporting activities in order to protect the older generation. This is more or less the opposite of the Blitz spirit.  Then children were sent to places of safety while the parents stayed in danger. Now it’s the children who are taking the hit in terms of physical and mental health and educational prospects.

Their lives will contain this moment forever and what will it say to them?

Television - or at least screens - has been an important part of the story.  Like many others my household has for the last year been a frail non-travelling coincidence.  Apart from my wife and I it comprised -  a son in his teens who hasn’t left home yet, another in his twenties who was about to leave but whose job switched to remote working, and an anxious elderly grandmother who didn’t want to be left alone.  Shared meals and shared TV turned this ad hoc collection into a household.  This has been the case across the country. I asked Twitter if people were watching TV with their kids and if so what.  If I’d asked about grown-up TV I could easily have predicted some of the answers. They’d nearly all be from lavishly funded streaming services - 'Queens Gambit', 'The Crown' and so on.  But when it came to watching TV with children there was little common ground.  Parents were basically curating their own in-house festivals.  Someone was watching the entire history of 'Doctor Who' from the very beginning.  Another was doing the same with 'The Simpsons'. There are some CBBC programmes - 'Bluey' crops up a lot as does 'The Next Step' and 'Tracy Beaker'.  But 'Cobra Kai' and 'The Mandalorian' are the nearest things to essential viewing. Then of course there’s Joe Wicks and other good folk making their expertise - whether it was in fitness, cooking or whatever - available to all on YouTube.  A lot of children’s illustrators and authors did this. I did a lot of it myself.

There’s a lot of nostalgia in the programmes those parents listed. I promised myself that I would avoid nostalgia when talking about this. But nostalgia is a way of using the past to hold the present to account, of measuring what we have lost. The children’s TV I was privileged to grow up with poured wildly inventive animation, stories from all over the world, aspirational factual programmes and hours of complete silliness into my living room. When years later I worked with Danny Boyle on the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, Danny created a montage of all the great TV moments that we thought had gone to creating us as a kind of thank you to that era.

You could argue - a lot of powerful people ARE arguing - that those days are gone. The list of content-providers I’ve mentioned - lavish streaming service serials and niche YouTube channels for instance - might provide evidence for that.  The BBC should be reduced to its public service core.  But a public service stripped down to its merely utilitarian functions is like a country stripped down to its geology. It’s not a country any more. It’s just some rocks sticking out of the sea.

First there’s the creative argument. The children’s TV of my youth was often wildly innovative and inspiring.  Often it was most wildly innovative and most inspiriting when it was most fully embracing the idea of service.  I give you … 'Vision  On'.  'Vision On' was designed to give deaf children a chance to enjoy television but not one moment of the show was pious or worthy. It exploded with unhinged creativity.  I’m not using the word “inspiring” here as a word of praise. I’m using it as a statement of fact. 'Vision On' gave a space - The Gallery - for children to exhibit their own work. It also provided a platform for the nascent Aardman animation to begin the journey that would lead to Wallace and Grommit.  'Why Don’t You Switch Off Your Television Set' - probably the most public service title ever typed – had the mighty Russell T. Davis on the production team, who went on to re-create 'Doctor Who'. To quote David Sproxton, one of the founders of Aardman, “We were lucky enough to have a small contract with BBC Children’s Television, we never imagined our two-man outfit would develop into a major studio of international repute. It’s been an extraordinary journey, even if it is one we’ve taken one frame at a time.” This is all before we even begin to talk about how much Harry Potter - now an industry in its own right - owes to 'The Worst Witch'. Or about the fact that when I was watching Brian Cant and Derek Griffiths on 'PlayAway' I was - all unknowing - listening to the early works of someone who was to become the most influential writer working today - Julia Donaldson.

This kind of alchemical synergy can still happen. One series that did get mentioned a lot on my Twitter feed was 'Ghosts'. 'Ghosts' grew out of that very public service series Horrible Histories. Simon Farnaby, one of the writers and stars of 'Ghosts', went on to work on the Paddington films.  Paddington of course has his roots in a series of novels, but he gained his furry foothold in the culture step by step - first on 'Jackanory', then an animated series (again brilliantly innovative with simple puppets against drawn backgrounds) until finally emerging as - I would argue - one of the greatest films of all time. The pop culture sequence I mentioned in the Olympic Opening Ceremony had at its centre an ordinary modern house. I remember one of our government minders voicing concern about this saying he thought it might look bathetic. He earned a speech from Danny Boyle about how the houses we had grown up in were the crucibles in which the British culture the world adored - from the Beatles, to the Arctic Monkeys, from 'The Forsythe Saga' to 'Doctor Who' - were forged. That sequence celebrates the way TV brought amazing stuff into those houses and those houses repaid the gift by producing people who would make even more amazing stuff, yay even unto the World Wide Web itself.

Paddington, Doctor Who,  Harry Potter, Wallace and Grommit - these are important components in our economy.  Harry Potter alone has generated over £2bn. Four times what the fishing industry is worth. But these characters are also a crucial, indelible part of how the World sees us. Over the last years I’ve frequently heard politicians talk about how to teach traditional British values. The argument goes that to have a peaceful and prosperous multi-cultural society you need a set of values to which every group in that society can subscribe. It’s an ambitious project. And the fullest expression of that ambition is … a bit of tinkering with the English and History curriculum and a heated debate about statue-toppling.

You cannot teach values. You can only live them and by living them share them. As St Francis was fond of saying - teach, teach, teach and only when all else fails use words. One of the places I found those values when I was growing up was children’s TV. It turned its face towards me and said - this eccentric, inventive, hilarious, good-hearted nation is yours.  It is not simply that the people who created Paddington, Doctor Who or Grommit honed their crafts in children’s TV. It’s that children’s TV embodied a set of values that came to their fullest and most forceful expression in those characters. It’s why they stand out from the rest.

But that economic and ideological argument is not the most important thing.

The pandemic has been a great moment for television. During lockdowns households gathered together to watch stuff together just like in the old days of Morecombe and Wise. We all became the Royle Family. This renaissance in viewing has happily coincided with a renaissance in the making of TV drama.  Streaming services have supplied hours and hours of lavishly mounted and beautifully produced frictionless entertainment. I wouldn’t have missed 'Queens Gambit' or 'Call My Agent' for worlds.

Is there a new children’s series that could stand up alongside these? I mentioned before the strong thread of nostalgia running through those tweets about family viewing.  What does nostalgia mean here? It means people were able to find and share moments of happiness in a very dark time by reaching back to Mr Benn’s house in Festive Road or to the platform of the Llantisilly and Merioneth Steam Traction Company. Nostalgia is a comfort. Are we creating anything now for which our children could reach back to if there are similar dark times in their adult lives? This isn’t just a question about the quality of the programmes, it’s about where they sit in the schedule, what importance we place on them. It seems to me that when we do produce a cracking children’s series - like 'Ghosts' - it gets rescheduled as a grown-up series.  What does that say about us?

It says Here’s Not Looking at You, Kids.

I am proud to say that I’ve worked on a big Netflix project and am working on a big Dreamworks project.  I’m working with the cleverest most creative and ambitious people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. But they cannot - cannot afford - to produce drama that speaks with an accent. I know this because the Dreamworks project I’m working on is based on one of my own books, which was set in Kirkcudbright. Imagine trying to explain how to pronounce that name.

Global studios have to make stuff with global appeal. At its best that means it’s universal appeal. At its worst it means that it can only make things that are in some way already familiar. It’s no coincidence that the biggest international British hits - brilliant though they be - all involve crowns, or at least coronets. We cannot afford to become a nation whose public face is dressing up as characters from its own history - re-enacting our ancient customs for online tourists.

When writers and producers do get a chance to engage with the lives of young audiences it often works brilliantly. Look at 'Jamie Johnson' or 'My Mum Tracey Beaker'.  By the way I’m not at all arguing here exclusively for contemporary realism.  The moment when I myself felt most “seen” - to use a fashionable term - was when an episode of 'The Magic Roundabout' opened with Dougal staring balefully into the camera muttering, “Hello, turned on a bit early for the news have we?” Somehow I found that downbeat cynicism electrifying.  As though Dougal had taken the temperature of our living room.

Here’s another lesson from the pandemic. That frail, travelling coincidence is frailer than you think. During the insane numbers of hours I spent zooming and YouTubing to schools this last year, it became very clear to me that many children are not living in that frictionless super-fast broadband Netflix world. In any session I would find kids desperately trying to stay on board using phones and data. The stories they wrote pulsed with anxiety and isolation.

Stories abhor a vacuum. If we vacate the storytellers’ chair by the campfire, another storyteller will take our place. If we don’t tell our own stories, someone else will tell theirs. And their story may well not be 'The Saga of Noggin the Nog'.  It may well be a story about how democracy is pointless because all governments are corrupt. It may be a story about how medical science is really a conspiracy bent on delivering the sheeple into the hands of paedophile owl-worshipping globalists.  We are living through a moment of almost unprecedented fury. Everything divides us. Brexit or Remain. Mask or no Mask.  Meghan or Kate.  Every new story is savagely sliced into a binary choice. This is what happens when you abandon the anxious and the isolated to the market.

Our children’s lives will contain the Covid moment forever.  Will they remember that the generations who had found wonderland at the bottom of the rabbit hole abandoned them to a warren of darker, depressing rabbit holes on YouTube?

I said that we are the stories we tell. But the truth is we become the stories we tell. The story we seem to be telling at the moment is that children and young people should be seen in the John Lewis advert. But not heard. People who are not heard always do make themselves heard in the end.  And when they do, they won’t be quoting Paddington’s Aunt Lucy, “If we’re kind and polite the world will be right.”

The spirit of eccentricity and innovation, that love of the detail of our lives and rhythms of speech that was there in Oliver Postgate or 'Grange Hill' still illuminates shows like the wonderful 'Bluey', and in 'Tracy Beaker'. But I get the feeling these are the flowers that have wiggled their way through the concrete of institutional indifference and defeatism. The response to the big budget behemoths of the streaming services cannot be defeat and retreat. “Nothing ever stands still,” said Orwell in the Lion and the Unicorn. “We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward.” I still believe we can go forward with Bluey, Tracy, Charlie and Lola and the rest.  We can - we must - create a space where innovation, wildness and fun can flourish without immediately being diced and sliced by the market.

We need to take children’s TV seriously.  Because nothing is more serious than our children.

When Larkin’s train finally got to Kings Cross - the station from which Harry Potter left for Hogwarts - he says that,

as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower   
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Julia Donaldson, Michael Bond, Tony Hart, Biddy Baxter, Joy Whitby, Anna Home, Molly Cox, Eric Thompson, Gordon Murray, Alison Prince and a host of others, we were your arrows. Thank you for our flight.

Let us find a little plot of soil to nourish when we fall as rain.

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By Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a successful British screenwriter whose film credits include Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie and 24 Hour Party People. Millions, his debut chidlren's novel, won the 2004 Carnegie Medal and was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award.

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