Culture Wars: Don't watch with mother
Alan Horrox talks to Wendy Earle about the dark side of making children's TV
Death, divorce, even violence when appropriate...children's TV should show it all, says award-winning children's film producer/ director Alan Horrox. Though Horrox is deeply opposed to gratuitous TV violence, he challenges the consensus that kids' entertainment should protect them from the harsh realities of life.
'The most powerful pieces of literature and cinema are all about loss, difficulty, darkness, pain, lightness, enjoyment, pleasure', explains Horrox. 'Without these axes you just have a one-dimensional universe which some kids' television becomes, because it's so gutted.'
Classic children's literature does not shy away from intense emotions: novels like Black Beauty and The Secret Garden, says Horrox, 'speak profoundly to kids' imagination. They speak to them of the very dark feelings that they have, coming to terms with a world that they don't understand because they are kids'. Television productions, says Horrox, should aspire to the standards set by good quality children's literature - by relating to issues that preoccupy children.
Many now agree that children's TV should relate directly to children's concerns - but this tends to lead to the kind of public service broadcasts that bore kids to death. When Stuart Miles resigned from Blue Peter in February, he argued that the programme needed to become 'more relevant to modern-thinking children' by replacing the 'comfort blanket' formula with a focus on issues like drugs, divorce and eating disorders. But to use children's TV as a way of mimicking the personal, social and health education classes children have in school would be a disaster (not least for the ratings). As Horrox says, children are 'an inchoate mass of fantasies, nightmares, wishes and dreams', and the issue is how best to stimulate their imaginations.
For Horrox, the insipid, 'one-dimensional' character of much children's TV underestimates the trials and emotions which are part of growing up. 'Every kid I have ever known has been a victim of bullying at some level. It's a fact of school life. Every kid has to cope with death or divorce, even if it's not in their own family.' Though he is critical of the 'safe' entertainment provided by much British children's TV, Horrox praises some of the American series that rise to the challenge. The Simpsons and Rugrats, for example, deal with both the dark and the light sides of children's lives - from fear of the dark to the relationship between father and son. They neither dodge the hard issues to make fluffy TV, nor do they worthily ram 'the message' down children's throats. And they are funny.
Many of Horrox's views echo the psychoanalyst Dr Bruno Bettelheim, whose influential book The Uses of Enchantment (1976) made a forceful argument for not protecting children from difficult issues in literature. Bettelheim argued that fairytales, in particular, could play an important role in children's development, because they 'get across to the child...that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence - but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and in the end emerges victorious'. There is a fair bit of Bettleheim in Horrox's films as well. In his adaptation of E Nesbit's novel The Treasure Seekers, a story about a family on the brink of economic ruin, he focuses on the children's ever-more reckless attempts to help their widowed father keep their house which is threatened by a heartless creditor. In the end they 'emerge victorious' - but only after being dealt a series of cruel blows.
Even so, is the programme a substitute for the book? For somebody who works in film, Horrox is surprisingly sceptical. 'Television and film are the pre-eminent cultural languages of the age whether you like it or not - access is very easy and pleasurable. It will easily stimulate at a basic level but is often ultimately unrewarding - a very primitive experience', he explains. Would any book do? 'I would rather [my children] struggled to read the Marquis de Sade than just watch Jerry Springer, though the material is often similar! Books require more effort - any book challenges and stretches the imagination more than being a couch potato.'
But whether it's a book or a TV film, the secret is surely the same. In Bettelheim's view, a story can entertain a child and arouse his curiosity, but 'to enrich his life, it must stimulate his imagination; help him develop his intellect and clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations...relate to all aspects of his personality'. Neither Byker Grove nor Blue Peter seems to fit that bill.
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999