Yesterday, CBeebies dropped a clanger.
It was a little after half past eight, and the boys were watching The Tweenies – a decade-old show about the exploits of four small children all gifted with oversized animatronic heads and annoying voices. They spend their days with a childminder called Judy, who is assisted by an elderly gentleman called Max who may or may not be Judy’s father (yes, I made that up). Max is always keen to join in with the fun and games and he and Judy both tell a mean story, and know a myriad songs, most of which are performed with inappropriately poppy, high-powered arrangements and flashing backgrounds.
Indeed, singing is a big part of The Tweenies, and that’s where the trouble started, although I was out of the room when this bit came on.
Debate has raged as to the specifics of his impression, but there can be little doubt that this is supposed to be a parody of Jimmy Savile, deceased and now disgraced TV presenter, whose rather seedy past has only recently come to light. During his lifetime Savile’s crimes were known only by an inner circle who saw it as their duty to keep things quiet because of his considerable philanthropic efforts – support he allegedly threatened to withdraw if his backstage shenanigans were in any way exposed. Thus the victims spent years shouting at a public who refused to listen until Savile was dead, and the truth – although it is still yet to be fully formed – emerged from the darkness.
The episode you can see above dates from 2002 or thereabouts, and a time when Savile was still alive, and still a public hero. Since the revelations following his death, the BBC have been very careful to avoid showing any of the archive footage that contains him. Repeats of Top of the Pops are edited. Jim’ll Fix It, a Saturday tea-time family show in which the tracksuited Savile granted wishes, is not to be touched with the lengthiest of barge poles. Instead, Savile has become the subject of numerous documentaries and quite a lot of media hullabaloo, when details of a catalogue of bad PR mistakes at the BBC were leaked. The whole thing is a mess, and what’s worse is that we may never know what he actually did, and how many of the allegations are true.
None of this mattered to my children, of course. In fact I’d find it hard to think of a single child watching yesterday’s episode of The Tweenies who might have been affected by Max’s impression. This rationalisation was not enough, however, to halt the (brief and contained) storm of protest that erupted on the CBeebies Facebook page as well as on Twitter. There were calls for Kay Benbow to be sacked. There were howls of “bad taste” and “inappropriate”. It was picked up by several national newspapers (the Daily Mail, who will make the most of any opportunity to trash the Beeb, must have been rubbing their hands in glee).
Several things about this bothered me. There was the gross overreaction, for one thing. Then there was the rash of bad spelling and poor (or entirely absent) punctuation. Then there was the misdiagnosis of Savile as a
pedeophile peedofile paedofile paedophile (you see what I mean), the definition of which is someone who is sexually attracted towards children, when in fact Savile appeared, for the most part, to tend towards ephebophilia – sexual attraction towards mid to late adolescents. We can nitpick the terminology, but even that misses the point, because being a paedophile is quite different from being a child molester, which is someone who acts upon their impulses. If paedophilia is an innate biological condition it should be treated, but the presence of the condition itself cannot be morally wrong. It is the physical expression of these urges that distinguishes a paedophile from a child abuser, and while both need our help, it is only the abuser who is guilty of any crime.
But I’m getting off the point. By half past nine the comments on Facebook were flowing thick and fast (although not as much as was reported, which we’ll get to later). I stepped into the discussion to try and stem the tide a bit, pointing out that it’s the sort of thing that could happen quite easily. There are over three hundred episodes of The Tweenies and children’s programmes aren’t really the sort of thing you vet for indecent material, as a rule. I can already picture the sequence of events that led up to the mistake, which was that the programme was sequenced and scheduled by someone with relatively little knowledge of the show, being perhaps a younger person, and who thus didn’t bother to screen it for inappropriate material. That’s jumping to conclusions, of course, but they’re at least a little more constructive than the sorts of conclusions that were formed the mindset of the bulk of the complaining viewers, many of whom seemed to think that it was a deliberate ploy to brainwash our children.
I sometimes think that the Internet was more fun before they made it easier for the moronic and stupid to use it. I nostalgically remember a past that probably never existed, but which – in my head, at least – was populated by people who weren’t always very nice, but who could at least use a computer properly and construct a reasoned argument. They understood that things went wrong and that administrative cock-ups happened. They didn’t complain about schedule changes or the fact that “CBeebies ain’t learning our kids enuff” (seriously, I’m not making that up, it was an actual complaint a few weeks ago). Some of the people I speak to on the Facebook page are lovely, but others are thick as shit, and don’t even realise. I’m not even talking about a lack of formalised education, which I wouldn’t have a problem with, but a stunning lack of insight, and a presumption that everything in the world must be tailored to your own learning experience, when in fact that BBC has the all-but impossible job of trying to please everyone at once.
There was, eventually, an apology and a reassurance that it wouldn’t happen again. That was enough for most people, but the protests continued, as did the media storm, the hacks of what used to be Fleet Street determined to turn a non-story into front page news for at least six or seven hours. There were more calls for Kay Benbow’s head. But these were few and far between and typically lambasted by the community, who seemed by and large to have accepted the BBC’s consumption of humble pie. It reminded me of the last time they broke in a new presenter – one-handed Cerrie Burnell, who briefly made the front pages of the Guardian with a story detailing the thousands of parents who were complaining about her missing appendage, how it was “freaking out the children”.
This was completely untrue, because I checked. What actually happened was this: a group of people started a conversation thread about how Alex and Cerrie – who’d recently started hosting the bedtime hour – really weren’t very good. It was uncharitable, but it was true. Uncharitable because it was their first week and even seasoned presenters tend to balk early on – few would doubt the abilities of Pui Fan Lee, Teletubbies veteran who now presents Show Me Show Me with Chris Jarvis, but in those early continuity announcements she really isn’t very good.
Similarly, Alex and Cerrie have blossomed under the careful tutelage of the more experienced hands, and they’re now much better than they were – Cerrie, in particular, is gentle and reassuring. Still, it took them a while to warm up, as it always does, and that’s what the online conversation was about. Into the mix came one particular fellow who decided to talk about the hand and how it made him uncomfortable, and it was from this that the Guardian (who really should have known better) extracted the root of their story.
So I saw first-hand the ugliness that may erupt on these occasions when the Facebook page was bombarded yesterday morning, but it was nowhere near as widespread as has been reported. Most people seem to have recognised what I (and others) pointed out: it was a poor impersonation of an alleged serial sex offender who committed crimes that none of the intended audience would have known about. The bottom line is that no children were affected by this; only their parents. We may complain about poor taste and inappropriate content, but no harm was done. And thus we must view these things in perspective, and calm down, and – as difficult as it may be for some of us – think about what we’re going to post before actually putting it online.
It’s a shame, really, because it detracted somewhat from the other big news of the day, which was the arrival of a new presenter, pictured below.
Cat Carey (formerly of Hi5) joins the CBeebies house in order to replace Sidney Sloane, who has been there more or less since the beginning and who everyone likes. It was therefore nice to see her working with him in her first clip yesterday morning, right after the unfortunate Tweenies episode. It was predictably dreadful, although she warmed up noticeably over the course of the day as we saw more and more of the pre-recorded clips interspersed between programmes – the rabbit-in-headlights panic gradually giving way to frequent, anxious stares into the camera, as if searching for reassurance. She’ll be fine, of course. They always are, eventually. I said that the lack of commentary was a shame, but I suppose if nothing else our preoccupation with The Tweenies meant that no one was queuing up to give her unwanted grief.
You could almost, in fact, accuse the powers that be of arranging the whole Jimmy Savile thing on purpose specifically to avoid that happening.
But of course, the BBC wouldn’t do that.