UPDATE: I was happy to receive a thoughtful reply to my original post from Mellie Buse, Executive Producer of Grandpa in My Pocket. Mellie’s letter is appended to the bottom of this blog; if you would like to add to the discussion, please leave a comment.
This morning I received a tweet from the CBeebies show Grandpa in My Pocket. “Not so hateful to kids,” spoke their social media puppeteer, “…or topically to Bafta. But each to their own!”
— Grandpa in my pocket (@GrandpaAndJason) February 8, 2015
The tweet was in response to my calling the show ‘hateful’: an admittedly strong comment made as part of an admittedly one-sided conversation I was having with Kerstin Rodgers and Eva Wiseman. I was tweeting about Wiseman’s recent Guardian column in which she asks: “Why are creative women dismissed as ‘quirky’?” A question inspired by reviews of works by the artist-filmmaker-author Miranda July (whose project Learning to Love You More with Harrell Fletcher I think is one of the best things ever created on the internet).
It speaks of my cultural hole – currently filled with 70% CBeebies, 20% Twitter and 10% everything else – but Wiseman’s article rang true for me, and it made me think of the Grandpa in My Pocket character Great Aunt Loretta. It should be said that me, my husband, and our daughter’s shared dislike of Grandpa in My Pocket is exacerbated by the dog in the title sequence that unfailingly inspires our Jack Russell to nosily attack the television. At this point, my daughter turns her attention elsewhere, Mr calls Grandpa a ‘geriatric Stalinist’, and I mutter something derogatory.
What gets my goat about the show is Grandpa’s self-righteousness. He uses his shrinking powers to get back at other characters who have stepped out of line. Maybe it’s the little boy next door, or Great Aunt Loretta, who is always doing well-intentioned things badly, like cooking curry trifle, or making a mess of someone’s hairdo. The little boy, Jason, is forever looking on open-mouthed, while he narrates the action with absolute concern for Grandpa’s safety. Unlike my childhood favourite Rentaghost, the magic in this show is bestowed on just one character, Grandpa, who is moralistic and irreproachable.
Great Aunt Loretta, on the other hand, is the embodiment of Wiseman’s ‘quirky’: “whimsical… frivolous, naive, awkward…” As Wiseman says, “Quirky suggests a description of appearance, of colourful tights, beads, and people singing where they’re not meant to sing.” I’m reminded of Grandpa accusing Great Aunt Loretta of “always fiddling,” when all she dares do is open a board game. Children’s characters should be exaggerated. Still, I can’t get behind character stereotypes that seem less joyful than the witches I watched on telly in the eighties. Like pink Lego, they’re lazy, retrograde, and their only justification is the fact that people buy them.
“Quirky is the ‘Calm down, dear’ of the ageing critic, the patronising wink. The ‘aaah’,” says Wiseman, and as such, it is a label so often applied to women that it makes us “wary of giving an opinion”. I can empathise with this too. To draw another quirky parallel, the unexpected retort I received on Twitter for criticising Grandpa in My Pocket made me first think, “Oh hell, I didn’t want to offend.” I was so troubled by the thought I had turned into a troll, I sat down and tried to justify my thoughts on the topic, resulting in this very post.
While social media clearly gives us the ability to criticise flippantly and unfairly – as journalist Jon Ronson has explored in his latest book on ‘public shaming’ – more often, I think, the threat of being pulled up on one’s views forces discussion in the direction of being ‘blandly positive’. That’s why, for daring to mention publicly my dislike of the children’s TV show, I found myself accused, in a roundabout way, of lacking a sense of humour.
@ChloeHKing Ah! Now your husband has a sense of humour!
— Grandpa in my pocket (@GrandpaAndJason) February 9, 2015
Further reading: the internet is making us all the same
I was interested to read you blog and get your take on the show. Happily we haven’t received very much negative feedback but, when we do come across it, we pay attention. Some producers just ignore it but what the parents think matters and conversation is a very useful thing .
We hadn’t ever intended our Grandpa character to come across as self-righteous. We fashioned him more as a mischievous enthusiast but, yes, he does like to put things right so I can actually see why you might take the view that you do. The show is intended to help young kids distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong. It’s also intended to prepare them for meeting the bully at school, or the scary adult. Parents have fed back that they like the fact that there are characters that they can hold up as negative role models to their kids. So yes – Grandpa does have a sense of what’s right. And yes he does teach people a lesson. And I firmly believe that is no bad thing. Just to put this in context…..
There’s been a trend towards positivism in the last ten years and a slavish adherence to a U.S ideology that has forbidden us from ever showing any “negative behaviours” thus turning pre-school programming into a kind of unrealistic, sanitised Pollyanna-fest.
There’s been a trend towards positivism in the last ten years and a slavish adherence to a U.S ideology that has forbidden us from ever showing any “negative behaviours” thus turning pre-school programming into a kind of unrealistic, sanitised Pollyanna-fest. We sought to put the balance right here and to have negative characters – comedy “baddies” if you like – and, yes, we wanted them to get their comeuppance. If you look at Fireman Sam you’ll find there’s a character called Norman. He used to be called Naughty Norman but the word “naughty” was banned because “it could label a child for life.” Norman, for writers, is a gift because he instigates story. However, you’ll find that at the end of every episode Norman says sorry, everyone forgives him and then, the next day he is a little swine all over again. It’s a kind of perverse Catholicism and in Grandpa, because we managed to finance it all in the UK and we had a broadcaster who was going to let us take a risk, we sought to redress this balance. It has proved to be the highest rating show on the Channel and I attribute this to all of the above. It has also sold to over 106 territories which we didn’t expect but again I think it was partly the live action element (rare in pre-school) and partly the fact that it broke the rules and flew in face of the traditional ideology. Yes – it’s all done in broad comedy. It’s almost panto, because, as you rightly say, kids of that age respond to broad, slapstick performances. But at the heart of it there’s a good intention. I’m attaching a report written by Dr Becky Parry with respect to the show that you might find interesting.
Aunt Loretta – well – I don’t really see her as quirky but I’m not sure what’s wrong with quirky. It’s not as if all the female characters are quirky so I don’t see it as a stereotypical gender issue but I may have misunderstood your point. She is a trial but underneath it, Grandpa loves her. There are episodes in the body of work that explore this. So Aunt Loretta isn’t all bad but she is eccentric and very stubborn and controlling. All the characters in this show are, to some degree, stock characters and we’ve been careful to make sure there’s a real balance in terms of gender. So Mum is gregarious, excitable, energised and very able. She runs her own business and gets involved in endless hobbies. (Yes – that’s over the top, but it’s funny.) Miss Smiley is all embracing, warm and wonderful but obsessed with cake. By and large, the female characters in the series are more “together” than the male ones. There is a grain of truth in all the characters which is then amplified to make it funny – funny for our target demographic.
Anyway – this isn’t an attempt to make you like it. You are of course entirely at liberty to hate it. I personally hate Wolf Hall which leaves me a bit out on a limb! But I thought I would just respond by letting you know what the intention was and what underpins it.
I’m sorry you dog doesn’t like Wulfy. But it made me laugh.
All the best,