All right, here’s how it normally goes.
Complaining parent: I have just been watching Bing with my child. I object strenuously to the language. He talks nonsense and nobody corrects him!
Me: Well, Bing is supposed to be three. He’s still learning language. The adults do correct them, but they do it by example. If they made a show that was entirely about fixing grammatical errors, it would be mind-numbingly tedious. Plus if they all spoke perfect English it would just grate. I’ve seen shows that do that, and they’re tortuous to watch.
Complaining parent: Children are just going to pick up bad habits, though. It’s CBeebies’ job to give them role models.
Me: Not as such. It’s CBeebies’ job to entertain and educate. It does that by presenting realistic, rounded characters. We could argue back and forth about Bing – certainly Flop is far too patient to be even remotely plausible – but the use of language _is_ comparatively realistic.
Whining parent-who-is-probably-friends-with thread originator: Dinopaws is another one. “Thunk”. THAT’S NOT A REAL WORD!
Me: Dinopaws plays with language. The world is very new, remember? They’re trying things out, and part of that is the formulation of language, when applied to things they discover. That’s why they make up words occasionally.
Whining parent: I’m not having my children use made-up words.
Me: So presumably you won’t allow them to read Spike Milligan or Lewis Carroll, then? Or Shakespeare, who supposedly invented half the words in the dictionary?
Complaining parent: Well, it’s all very well, but children are like sponges. They learn from the TV.
Me: They really don’t. Before Bing, it was In The Night Garden. It goes right back to Bill and Ben. A generation has been exposed to Teletubbies and it hasn’t done them any harm.
Illiterate parent: i disagree i seen wot kids are sayin and they dont no how to talk proper and its not right, i thought Cbeebies was there to educate are children but thats just my opinion
Me: [considers re-evaluating previous statement]
Complaining parent: Well, there are children whose parents don’t speak to them enough and just let them watch telly all day and their children will pick up bad habits.
Me: Then they’re bad parents. And that’s something for which the BBC cannot and should not be held accountable.
Complaining parent: All the same, I don’t want my children exposed to language like this. I don’t think these shows should be on TV.
Me: So don’t watch. No one has a gun to your head. But these programmes are very popular and while I can’t exactly quantify the educational benefits, I don’t think they’re detrimental to language development.
Complaining parent: I disagree. I think they should be removed and CBeebies should be more responsible.
Me: CBeebies is more responsible than you realise. They don’t just turn up in a studio and make stuff. This is all researched, argued and discussed all the way up.
Complaining parent: Well, it’s just my opinion. I have a right to state my opinion.
Me: Yes, and I have a right to disagree with you if I see fit.
Complaining parent: Go away. It’s none of your business.
Me: You made it my business when you posted this in a public forum. If you’re that cross about this, send a private message to the BBC. If you’re going to post things on the internet, you have to accept the consequences: people are going to talk back.
Complaining parent: [deletes thread]
I’ve lost count. I mean it. I sometimes feel I ought to feed these stock phrases into a computer, like they do with children’s school reports, and print out standard responses to save me constantly having to type the same thing over and over. It’s not that the language thing is a majority viewpoint. It’s just that the ones who find it an issue see it as their moral duty to tell the people who made the programme what they’ve heard a hundred times before and don’t care about anyway, and unfortunately I see it as my duty to tell them where they’re going wrong. And so on and so on. It’s Forth Bridge territory (that’s the Forth Bridge as it used to be, before they got that shiny paint that lasts for decades). The worst thing is that such discussions nearly always seem to deteriorate into a slanging match – or, if you want to rework that Beach Boys / Crystals song:
I got into an argument on Facebook just the other day
Disagreed with someone who kept telling me to go away
She asked me why I did engage
I said it was a public page
She fell into a sweary rage
And then she blocked me.
Why do I continue to have this argument? Well, the BBC gets enough flak and is subjected to constant bashing from people who want it to be a bespoke organisation tailored to their own particular needs, and can’t (or won’t) understand why this can never happen. But I wrote an entire paragraph about learning from my own mistakes and wanting to inspire others, and then deleted it – because the inconvenient truth (and I’ve never shied away from this) is that, rather like C.S. Lewis, I like a good fight. Who doesn’t? And who doesn’t want to win and relish in winning? Some days I feel as if I’ve won a victory for common sense and rationality. Other times, after getting blocked by Stacey from Gillingham and threatened by her knuckle-dragging boyfriend, I feel like I’m punching below my weight, and I hate myself.
I didn’t want this to turn into a navel-gazing exercise, so we will abandon the introspection. For the curious, here are some facts:
– There is no BBC-led conspiracy to dumb down your children.
– If you really think an authentic portrayal of developing language is going to harm your children, you need to get out more.
– If you don’t like the gibberish, tough. You’re not the intended audience.
– “Please, won’t somebody think of the parents?” is the world’s worst campaign slogan.
That last one seems to be prevalent in abundance whenever the BBC bring back a supposedly annoying show – which happened late last year during the Teletubbies resurrection. “NOOOO!” was the standard response. “Can’t stand the annoying things, stunting our children’s development” – the sort of statement that shows they’d not only missed the point, they’d not even noticed the point is there: the point is a dot on the horizon, hidden behind one of those hills populated by a CG windmill, a suspiciously plump Dipsy and a nervous-looking rabbit.
“I hope,” said one particular person, who shall remain anonymous because I can’t be arsed trawling through the archives to find her, “that you will listen to these complaints about the new series of Teletubbies and not actually broadcast it. Because no one wants to see this rubbish.” Someone really should tell my two-year-old, who watches every episode of this rubbish with an unbridled sense of joy. The dancing, the repeated language, the colourful enthusiasm – it’s all tailor-made for his age group, and he knows it. I know it. There’s always the risk that he’s picking up bad habits, so the other day I tested him by singing the theme song.
Me: Tinky Winky…
Of course, once the series actually aired the complaints died a sudden death, presumably because all the affronted parents had either seen the error of their ways or simply switched over to Milkshake, where you can endure the formerly great series that is Thomas and Friends and cultivate a sense of consumer greed and gender labelling in your children during those appalling ad breaks. In the end, the only things that made me seriously cross in the new series of Teletubbies were some of the cosmetic changes – the fact that the fabulous foursome now have to ask before doing big hugs (an adjustment that’s presumably wrapped up in the consent debacle), along with the freshly-painted Noo Noo, and the needless redecoration of the Home Dome.
There are always new parents on the CBeebies Facebook page, and always new people to be reassured, but back in November, after a hundred or so of these conversations, I’d had enough. There had to be a better way to get rid of some of the angst, and it turned out to be satire. You may cast the blame squarely at daytime TV, and the sort of heart-rending commercials that saturate ad breaks in between Judge Judy and the Come Dine With Me marathons. Adopt a snow leopard? Check. Heart disease? Yup, got it. Jean and his filthy water, gazing solemnly into the camera as the flies buzz around him? Oh, you’ve seen that one, haven’t you? I wouldn’t trade places with that poor kid for all the coffee in Brazil, but the cynic in me notes with appreciation how the emotional content of such campaigns is milked for maximum tissue effect. For better or worse there is a formula to these things, and if nothing else, I think I grasped it here.
I will spare you most of the production details. It was a troubled shoot, because one child wasn’t being particularly cooperative, although I managed to get some usable footage. Music was a public domain piece I found on YouTube and narration came courtesy of the splendid David Winstanley, whom some of you may remember from that spoof Public Information Film I did a while back about the dangers of playing in quarries. Most of my friends seemed to get the joke immediately, undoubtedly thanks to my Facebook arguments clogging up their timeline. But somewhat predictably, there were a good number of people who completely missed the satire. “You’ve written ‘biggerer’ at the end,” said one person. “Doesn’t that undermine your point?”
Then there’s Ian Bellis, whose YouTube comment deserves reproducing more or less in full. “I think it is time Cbeebies got took off BBC,” he says, “because it is doing those things to the children out there. Also there is a inappropriate TV show on there. Get well soon. It is because of a silly doctor named Doctor Ranj and he is talking about Wee, Poo and they dancing about being sick and singing too! Nobody wants to dance or sing when they are poorly! CBBC is more better! Chuggington is one annoying TV show, where trains jump up and down and turn quickly around bends. Nobody wants to ride on a Chuggington train! The only shows on Cbeebies which don’t affect your speech and make you learn about stuff is Go Jetters and Topsy and Tim! Cbeebies should not make shows that affect speeches and don’t make you grow up like a baby!”
If it’s meant to be ironic, he does a darn good job and he has yet to admit that he was joking. Either way, it’s a prime example of the principle “that, without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, parodies of extreme views will be mistaken by some readers or viewers for sincere expressions of the parodied views”- or, to give it its proper name, Poe’s law, after Nathan Poe, as opposed to Edgar Allan.