As the father of a toddler my Youtube channel has now been shot to hell. Whereas once I was recommended episodes of TV panel shows from the UK, the latest music videos by my favourite bands and hilarious John Oliver clips, I am now directed towards various nursery rhyme sites, singalong songs, and rather bizarrely, highlights from Ru Paul’s Drag Race – what are other parents doing with their toddlers?
This is not strictly my fault. The algorithms on these sites are quick to latch onto any new behaviour, and my son just happens to be entirely fascinated with any object that might contain a game, TV show, or photo of himself. If he is around, I find it impossible to hold my phone anywhere in the house without triggering some kind of instant, exhaustive battle for ownership that makes WWE look like kittens snuggling. The second my phone is out my pocket, even to take a call, my son rushes me like I’m the ball carrier, and he is Francois Pienaar off the side of a scrum. All my photos are of him moving toward the camera to see what I am taking a photo of.
Thanks to Youtube I am already aware that parents who once watched the nursery rhymes I am watching with him were soon onto Paw Patrol (somehow I find I already know the theme tune), Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and episodes of In the Night Garden, a show set in a horror park, filled with sentient balloon people, a group of men who never wear trousers, a woman who lifts her skirts for anyone whose looking, and a man whose desperate loneliness leads to him going to bed each night with a stone. It’s a show adults universally describe as being, “Bizarre” and/or “Creepy”.
The prevalence with which this show is mentioned online makes my initiation into the cult seem inevitable. Am I really one day going to allow my child to become totally absorbed by poor miserable Makka Pakka, depressively stacking and washing stones, just so I can get five crucial minutes to take a shit? The answer is yes, and the reason is that I think what we had as kids was, if not worse, then at least just as inspired by hallucinogens.
Lets starts with the obvious. Bob is a sponge that lives in the sea. In a pineapple. The Flintstones have a Martian friend named “The Great Gazoo” and the main enemy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a brain who lived in the stomach of a nightclub bouncer.
The Teletubbies were amorphous blobs with TVs in their stomachs, who lived on custard and toast and talked to a baby sun. They also look like the last faces you’ll see before you’re strangled to death by bath salt addicts at a funfair. The only female smurf was constructed in a lab by an evildoer intent on leading the good Smurfs astray, Pokemon is about kids who keep magical animals in tiny cages, and then force them to fight each other, and The Carebears was about a gang of mystical cloud beings, who watched every single child, 24/7 looking for signs of unhappiness and then shot rainbows out of their stomachs to alter people’s moods. Henry the train gets bricked up alive into a tunnel in Thomas the Tank Engine, Johnny Bravo and Pepe Le Pew are sexual predators and Donald Duck frequently had roast birds for lunch.
Keeping it local Pumpkin Patch had a dancing dog, fruit that sang, and two puppet cousins so nightmarish they made you wish humans didn’t have hands, while Sarel Seemonster, Karel Kraai, Bennie Boekwurm and the other characters from Wielie Wielie Walie are proof that the Apartheid government wanted English kids to suffer too. No one knew what was happening in Liewe Heksie, Mina Moo was a talking cow who was trying to get you to drink her udder juices, and if Zet had ever come burbling into my room I likely would have kicked him down the stairs.
The truth is that children’s TV has always been weird. We don’t pay artists enough, and children’s entertainers even less. As a result it’s only shaggy drug addicts with no talent, and a penchant for child abuse, who dress up like wizards and prowl the grounds of Arts Festival. It is there they are promptly picked up to develop TV shows. This has worked for generations, not because the peyote gives these criminals any additional insight into a child’s mind, but because children are new. The whole world is a wonder to them. They can spend hours just hiding in a bush or throwing rocks at other rocks. The reason we remember the shows from our youth with nostalgia is that we saw them with a child’s brain. These shows appeared no more wonderful, or strange, than the rest of the world and it’s the memory of this feeling that triggers our nostalgia. Either that or the Xanax.