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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