In the Night Garden is secretly teaching our toddlers Chaucer

And they love it.

On weekdays at 6.20pm, CBeebies, the BBC’s channel for the under-4s, screens the popular show In the Night Garden. Toddlers across the UK watch Iggle Piggle, Upsy Daisy and their friends having adventures in fairy-tale woodlands filled with sunshine and flowers. Described by the BBC as representing a “magical place that exists between waking and sleeping in a child’s imagination,” the programme is both enjoyable and educational. The explanatory webpage emphasises its playfulness and confidence-building repetition, plus its use of words, rhyme and music, which create a “happy world” of “loveable characters” and “nursery rhyme nonsense.” Pre-schoolers love to sing along with the characters and add to their collection of the show’s merchandise, from talking toys to clothing, play-doh sets and lunch boxes. Parents can be reassured by the BBC’s admission that the “tone of the programme is deliberately literary” although it is perhaps more literary than they realise. What these tots are actually getting is a dose of the conventions of medieval poetry. Specifically, Chaucer’s dream visions.

Chaucer is best remembered today for his unfinished collection of stories The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the fifteenth century. It is vibrant with humour, irony and brilliant characters. But this is only a portion of his work. He also made a translation of the French dream vision The Romance of the Rose and wrote several of his own versions of the genre. In these, characterisation takes a back seat in favour of more early forms of allegory, where figures were less individuals, than representations of abstract virtues and vices. Chaucer’s poems, The Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women, The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame, follow strict conventions, like a tick-list, of details relating to structure, setting and characters. And, funnily enough, CBeebies’ In the Night Garden contains many of them too.

The programme begins with a sleepy-eyed toddler, lying in bed, having the palm of their hand stroked soothingly. “The night is black and the stars are bright and the sea is dark and deep” begins the song, almost hypnotically. Just as the toddler drifts off, so dream poetry often begin with the narrator lying down restlessly and hoping for the onset of sleep. As “the day began to fail and the dark night” arrives, as in The Parliament of Fowls, the boundaries blur between the conscious and waking worlds. Here, Chaucer’s narrator often meets a guide, who helps him navigate through this dream world. For CBeebies’ sleepy toddlers, there is the blue, fluffy figure of Iggle Piggle, perhaps child-speak for “Little Pickle.” Presented like a toddler’s drawing of a man, with his little shock of red hair and matching blanket, he is the “everyman” bridge between the worlds.

Iggle Piggle journeys to the realm of dreams in a boat. He drifts away on the dark waves, with a little light at the top of his mast showing the way through the gloom. This is timeless literary convention, a common metaphor for the process of sleep, and puts distance between the real world and the imagined. We recognise it as a journey, a temporary measure before we enter the dream proper. Iggle Piggle’s boat never lands. We don’t see him beach it on a distant shore and climb out. This is where the magic begins. Chaucer might supply us with a sudden capsize: “the steering oar did suddenly drag him overboard in his sleep” but the BBC’s explanation is far more toddler-friendly. As we watch, the stars turn into white flowers, which bud and open, like unfolding dreams. A symbolic barrier has been crossed, like falling asleep or dying, passing mysteriously into another realm. This is the world of the Night Garden.

Iggle Piggle finds himself in a landscape of bright colours. Friends await him in an idealised garden where the sun always shines, large stylised flowers bloom and others cluster in bright balls, like gems. It is an eternal, temperate summer, as the dream convention demands; the sun is “clad all new again,” almost in an inversion of the winter of Narnia. Chaucer’s gardens have “no awkwardness of hot or cold” in their “summer sunlight” and “blue, bright, clear” air. His woodland is lush and green, with trees “fresh and green as emerald” and sweet grass “embroidered” with flowers. The BBC’s landscape is reminiscent of this, with “blossoming boughs beside a river” and “ flowers white, blue, yellow and red,” peopled by a cast of unusual imaginary figures. Yet it is Upsy Daisy whom Iggle Piggle most wants to see: “of all the flowers in the mead, love I the white and red I see, such as men call daisies.”  There is no doubt in the children’s minds that she is his BFF, his best friend forever.

Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy’s love affair is a chaste one. They hold hands and even sometimes give each other cloth-mouthed kisses but theirs is a courtly love in the best of medieval traditions. In appearance Upsy Daisy is very feminine, the opposite to Iggle Piggle, with her pink and orange hair and clothes contrasting with his blueness, the epitomic symbols of masculinity and femininity. She is aptly named. Chaucer reverences the humble flower as “the eye of day, the empress and flower of flowers all,” “a daisy is crowned with white petals light,” suggestive of the character’s sticking up coronet of hair. Chaucer’s idealised women, often the Goddess Flora, are the “flower of flowers,” colourful, bright and full of life. Upsy Daisy is also accomplished and affectionate; she sings, dances and kisses flowers, causing them to grow, as Chaucer’s Flora does. The narrator of The Book of the Duchess watches “her dance so gracefully, carol and sing so sweetly.”

Upsy Daisy looks like, and is, a child’s doll. The heroines of Chaucer’s dreams are also similarly mannequinesque, with “golden hair and wide bright eyes.” One is even strangely boneless and unreal; her neck is “smooth and flat without hollow or collarbone” and “every limb rounded, fleshy and not over-thin,” while another is “a feminine creature, that never formed by nature, was such another seen.” They are as animate as the toys that people the Night Garden. Iggle Piggle’s little fabric heart, however, has been won. Quick to swoon in situations of intense emotion, such as a sneeze, he recalls the guide of The Book of the Duchess, eager “to worship her and serve as best I then could,” who declares his love but “she never gave a straw for all my tale.” The toys play with the ball, symbolic of the to and fro of romance. They are the lovers of medieval legend, forever enclosed within their perfect garden but childlike, safe and innocent. And, just as in The Parliament of Fowls, they have their own Cupid, the dumpy brown Makka Pakka, reminiscent of a little Renaissance putto.

Upsy Daisy’s bed is a potent symbol. Seemingly with a life of its own, it is always rushing through the landscape to music, coming to rest among the daisies. A bright yellow, it recalls Venus’s “bed of gold” as described by Chaucer. Unsurprisingly, it is an entirely chaste bed, given over to sleep alone, although its playful trickery reminds us of the illusion and deception of dreams. Only Upsy Daisy is allowed to occupy this bed, as her sleeping and waking, in fact her existence as a dream-woman, are functions of Iggle Piggle’s subconscious.

Just like the dream visions, In the Night Garden never deviates from its structure. The beginning of the end is signalled by the BBC’s own parliament of fowls, a multi-coloured collection of birds signing in harmony. These are a common symbol for Chaucer, ranging from a “sweet” or “angelic” chorus in most poems, to gathering on St Valentine’s day in order to select a mate. The “lays of love” they sing in The Legend of Good Women “upon the branches full of blossom soft” could describe their serenading of the toys in the sunshine as well as signalling the approach of bedtime to their young audience. After this, all the characters come together to sing. As in Chaucer’s poems, the landscape is peopled with other gods and goddesses, mysterious and allegorical figures. From the giant Haahoos to the tiny Pontipines, to the train-like Ninky Nonk and flying Pinky Ponk, we are reminded of dream-like discrepancies in perspective and alternative, child-like ways of viewing the world.

Together, the toys sing and dance under a gazebo, decorated with their images and flashing with coloured lights. It’s a bit of a love-in. As the BBC’s website declares, all characters “interact and love each other… unconditionally.” Chaucer’s poems contain descriptions of various temples to Venus, made of glass, with long pillars and ornamented with images. Women, in The Parliament of Fowls “danced they there, that was their duty, year on year.” It is a happy, utopian vision, attractive and inclusive to children, who sing or sway along with the familiar moves.

After the song, the vision is ended by sleep. The characters stop playing, say good night and close their eyes. Only Iggle Piggle is left awake, although ironically, as the narrator, he is actually asleep in the external “reality” of the structure. He still clutches his red blanket, a constant reminder throughout of his dormant state and imminent return home. The cessation of the dream world signals to the audience that he is about to awake and that the program will end. The credits roll over the image of him in the boat again and the watching toddlers, symbolised by the child falling asleep at the start, “wake” again from its spell. That is when the real bedtime arrives and the hard work for the parents begins. With any luck, someone they “know is safe and snug and drifting off to sleep.”

Iggle Piggle, Makka Pakka with his Og-pog, The Tombliboos and Upsy Daisy. Photo: BBC/Ragdoll

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war