I wanted to like it. I really did. It’s narrated by Derek Jacobi, for crying out loud. But In The Night Garden is the most depressing piece of television I’ve seen since the-one-where-it-took-David-Tennant-three-hours-to-regenerate.
If you’re not in the know (and believe me unless you have children there’s absolutely no reason why you should be), this is a programme from Andrew Davenport and Anne Wood, producers of Teletubbies, who have said that they ‘wanted to explore the difference between being asleep and being awake from a child’s point of view: the difference between closing your eyes and pretending to be asleep and closing your eyes and sleeping.’ The way in which this pretentious concept realises itself on the screen is with a little girl in bed imagining a character called Igglepiggle sailing in a tiny boat (Igglepiggle is a wonky blue character who could pass for a foetal Teletubby). The stars turn into flowers and suddenly Igglepiggle is leaping through the Night Garden, which is essentially a wooded version of Teletubby land. (Clearly, even when exploring the world of dreams, Davenport and Wood have rather limited imaginations.)
And then… well, things just sort of happen. A train thing called a Ninky Nonk clatters its way over the turf, as Sir Derek giggles ‘oh no, it’s the Ninky Nonk!’ Some wooden animated characters called the Pontipines come out of their house one at a time, then dance to tinkly synthesised music. Some CGI birds on a tree nod their heads in time to some tinkly synthesised music. Igglepiggle comes on and Sir Derek sings (rather badly) to some tinkly synthesised music the following information:
‘Yes my name is Igglepiggle
Yes my name is Igglepiggle
And so it goes on. I only watched one episode, though in fairness it was half an hour long (which frankly explains why there’s so much bloody dancing in it – padding, it’s called) but I imagine each of the 100 episodes follows a similar pattern of the same disconnected occurrences accompanied by tinkly music and nonsense words. A sort of story did emerge after 17 minutes involving the loss of Igglepiggle’s blanket (he was too busy dancing to see where it went), but it’s fair to say that this programme is thin on narrative.
And indeed thin on content. The whole ethos of the programme, like Teletubbies, seems to be that the more random, gaudy things there are moving about on the screen, the more distracting it will be for the young people who have been put in front of it to stare gormlessly at a screen for half an hour (half an hour!). Hence the meaningless succession of things happening without any development of ideas – it’s as lightweight and brain-dead as a noisy action film about robots hitting each other.
Children’s television wasn’t always thus.
It’s hard to find an exact comparison in the television of yesteryear, since very little television was aimed at such a young age range (parents still had this old-fashioned idea of letting their children explore real things before plopping them in front of moving pictures; my friend’s mother used to sit him in front of the washing machine if he wanted colourful things moving about in front of him). The makers of In the Night Garden would possibly cite The Magic Roundabout as an influence, and one of their random colourful objects is a rotating pagoda (an homage? Or a rip-off?). But whilst I’m sure any toddler would enjoy the psychedelic visuals and lively characters of The Magic Roundabout, the subtlety of Eric Thompson’s erudite storytelling is probably better suited to a slightly older audience (some would say around the age you go to university…).
A better comparison would be the work of Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, in particular Bagpuss and The Clangers. These were pioneering children’s programmes and superficially In the Night Garden owes a lot to them: repetition of patterns forms their basis, a variety of colourful characters populate their surreal landscapes, music underscores each event. And yes, there is even dancing in some of them.
So what is it that sets them apart?
Fundamentally, I think it’s this: they tell brilliant stories. Complex, interesting stories involving complex and well-rounded people with characteristics we can recognise in the world around us. Bagpuss is a programme about storytelling, about the tales told by a single object (a shoe, a wooden mill, a ship in a bottle) whilst The Clangers runs the gamut of human experience, from greed to vanity, from friendship to love, from childbirth to attempted invasion. Even when something really surreal happens (and it does), we see the Clangers finding solutions to problems and discovering more about themselves – nothing ever just happens. There was even a special edition of the programme about the workings of democracy.
And of course even very young children can follow this, it’s simply patronising to think that they can only deal with colour and movement and baby talk (‘eh-oh…’); children learn to read body language long before they learn to talk. And of course the other half of the target audience (the parents) are equally entertained on a different level. (I happen to be writing a substantial orchestral work celebrating Firmin and Postgate’s achievements, so I’ve been immersed in both programmes and, at 31 years old, am thoroughly enjoying them.)
In ten minutes, each episode of these programmes packs far more in, in terms of story, character and meaning, than In the Night Garden seems inclined to attempt in three times as long. These are characters with aspirations and dreams – it’s no coincidence that an episode of Bagpuss is about a flying machine whilst the dream of flight is one of the major obsessions of the Clangers. They are looking to learn, to develop, to better themselves. So music is not just there as an arbitrary accompaniment to their actions – in Bagpuss it’s the way the characters communicate and tell stories; the Clangers actually use music to fly! And when Small Clanger dances it’s not just for the sake of it (why are you dancing, Igglepiggle? I mean, why???), it’s always the result of a personal triumph.
It’s not just about the stories and characters, of course – the wit and style of these children’s programmes is arguably unsurpassed to this day. In fact, to list the reasons why Bagpuss or The Clangers or indeed Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog are superior is simply to run down the criteria of good television in general: the music is uniformly superb (not the plinky plonky crap that runs through In the Night Garden like a hernia, which is entirely written by one of the producers, though that’s not very impressive since he only managed to come up with one tune), they each have a distinctive look of their own (no Teletubby land lookalikes here) and they are underpinned by the comforting, nuanced narration of Oliver Postgate (better, in fact – and I can hardly believe I’m going to say this, but I am – better than that of Sir Derek Jacobi). And miraculously, they were all filmed for next to nothing in Oliver Postgate’s shed (In the Night Garden cost £14.5 million and still manages to look cheap). Ultimately, the Postgate/Firmin collaborations were made by people who really cared about their characters, about their audience, indeed about the future of humankind. In the Night Garden seems to have been designed primarily to shut kids up and sell merchandise.
So my heartfelt advice (nay, plea) to parents of children who have reached an age where the washing machine is no longer providing ample entertainment, is to invest in some DVDs; load up on Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine – you’ll thank me, and you’ll keep thanking me, because when your children become too old and too young to continue enjoying those DVDs, they will have grown up with the discernment to drag you along to sophisticated, well-made films at the cinema rather than brain-dead ones about robots hitting each other.