It was with mixed feelings that we heard her first use of the transitive: “Ah want BEEBIES.” She was wheezy with Covid and CBeebies was a portal into a happier world. Her not-quite-two-year-old tongue twists itself around the shows: you should hear her try to say “Grace’s Amazing Machines”. The first time she spontaneously told me she loved me was during JoJo & GranGran, which airs from 5.25 to 5.40 every weekday afternoon. JoJo throws her arms around her grandmother at the conclusion of every episode and my baby did the same. That short programme actually taught her to say I love you.
Interviewing Timmy Mallett, the other day, I failed to get him to say he presided over a golden age of kids’ TV: every age is a golden age for that generation of children, he said, and he was right. This week Nadine Dorries announced plans to freeze, and maybe end, the BBC licence fee, resulting in £2bn in cuts to the corporation: it’s assumed its children’s output will suffer heavy losses, because it always has before.
It would be a tragedy. Those who assume the BBC’s kids’ output is not what it used to be are simply the people who don’t see it. For 20 years now it has had its own channels, CBBC and CBeebies, and airs all day – for sick kids off school; for kids who don’t go to school; for kids whose schools are closed with Covid outbreaks; for parents, working from home, desperate to check an email. Offering more varied, educational and consistent programming than any other service, it is a lifeline, a guarantee of colour and learning and warmth in the long and constantly derailed days of the pandemic.
Firing up the Teasmade in bed at the weekend, we showed her a clip of Rainbow from 1987 on YouTube. Geoffrey looked bemused, living in a house with three emotionally needy mammals: his demeanour – subservient, careworn, hopeful – was part of the charm, an adult who had stumbled into a children’s world.
But CBeebies has its own visionaries, such as Andrew Davenport, who co-created Teletubbies using his training in speech therapy to make a language that only babies could speak. He went on to make the gloriously trippy In The Night Garden, and Moon and Me – an incredibly slow stop-motion animation more bizarre than The Clangers, designed to wind children down for bed. Whenever the moon is still visible in the day my daughter calls for “Moon Baby”, Davenport’s intergalactic foetus, and asks when she can go up and sit beside him.
“It’s surprisingly sophisticated,” people love to say, about kids’ TV shows, as a way of making themselves feel better about watching them. But you wonder why sophistication should ever be a surprise. YolanDa’s Band Jam, which airs on CBeebies, is the best music show on TV. YolanDa Brown, saxophonist, composer and session-woman, runs a heaving studio playing jazz, funk and soul to five-year-olds: crouching to the floor, then jumping up into cosmic wig-outs, she effortlessly transmits parts of musical theory that most adults will never understand – then Anoushka Shankar comes on and shows you how to play a sitar.
You just know that the show was pitched by someone concerned about the lack of music taught in schools today – good children’s TV fills holes in the curriculum. Numberblocks, shown in the classroom, is making kids into maths nerds. The superbly witty Horrible Histories has turned generations of children on to the subject; BBC Bitesize’s programming provided hours of expert home-schooling in lockdown.
But the emotional power of children’s TV is probably greater than its educational value. The anarchic Hey Duggee, in which a large brown dog oversees activities for his squirrel pals, and dispenses “Duggee hugs”, does not shy away from the big philosophical questions. My daughter has friends at nursery, but she also – genuinely – thinks Mr Tumble is her friend. Does she watch a lot of telly? Maybe. Two chunks a day of about 40 minutes each, while we get her clothes on, or cook her boiled egg. But the world opened up in those minutes is far bigger than the time it takes up in her routine – because it is her world, not ours: a mirror in which she can see herself.