A rare and riotous assembly

Each year, the BBC throws caution to the wind with a joyful celebration of children's culture. Arnold Evans braved it

Children's BBC Television had thoughtfully provided two cr ches at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham for the four days of its annual Big Bash.

One was for the toddlers, still young enough to be able to enjoy themselves without having to be told how by the Beeb, and the other was for the wrinklies who used it as an air-raid shelter where they could escape the cultural blitz going on around them.

"It's hell out there," one said, in despair at this uninhibited celebration of the crass commercialism to which children are subject from the moment their five little piggies are big enough to fit into a pair of designer trainers. It was as if he had seen the Four My Little Ponies of the Apocalypse and abandoned all hope.

The unremitting noise and the sheer scale of the Bash was enough to convince any man old enough to shave that he had stepped into a circle of the Inferno that Dante had forgotten to describe. The NEC was transformed for the event into a vast playground. Nearly 200 exhibitors, from the mighty Coca- Cola, who sponsored the event, to Smiffy's Amazingly International Joke Company, were hell-bent on spending four days giving 100,000 children (mostly 9 to 14-year-olds) exactly what they wanted.

And what they wanted was boys' bands, junk food, tattoos, party foam, make-overs, more junk food, computer games, Uncle George's Fart Machines, and the chance to be within screaming distance of their favourite stars. Some of the boys' bands were even prepared to give autographs - proof, at least, that they could do joined-up writing.

They are the high priests of this teenybopper culture and their acolytes are the children's television presenters. A galaxy of them turned up at the Bash just to meet their adoring audience, to appear in a pantomime or to broadcast special editions of Blue Peter, Live and Kicking and News Round. So the crowd had a chance to watch the rigmarole of rehearsals as well as the shows and to cheer loudest at that magic moment when the cameras swung round to beam their beaming faces live to the nation.

This all seemed far removed from Lord Reith's pledge to inform and educate, as well as to entertain. But if he had attended the NEC - perish the thought - he might have been impressed by much of what he found. For instance, he would have liked the indoor cricket nets - or, for that matter, the impressive facilities for baseball, soccer, rugby, gymnastics, trampolining, swimming (yes, there was a pool), abseiling, skateboarding, roller-blading and a range of other sports. If that wasn't enough, children could have a crack at anything from a five-minute lesson on any instrument of their choice, to learning how to cook.

The Guides, charities, and worthy pressure groups also had stands. This wasn't tokenism - they were kept permanently busy. On the evidence of the Bash, it seems that today's kids really do care about the world they are going to inherit. What's more, they don't regard having a good time and having a social conscience as being mutually exclusive. Justine (14) from Chesterfield was probably typical. Her face had been made-up by the beauticians in the "Style Village". (The glitter in her hair, and the purple Smurf hat were her idea. ) She was hoarse from screaming at East-Enders' heart throb Paul Nicholls, but downing Dunkin Donuts on her way to a session of street hockey, she found time to give her undivided attention to the man from the Campaign for Racial Equality.

It's not surprising then that so many school parties attended this year's Bash. They could be seen with worksheets provided by the organisers following prescribed trails which taught them about technology, the environment and nutrition. Of course, they made diversions to stock up on badges, hats, chewing-gum, Chupa Chups and Chestrings.

Most important of all, they were able to spend the day with adults who, because their livelihood depends on kids' pocket money, take them and their culture seriously.

This is genuinely educational, although it can never be straight-jacketed in a curriculum. But what is certain is that if children showed the same eagerness to know more when they are in school, it would have OFSTED inspectors, like demented fans before a boys' band, howling for more.

The event generates such good will, and has such obvious educational potential, that teachers should be urging Children's BBC Television, Coca-Cola, Smiffy's et al to lay on even bigger and brasher bashes. And teachers shouldn't worry about the infernal decibel level. Within minutes of leaving the NEC, it fades into a low rhythmic hum. Indeed it might almost be mistaken for the sound of Lord Reith spinning in his grave.

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