Fraggle Rock was as good as I remembered, but Count Duckula was much, much worse

CITV's Old Skool Weekend pricked the bubble of childhood nostalgia for Bim Adewunmi.

What's your earliest memory? I have trouble remembering which of my memories are mine and which I've heard so many times as family folklore that I've reassigned them to my personal memory bank. What I have no trouble remembering is childhood television. The flickering box in the corner of the room was very much on while I was growing up, and changes in location – from east London to downtown Lagos – meant nothing in the grand scheme of my watching habits. So I remember Rainbow quite clearly (and being very distressed whenever somebody zipped up Zippy), and I have fond memories of singing along to the Jimbo and the Jet Set and Muppet Babies. I laughed at Dangermouse and The Trap Door and I watched the repeats of Vision On and Hartbeat. So when CITV announced their 'Old Skool Weekend' to mark their 30th anniversary, I was somewhat pathetically excited. This was my first error. As anyone who's ever met their hero will tell you: don't do it - they'll only let you down.

I settled in on Saturday morning, expecting to be hit by a wave of potent nostalgia and got… nothing. I've always resisted the charge that children's television has got dumber over time (honourable mention: Fairly Odd Parents), that the Golden Age of children's television was largely behind us by the time we hit the 90s. But perhaps the atrophying had begun even earlier. I started with T-Bag, and was shocked by how average it was. What had enchanted before merely delivered the basic goods. I shrugged it off and went to make a cup of tea. 'Count Duckula's coming soon,' I thought. 'And that was ace.'

An hour later, I found out the miserable truth about the Count: he was rubbish, wasn't he? How did he so successfully hypnotise us into believing his greatness? I sat, stony-faced and angry with myself for remaining seated. Such was its badness, it failed to elicit even a smirk from me, and I am a known smirker: I will laugh at the silliest of things. Carrie Bradshaw-style, I couldn't help but wonder: was I being overly harsh? Had the joy and innocence of childhood been so successfully leached from my heart, leaving only the tiny lump of coal that is a prerequisite for an embittered TV column? Short answer: no. Because Sooty and his friends were as charming as ever, their high-pitched squeaks a soothing balm to my disappointed soul.

Thank God also for Fun House: Pat Sharpe's limpid eyes, Melanie and Martina, a studio full of overexcited children, plus a briefly disconcerting bit when Pat asks a young contestant who likes dancing to "show me your booty, get on the floor!" (she does an adorable side running man). Knightmare carried on hitting high notes. This was nostalgia! Bad (but quite exciting at the time) graphics? Check. Children from the Home Counties (Simon, Derek and Daniel – names very much at home in the early 90s) helping Barry get through the course? Check. Hackneyed dialogue delivered by actors emoting far too much for the show in question ("nothing can save you except knowledge")? Check!

Straight after, Fraggle Rock came on. I had been obsessed with this show, going as far as writing up exciting fanfic for the Doozers, a move which, with hindsight, makes me view my younger self ever more favourably. Thankfully, the Henson magic was undiminished, and in a marvellous half-hour I was utterly entranced by the antics of some felt and fleece muppets. Incidentally, it was my favourite ever episode, one featuring Convincing John and his harmonising acolytes, which made it even more special. Here was a programme that truly spoke to the adult as well as the child – the mark of a great children's programme, yes? Now, I could see the evangelical fervour of John's performance, his 'hypnotic' powers had that sheen normally associated with the charismatic cult leader's, his jazz hands – and moustache – the pure theatre of Little Richard's rock n' roll. Watching it and getting all of this as an adult was an unexpected and welcome surprise, and only served to enhance my enjoyment of the show. Fraggle Rock gets it, Dangermouse gets it, Hey Arnold gets it. And in twenty years, Horrible Histories will get it.

Clearly, my discontent was not echoed by the vast majority of viewers: the Old Skool Weekend drew CITV's biggest ever audience. Nostalgia sells. It's part of the reason why Heinz continues to do so well. The thing is, brand heritage takes us only halfway – Heinz ketchup still manages to come out on top in blind taste tests, too. In the taste tests of television, the shows that get it, the ones where re-watching does not erode the legacy, are the ones we need more of. That way we get rewarded twice: now when it counts, and or the future, when we're basking in the glow of warm nostalgia.

A scene from Count Duckula.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage