Fuzzy picture mars account of children's views

16th May 2003 at 01:00
The Window in the Corner: a half-century of children's television. By Ruth Inglis. Peter Owen. pound;14.95.

Ruth Inglis is an American who has lived in Britain since she married the television presenter Brian Inglis in the late 1950s. She subsequently worked for Granada Television, and is now a journalist specialising in educational psychology and child development.

All of this adds up to a good qualification for writing a history of children's television, so it is a pity that The Window in the Corner is not more substantial and better argued. The first five chapters survey the development of children's television in Britain from the post-war period to the end of the 20th century; these are followed by a chapter on merchandising and a final one on the "emotional effects" of television.

Inglis starts at a time when the BBC was the only broadcaster and "radio was king". She remarks, interestingly, that in the period after the Second World War, the BBC was keen to provide reassuring programmes for children who had recently been subject to the horrors of bombing and evacuation. If the world of Andy Pandy and Muffin the Mule seems bland, this may be part of the explanation.

The other part, she says, is that television at the time was "Reithian, protective and strait-laced". It is odd that, in an age when society is supposed to have undergone a steady process of "embourgeoisement" (fewer and fewer people would describe themselves as "working class" or "aristocratic"), the term "middle class" is so often one of abuse. The BBC children's output in the 1950s and 60s, according to Inglis, was characterised by "prissy middle-classness", plus a measure of anti-Americanism.

Thanks partly to the arrival of ITV, this gave way in the 1960s to children's television that was "larky, imaginative and frequently puppet-driven" (for example, The Magic Roundabout). In the 1970s, a rather "dour decade", Inglis believes, there was a gradual switch to more earnest fare concerned with contemporary issues (Grange Hill), driven by the idea that "children should be considered seriously".

The 1980s presented a mixed picture, with an increase in merchandising and, at the same time, in creative programming for children, while the 1990s brought Teletubbies, a series that gets as much of Inglis's approval and attention as Grange Hill, Dr Who or Blue Peter.

Most of the book consists of simple descriptive accounts of various programmes, with an emphasis on entertainment rather than instruction or drama. There are several mistakes (for example, Channel 4 did not start broadcasting "with a heavy emphasis on advertising"; in the early days, it sometimes had too little advertising to fill the commercial breaks); and Inglis's attempts to link developments in this area of television with the wider world can lead to bathos (the Russians sent a man into space and the BBC "responded to these momentous events by reorganising its departments").

The core questions about quality, goals and effects are never seriously addressed and the writing is often poor. "Few would argue that many toys today fail to encourage imaginative play," she claims, stating the opposite of what she intends. Time has altered some of the premises of the debates on children and television. Worries about the aggressive nature of films and cartoons that Inglis describes as "anti-Americanism" in the BBC in the 1950s were to lead to the growing concern that she records in the United States itself about the effects of violence on television. And, while Inglis is against "middle-classness" when this means deciding what is good for a young audience without respecting its tastes or preferences, this stance proves something of a disadvantage when it comes to making judgments on quality or effects.

Eventually, there may be an abdication of responsibility in her attitude of "taking children's views seriously".

Inglis tells us she doesn't like Rugrats, with its "smutty talk" and jokes about farting, but that her 10-year-old granddaughter loves it, adding: "so who am I to complain?" A critic and a grandparent, perhaps?


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