When nostalgia fails: a dad rewatches the TV of his childhood

Unlike the sinister undertones of today's kids' TV, our favourite childhood shows were pure and wonderful. Weren't they? Oh...

Whenever I watch contemporary kids’ TV with my young son I find myself yearning for the simplicity and innocence of my own, long-ago youth: back in the halcyon days when there were only four tightly regulated TV channels, and no mobile phones or internet to hold our attentions hostage with a cavalcade of frivolity, violence, and disquieting pictures of strangers’ genitalia.

Back in my day (as I hurtle towards the grave, I suspect that this is a phrase I’ll be uttering with ever more depressing frequency), kids’ shows were good, clean fun. Systems were in place to ensure it. Shows that fell afoul of the era’s high standards of morality would answer to the Mean Queen of Clean herself, the ferocious Mary Whitehouse.

In kids’ shows back then, there were no missiles loaded with sexual references – or clever deconstructions of TV itself – aimed above young heads. Instead, there were only the serene sounds of surf and seagulls down at Cockleshell Bay, the mesmeric chirping of birds in Postman Pat’s sleepy glen, and the gentle tones of Tony Hart as he tried to find nice things to say about the artwork hanging in his gallery.

My two-year-old son’s current favourite is the unspeakably hellish In The Night Garden: a garishly bright Nightbreed-ish nightmare that appears to be set in the afterlife as imagined by David Lynch. The show stars David Cameron as Iggle Piggle, a hideous, lop-sided blue peanut with a penchant for sailing on kids’ hands and brandishing his blanket. Piggle’s best friends are a little girl with half-Peloquin/half-Predator hydraulic hair; an obsessive-compulsive zombie Teletubby who lives in a rock; tiny beings dressed as the Spanish Inquisition who continually abandon their legions of children; and a trio of creatures that have crawled straight from a disturbed serial killer’s acid flashbacks. In short, In The Night Garden is bizarre and terrifying.

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I resolved to expose my son only to the healthy and wholesome kids’ shows of old, which I tracked down online and on DVD for the betterment of his tiny soul.

But then I actually re-watched some of them.  I quickly discovered – to paraphrase Herman Munster – that sometimes dead is better. Certainly my televisual era had been no oasis in the brain-deadening desert. There was horror and betrayal around every corner. He-Man had lied to me: told me that I could remove my clothes and go on a sword rampage without fear of being arrested. Bertha, lovely Bertha, had coaxed me into a life of low-paid drudgery by convincing me that factories were magical places with futuristic robots and vast sentient machines.

God damn you, TV childhood: you were a sham! What follows are the highlights (perhaps lowlights) of my journey through the chilling subtexts and undisguised horror of the shows that formed my youth. It’s certainly easy to see why my adult mind is such a labyrinth of depravity.

Open Sesame: now please close it again

I ordered a copy of Sesame Street Old School on DVD to introduce my young son to the bygone era of Sesame Street I grew up with, and which I still remember fondly. I was taken aback to find a warning attached to the purchase: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” What? But Sesame Street is just The Muppets with an educational remit. Then as now, there are fluffy creatures teaching kids to count, and adults dispensing pearls of wisdom about sharing your toys, not being mean, and loving your neighbour. How could any of that fail to benefit my son, whatever decade of Sesame Street it’s sampled from?

So I watched a few episodes. Okay, the title sequence. Uh-huh. Seems fine. Kids running over an industrial wasteland bedecked with gang graffiti, no problems there. Now they’re bounding over a construction site. It looks a little bit dangerous, but, fine. Well, fine, after all it was a different… Ah, we’re on to the show proper now. So kids are riding bikes in the street. Minus their safety helmets. Yup, well, maybe our modern obsession with health and safety is… well. .. you know… oh, erm, now a grown man’s… just taken a little girl’s hand, he’s never met before and invited her back to his house for milk and cookies. I… see and… Cookie Monster’s eating crockery and… now he’s smoking. Cookie Monster’s smoking? He’s actually smoking. And now he’s eaten the pipe too. Hmmm. Oh… ah…  and… and now The Count has taken out a Latino gang with an RPG, and he’s laughing loudly at their delicious screams (okay, maybe that last thing never happened, but you get the point).

It looks like everything that’s ever been said about the 60s, 70s and 80s is true. What a bunch of savages we were (Please also see The Muppet Show, a viewing of which moved my partner to comment: “Why are you letting our impressionable young son watch a grown woman dressed as a sexy schoolgirl sing a song about kidnapping and murdering people as she locks puppets in cellars?”)

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The terrible truth about chipmunks

In the 1940s, Disney perpetuated the stork myth in its movies. It showed babies arriving by parachute rather than by the more conventional, ickier womb-based route. I guess the puritans of the time didn’t want children imagining animals – or, by extension, their own parents – rutting like beasts. In the late 1960s, Hanna-Barbera gave Scooby Doo a nephew instead of a son, presumably for similar reasons. Scooby was a friendly, goofy, asexual pal to his young fans. This was no time or place for the birds and the bees. Kids couldn’t be made to imagine our hero hammering away at some street-bitch like a four-legged sexual machine-gun. 

Unfortunately, by the time the 1990s rolled around it seemed that these varieties of restraint were already a relic of a by-gone era. I recall an episode of Alvin And The Chipmunks that showed one of the chipmunks getting all goggle-eyed over a beautiful blonde woman with a big bust. The chipmunk’s eyebrows jumped up and down in that old-timey hubba-hubba way that cartoons used to sell as cute, but which we now recognise as the unspeakably licentious gesture of a burgeoning sex offender. CHIPMUNK HAS HOTS FOR HUMAN WOMAN. I think I could’ve lived with that headline, had that been the end of it. But it wasn’t. Because the human woman flirted back: giving a saucy little wiggle and blowing a kiss at the sex-struck rodent. Yes, people. You have interpreted the subtext correctly: I had just watched a woman signalling her sexual availability to a chipmunk.

Thanks Alvin, Simon and Theodore, you high-pitched heathens. Thanks for derailing my psycho-sexual development. Thanks for making me a Furry. Do you know how much these squirrel costumes cost to maintain?!

Let’s get izzy wizzy busy living, or let’s get izzy wizzy busy dying

Civil War rages in the Marvel Movieverse. Heroes – humans and Gods, mutants and monsters – clash over issues of moral authority. To whom are these heroes accountable? Does any government have the right to control or command them? Who will protect society from the excesses of our so-called saviours?

Whether you find yourself siding with House Stark or planting your feet firmly in Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood, there’s one thing on which we all can agree: at least the Marvel lot know how to put a shift in. At least they’re actually doing something about the horrors of the world, unlike some lazy magical bastards I could mention.

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Yes, I’m talking about Sooty. Here is a bear more powerful than all of the Avengers combined, and who holds in his tiny, wand-packed paw the power to end world hunger, reverse global warming and bring the dead back to life, but who seems content to spend his days using his magic to splat pies into Matthew Corbett’s face. ‘Screw you, Africa,’ his little bear face seems to say, ‘I’m too busy continually assaulting a beleagured middle-aged man to tackle drought.’

Sooty is so callous he won’t even grant his best friend Sweep the power of intelligible speech, condemning the sad-faced little dog to a lifetime of squeaking. And Matthew, poor Matthew, who is supposed to be Sooty’s closest friend, mentor and confidant, is forced – like his father Harry before him – to act as Sooty’s intermediary on earth, a relationship that’s clearly conducted in the same spirit as that between Kilgrave and Jessica Jones. The little rat could speak if he wanted to; that Sooty never lowers himself to engage directly with the human race makes his disdain for us – and for Corbett – painfully apparent.

Why are there so many wrongs about Rainbow?

Let’s talk about Geoffrey, a grown man who lives with a menagerie of bizarre and terrifying creatures in a house that’s been decorated like a children’s nursery. Geoffrey’s bunk-mates are Bungle, a seven-foot ursine version of Norman Bates; George, a sexually precocious passive-aggressive pink hippo; and Zippy, the kind of ‘whatever’ that even Gonzo would shun. How did Geoffrey come to live with these creatures? Did he abduct them? Did he create them with a needle and thread, a bucket of DNA and a set of jump leads? Doesn’t he have a wife, or an ex-wife? A family? Someone in his life to raise an eyebrow at this rather unorthodox living arrangement? Doesn’t the gas man ever come round to read the meter?

“Hello, sir, I’m just here to check your… AARRGGHH, WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING WITH THE ZIP FACE?!! HELP ME! OH GOD HELP ME! THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU! THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!”

I’d be very interested to see how Geoffrey fills out his census.

Anyway, let’s talk Zippy. What is he? Was he born with that zip across his mouth, or was he cruelly disfigured in the course of some vile experiment? However it was that Zippy’s zip came to be, why would any sane and compassionate man ever use it to silence him? Hey, Geoffrey, why not just break a chair over Zippy’s head or shoot him in the shoulder if he starts mouthing off? And if somebody did that to Zippy – if some sick, pseudo-Nazi surgeon added a zip to his face without his consent – why would you compound his misery by continuing to call him Zippy? Surely you’d change his name at the earliest opportunity, call him James or Timothy or Geoffrey Junior or something.

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The only scenario that makes sense is that the world of Rainbow exists only inside the mind of Geoffrey, who is in reality an alcoholic and heavy drug-user. He sits all day long in a dowdy, ply-panelled bedsit, with lank, greasy hair and no teeth, waiting for his social workers Rod, Jane and Freddy to visit, rubbing his arms raw and rocking and crying in the corner.

And with that, I’m off to buy the complete box-set of In The Night Garden.

What about you lot? Any shows from your own youth that you now look upon with a raised eyebrow, or a heart heavy with fear and revulsion?