Agitprop for toddlers: the oddly strident politics of CBeebies

Children's shows now put environmentalism ahead of entertainment

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

I think I might be a bad parent; whenever my wife is out, I plonk our two-year-old daughter in front of the television. The other day we watched a rainbow nation of children marching around the British countryside singing ‘Let’s make sure we recycle every day’, and I realised that something has changed in children’s programming since I was little. These young recyclers are from a show called Green Balloon Club, which is ostensibly a wildlife programme, but the song had more in common with one of those Dear Leader dirges you see in North Korea. It wasn’t education, it was propaganda.

The purpose of children’s stories has always been to educate as well as entertain. I was brought up on the Railway Stories by Revd W. Awdry, which later became the TV series Thomas the Tank Engine. These stories have a strict moral code: when an engine misbehaves he is chastised and often punished by the Fat Controller. In a story that terrified me as a child, my namesake Henry the Green Engine refused to leave a tunnel because he didn’t want the rain to mark his new paint job. To teach him a lesson, the Fat Controller had him bricked up in the tunnel.  The lesson was clear — don’t be vain about your shiny new paint job.

Compare this with a programme on CBeebies (the channel of choice for my daughter) called Mike the Knight. Mike is a knight in training and each episode consists of a ho-hum quest such as stopping the local Vikings stealing pies. He’s not a very like-able figure, Mike, arrogant and stupid, just the sort of character who might benefit from a bit of bricking up in a tunnel. Through over-confidence he initially fails in his quest and becomes disheartened. Rather than tell him where he’s going wrong, his companions — a couple of camp dragons and his sister — bolster his confidence and eventually, with a bit of luck and a lot of help from his friends, the quest is completed successfully. Everyone then tells Mike that he ‘has saved the day’.

From the Railway Stories to ‘Mike the Knight’, the world has changed from one where your actions have consequences to one where self-esteem must not be dented even if you’re an arrogant dimwit. Education is now about therapy rather than discipline. Some programmes take the therapeutic line further and move into the realms of cognitive behavioural therapy, actually trying to change specific behavioural patterns rather than just bolster self-esteem. Sesame Street was conceived by a group of academics, psychologists and educationalists with the aim of promoting tolerance, politeness and racial harmony as well teaching English, maths etc. As a child, I never enjoyed it. I think I found it too obviously educational — I preferred the pure entertainment and whimsy of the British programmes such as Bagpuss and Button Moon — but watching it now I can see the appeal. Yes it’s worthy but when you have Jim Henson doing the puppets, Maurice Sendak involved with the concept and a guest appearance from Linda Ronstadt, it’s hard not to be entertained.

Strip away the showbiz, production values and humour from Sesame Street and you are left with something like Tommy Zoom, probably my least favourite. This programme mixes live action with animation. It opens with a real boy, Tommy, who misbehaves — doesn’t eat his lunch, say — then cuts to a cartoon sequence where Tommy becomes a superhero called Tommy Zoom and does battle with the evil Polluto (geddit?). Here Tommy learns that his wasteful behaviour is destroying the planet. The point is clear: behave or the environment gets it.

Environmental peril lurks in the background of so many programmes now that after a while one doesn’t even notice. It functions much like the Empire in the children’s books that I inherited from my parents. It’s not the environmental message per se that grates — after all, The Wombles is essentially a programme about recycling. My beef is with the didacticism of it. There’s no charm, humour or proper narrative. The message has become more important than the story. Shows such as Tommy Zoom and that bloody recycling song are designed purely to influence children’s behaviour. I worry that my daughter will end up like Parsons’ children in Nineteen Eighty-Four, who report him for shouting ‘Down with Big Brother!’ in his sleep. It doesn’t help that they’re often luridly animated, like visual tartrazine.

Now I am sure that the CBeebies producers would argue that these programmes are for children not for adults — but they forget that we have to watch them too. The genius of programmes made by Cosgrove Hall in the 1970s and ’80s, such as Danger Mouse and Count Duckula, was that they appealed to all ages with plenty of jokes aimed at adults. The reason why old episodes of Sesame Street stand up after all these years is because it too appeals to adults; Linda Ronstadt is there to stop the dads from switching channels.

So is there any hope? Will I end up being shopped by my daughter to Lewisham’s Recycling Police for not sorting my bottles properly? Happily, there are still some programmes being made that have a little charm. As a family we love Charlie and Lola and Third and Bird, but most popular of all with my dad friends is Octonauts. This is a cartoon which owes much to Thunderbirds, James Bond and Jacques Cousteau, and concerns a lavishly funded marine rescue organisation (I always wonder where they get their money from). They are comically over-equipped considering their mission is to rescue beached whales or help hermit crabs find new shells. They are led by an anthropomorphic polar bear with a BA pilot’s voice called Captain Barnacles. Their motto is Explore, Rescue, Protect — but there is no overt environmentalism. Mankind is not destroying the planet. It’s just good clean fun and the theme tune is brilliant.

Perhaps I shouldn’t get worked up about what my daughter watches. After all, the Wombles didn’t teach me to recycle, I am still vain and foolish despite a childhood immersed in the Railway Stories and 40 years of Sesame Street haven’t turned America into a multicultural paradise. When the constant preaching gets too much, I can always take my daughter with me to the pub: ‘Oh look, it’s your mother!’

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Show comments
  • David Kay

    Dont pay the telly tax, use netflix or something similar. Al jabeeba is full of traitors using your money to destroy your country through socialist propaganda 24/7 365 days a year.

    • justejudexultionis

      You can get help, you know…

      • David Kay

        and so can you, stop watching the extreme left wing propaganda on al beeb and you’ll soon wake up to reality. Its employees have been abusing kids for decades and the BBC covered it all up. What a great institution

        • BarkingAtTreehuggers

          Chorlton library (yes, Chorlton and the Wheelies were conceived across the road, remember them?) now boosts sets of picture books explaining to a younger generation what a single mum or, heaven forbid, what lesbians are.
          Smell the enriching blend of socio-cultural diversity.

          • David Kay

            im vaguely remember it. But i never got the chance to watch much kids TV after school when i was a kid as my dad was always giving me money and telling me to go out and play or go the shops and buy myself some toys. Now im older i realise he just wanted time alone to bang me mum

            reinstate section 28

          • BarkingAtTreehuggers

            Reinstate what? How about you just make TV yourself. Why don’t you just get a pen out and write something that resonates with anyone.
            – Burka Barbie goes shopping in the local offy –
            Come on, stop waffling, make something up that makes sense.

          • David Kay

            i dont want to make tv, i just dont want a bunch of looney lefties making it going on constantly about looney left idology like minority interests and bum sex and then threatening people with jail if they dont pay for it

          • BarkingAtTreehuggers

            What’s left wing about being a poofter and paying rent boys for their company? I only ever hear about the other side backing the same side. Isn’t that odd? The Deputy Speaker just lost his job for Fawke’s ake. Not that Guido would care one bit.

  • Chris Kimberley

    I wouldnt read too much into ceebeebies, mostly its just a bewildering array of bright colours and funny animals, as a parent its can be frustrating; where are Rosie’s parents in Everythings Rosie, exactly how does Justin fletcher get on so many shows? and as for Mike the Knight- he sits atop a fascist feudal system, regularly trashes the village and the peasants still love him, also wheres his dad, crusading against Islam, is he dead, is his mum actually in exile, its all a bit shakespearean.
    Anyway you forgot to mention Timmy Time, which is brilliant

  • Mr Creosote

    And the presenters are all gay and/or black !

    • Geronimo von Huxley

      …not Irish then?

    • Eddie

      Indeed. I remember when I was teaching in a college over 10 years ago. One 17 year old told me she wanted to be a children’s TV presenter but couldn’t because all TV presenters these days are black.

      I took a look. She was right. Children’s TV presenters are almost all black. The only whites are disabled women with stumps. I advised the 17 year old student to chop her arm off and apply to CBBC again (no not really, but it WOULD boost her chances of getting a gig at the BBC!)

      The BBC is over-stepping the mark big-time in so many things. Its constant pro-immigration pro-multiculti-ideology propaganda is stark – and when challenged the BBC will say it has a statutory duty (as all public bodies – which is why schools pander to Islam constantly) to ‘promote equality and good race relations.’

      The way the BBC interprets that is: discriminate against whites; never say anything negative about immigration or present the debate fairly; always show Islam and blacks in a positive light; promote the segregationist multiculturalist propaganda that has destroyed our cities…

  • Mostin Horton

    Sesame Street? On CBeebies? Have your subs no children?
    Apart from that, yep.

  • Simon Fay

    “Comedians” have a similar sense of priority: entertainment is subordinated to indoctrination.

  • rtryyee

    essentially this is a tedious rant about which kids’ shows the writer likes and doesn’t like. How exactly is Octoanuts not encouraging environmentalism? There’s an episode dealing directly with pollution. do your writers do any research?

  • Tom W Huxley

    The problem with this unsubtle brand of preachy propaganda is that by the time they turn six children will come to decide that recycling “is for babies”.

  • justejudexultionis

    That’s nothing. I remember the BBC’s ‘Captain Communist’ from my childhood in the 1970s. With his bright red superhero suit (complete with hammer and sickle) and hilarious catchphrase ‘Death to running dog imperialist capitalist lackeys of Britain’ he made an indelible impression upon my young, fragile and as yet unformed mind. Of course, when I reached the age of thirteen I immediately became a card-carrying member of the Glorious Young Communist Pioneers of the People’s Republic of South Rutlandshire; and to this day, my intense zeal for the cause of Soviet democracy has not wavered!

    • mikewaller

      This is brilliantly funny piece, no doubt sadly wasted on even the least rabid of the resident Beebophobes. In my view these are the UK’s rather more civilised versions of the US rough-necks obsessed by guys who are said to wear dark suits and sunglasses and ride about in black helicopters, all to the general detriment of the “real”Americans. As to what drives this kind of mindset, I think that the answer probably lies in the desperate need for a scapegoat as the relentless forces of globalism make life more and more difficult for Joe Average.

    • ItinerantView

      Yes and I seem to remember in the 70’s the Beeb set up an office to educate the little-Britishers back in the UK,while the undemocratic organisation they propagandised for, set about dismantling European countries democracy and sovereignty,
      Oh wait,they actually did that.

  • I just show my children old programs on youtube. Check out the DVD, Stop It And Tidy Up; it is so creative. Their favourite film is One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing. It isn’t PC in the slightest. £170 a year buys a lot of DVDs!

  • Teacher

    Don’t put your children in front of such trash. As well as the propaganda danger to impressionable minds there is the dire effect of poor English and limited vocabulary as they are aimed at the lowest common denominator. Give your children story C.D.s and books. They will like the age appropriate ones but mix them with classics where the standard of writing is much higher and with books aimed at a slightly older audience. That way they will keep progressing. If you can stand it, talk to them. That helps too.

  • gardenSalsa64

    People are likely to remain unsatisfied with a vast civilization that neither satisfies our instincts nor appears to have predictable order.

  • D Whiggery

    My three year old has never watched TV, only youtube. All the non-political classics are there to be selected at your leisure. It won’t last obviously. As soon as she starts talking to her friends at school she’ll realize that she’s not watching what they’re watching and the whole edifice will come crumbling down. I’m just trying to hold out for as long as I can.

  • Fiji’s Best

    Patriots: Arm yourself with liberty’s longbow and pierce the illusions of today’s liberals and progressives: http://www.savageleft.com/resources/beacon.html