What are this year's favourite videos and films among children? Josephine Gardiner went along to a London primary school to discover that some are enthralled by Disney, while others just love to be scared witless.
If you come across the words "children" and "video" in the same sentence, it's a fairly safe bet that the writer will be talking about cultural decline and the end of innocence as we know it. The trouble is that children, especially those of primary age, make ideal interviewees for any journalist.
If you want to show that today's 10-year-olds are staying up after midnight de-sensitising their young souls by watching horror and violence, many children will be happy to confirm this, describing the nauseating contents of these films with unholy relish. If, on the other hand, you want to show that, given the choice, most young children will opt for adaptations of traditional fairy tales and that children have not really changed very much over the past 50 or even 100 years, they will provide ample evidence of this also.
The pupils of Goodrich Primary School in East Dulwich, London, are no exception. Asked in a questionnaire to name their favourite films and videos, their answers ranged from the predictable (recent releases such as The Lion King and Aladdin) through the disturbing (Silence of the Lambs) and reassuring (Snow White, Winnie the Pooh) to the downright surprising (Gypsy Rose Lee, Misery).
A total of 52 children participated. They were divided into two groups: six and seven-year-olds and 10 and 11-year-olds. The questionnaire asked them to name the best, second best and worst video they had ever seen, and to say whether they were allowed to watch their parents' videos. The questionnaire was anonymous and children were encouraged to say what they really thought and ignore the preferences of their peers.
Children apparently make no distinction between video and cinema and the most frequently-mentioned film was The Lion King, which is not yet out on video. The Lion King (occasionally, and I presume artlessly, misspelt "Loin King") topped the older children's chart and scored almost as highly with the younger group. Another recent release, The Flintstones, however, was not rated at all, which suggests that its box-office success owes much to parents' nostalgia for the original TV cartoon.
But what was most obvious about all the Goodrich children's responses, both on the questionnaire and in discussion, was the huge range of films and genres with which they were familiar, and the exuberance and authority with which they criticised them.
The video recorder now seems to be as prosaic a fixture in children's lives as the television. Almost all the pupils had video players at home and the only girl who didn't said that she regularly watched videos at her friend's house. Many of the boys boasted of having "thousands" of videos at home. The magic of the big screen and the darkened picture palace left them all unmoved, however. "What's the point of going to the cinema? A video is just the same and much cheaper," said one pragmatic 10-year-old boy.
On paper, the younger group, unsurprisingly, had a weaker grasp of the art of criticism ("Why do you like this video?" "Because it's nice"), but in discussion they were more sophisticated. For a start, they seemed to have watched as wide a variety of films as the older group: Indiana Jones, Candyman and Arachnophobia were mentioned as well as Power Rangers, Care Bears and Cinderella. The most damning criticism they could think of was to call a video "babyish". This epithet was earned notably by The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty, although these were also named as favourites. Postman Pat was so babyish that he was beneath contempt. Ninja Turtles are obviously passe. Discussion frequently veered off into television programmes such as The Big Breakfast ("very silly") and The Crystal Maze ("why do they have to put it on so late?").
Looking at the number of fairy-tale and Disney videos on the younger group's top 10, it struck me that a child 50 years ago would recognise almost all the characters in the films. By the age of 10, the top ten looks much the same as a teenager's would, but many of the films popular with the younger group were mentioned affectionately by the older ones in conversation.
Frightening videos aroused the most passion and the most argument in both groups. Boys and girls alike engaged in a form of machismo over who had endured the most scary, violent or disgusting film, with much gleeful talk of heads bursting out of bodies and limbs being cut off. The same titles were sometimes condemned as being "too scary" or "rubbish, not scary at all". Boys drew me aside to assure me that girls were more easily scared than boys.The girls hotly denied this: "I'm not scared of anything". Amid all this it is difficult to tell a child who enjoys being frightened from one whose bravado conceals real terror.
It is also almost impossible to predict exactly what will frighten a child. One little boy admitted to being terrified by a scene in Snow White, a film adults would consider innocuous, in which the heroine was running through a wood. Another (again a boy) was alarmed by Winnie the Pooh.
The older children especially were reluctant to admit to being scared by films, but all were more willing to admit to fear in other spheres of life. Alice, age 6, showed me a picture in an illustrated version of The Snow Queen by Hans Andersen, which featured a ghostly face emerging from a mirror; a 10-year-old boy said he found a book called The World's Greatest Mysteries so frightening that "I threw it in the bin", and another 10-year-old boy said The Lord of the Rings was the most frightening thing he knew of. This was interesting because both groups had initially greeted the suggestion that books could be as disturbing as films with derisive laughter. The older group also singled out Dr Who and the Daleks,"the injections in Casualty", and Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street as scary.
Children often spoke of "shadows on the wall outside my room" and "voices on the stairs at night" with far more authentic fear in their voices than when they were discussing videos.
One child drew attention to the similarity between Silence of the Lambs and the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, whose death was in the news that day. Several seemed to have seen the film, but only one, a polite, shy and charming 10-year-old girl, said it was her favourite video: "I like the Silence of the Lambs because it's horrible. It's about two men that skin people and one of them skinned a police officer's face and wore it on his own face." It is difficult not to question the wisdom of whoever allowed her to see this.
While few would argue that horror films like Silence of the Lambs, Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman are highly unsuitable for children, it is worth noting, for the record, that nobody mentioned Child's Play 3, which acquired a sinister reputation through its association with the murder of James Bulger.
Many in the older group were emphatic that their parents would never allow them to watch adult or violent videos, while others asserted that they were allowed to watch whatever they liked. As one girl said, "My Mum says 'if you want to scare yourself silly, it's up to you'." Most of the younger children said they could watch what they liked, but it was unclear what they understood by "parents' videos" some obviously thought this meant "videos bought by parents".
Apart from the machismo of horror, shared by both sexes, those seeking evidence of eroding gender stereotypes would not have much luck at Goodrich, particularly among the younger ones. A six-year-old boy despises the Care Bears "because they are pink"; a girl of the same age likes Snow White "because it's got animals and Snow White cares about them". The same girl hates Power Rangers because "it's rough and it has got kicking in it". A boy of six damns Cinderella: "soppy and girly stuff"; a boy of 10 recommends Commando "because it has lots of shooting and lots of guns."
Sex, whenever it was noticed, which was not often, was viewed by both sexes with a wholesome contempt that should warm the hearts of the family values lobby. Not one child mentioned a film with explicit sex scenes. Both groups seemed to regard even the most chaste kiss as gratuitous. Sleeping Beauty was dismissed by one six-year-old girl "because it has kissing in it". The argument that the kiss is central to the plot in this case did not wash with her. A 10-year-old girl singled out James Bond for the title of worst video (she did not say which film) because "it's got too much kissing, it's not exciting and men lie in bed with a lade (sic)".
WHAT THEY WATCH
Top videos and films Age 6-7
1 Aladdin (U) 2 Mickey Mouse, Pluto, et al (U)
The Lion King (U)
Snow White (U)
Sleeping Beauty (U)
Power Rangers (UPG)
3 Dumbo (U)
The Little Mermaid (U)
Winnie the Pooh (U)
Beauty and the Beast (U)
Power Rangers (UPG)
Sleeping Beauty (U)
Mickey Mouse etc (U)
Top videos and films Age 10-11
1 The Lion King (U)
2 The Mask (PG)
3 Mrs Doubtfire (12)
Jaws (PG) Terminator (18)
4 Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (PG)
Jurassic Park (PG)
Nightmare on Elm Street (18)
Double Impact (18)
The Little Mermaid (U)
Home Alone 2 (PG)
Ninja Turtles (PG)
The Flintstones (U)