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January 18, 2006

Harry Phibbs says save Balamory: It's about the only current children's programme suitable for the well brought-up child

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Journalist Harry Phibbs is a fan of children's programme Balamory. It is one of the few current programmes aimed at young children that has its characters speaking in neither American accents or gibberish. Yet the BBC is planning to axe the programme. It should be saved, says Harry Phibbs. This could be the first great twenty-first century cause for Middle England.

Most children's television being shown in Britain today is appallingly bad. Of course there is concern cited by Professor Lord Winston among others over the damaging effects on a child's intellectual, physical and social development by spending hours a day stuck zombified before the television. The Tory philosopher Roger Scruton doesn't have a television in his house, although he faces the hazard that his young children will watch it at their friends' homes.

But - as well as how much children watch - it also matters what they watch. There is a vast quantity available. The BBC have two dedicated channels Cbeebies, for young children, and CBBC, for older children. The standard is very low and the programmes on the other channels even worse.

Or American - fine for the Americans, but do we want British children speaking with American accents even if the programmes are any good? The best tip for those with young children is to buy DVDs or videos of old children's programme from the 1960s and 1970s. Trumpton, Camberwick Green, Hector's House, Parsley the Lion, Mary, Mungo and Midge, and Magic Roundabout are all available on Amazon although often only in the second hand section. You can even sometimes get old episodes of Watch with Mother on video. Usually the narrators in these programmes speak in good clear English not the slangy drivel of the Tellytubbies, Tweenies and Thimbles.

But let us be fair. Some children's television is perfectly adequate: Story Makers, a successor to Jackanory on Cbeebies; or a soothing programme called Come Outside with an old lady and a dog called Pippin.

There is also one children's programme on British television that is rather good. It is called Balamory and has intelligent, well spoken characters. It is set in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. The programme is wildly popular with the under fives flocking to see the cast in on stage versions and roaring with excitement in the way teenagers might over pop singers.

When I went along to the show at the Hammersmith Apollo the biggest cheer that went up was for Archie the Inventor, (played by Miles Jupp) an unapologetically posh character who lives in a castle and wears a kilt. In one sense the series is Politically Correct in that there is a ethnic diversity of characters and one of the women who works in the sweet shop is in a wheel chair. But what is unusual is that Archie, as a posh white male, is included in this "it takes all sorts to make the world" approach. Usually the diversity of sympathetic characters is hypocritically limited by BBC programme makers anxious to instil class antagonisms at an early age. (The flowers in the Tellytubbies for instance speak in cut glass accents but they are cruelly sneering at the Tellytubbies giving a pretty clear message to toddlers that those with posh voices are unpleasant.)

As well as a genuine esprit de cours in Balamory there is a spirit of optimism with each episode as there is a problem that emerges and then a solution is found. Often Archie is the heroic figure who comes up with an invention. There is always an element of suspense. In The Hobby Horse, Archie presents Miss Hoolie with a wonderful pen tree to keep all her pens in. But he doesn't know what to do with the leftover bits of coathangers.

The music on Balamory is one of the strong points. Invariably the songs have good tunes. The title sequence begins with some seagulls and then the rousing theme:

What's the story in Balamory? Wouldn't you like to know.
Each of the principal characters have their own songs. These can be listened to via the Cbeebies section of the BBC website. Archie's songs include one which proclaims:
I'm Archie. The inventor. I know how things are done. I can make absolutely anything. Inventing things is fun.
Another at a more soothing pace goes:
Archie's inventions can help the nation
Great inventions. Groovy solutions
Archie's got a thing called imagination
Great inventions. Groovy solutions.
I'm afraid it doesn't seem to travel well. What's the story in Balamory?

"Yanks don't want to know" reads one report that the Americans wanted to redub the programme shown over there because their viewers couldn't understand the Scottish accent. I only wish we dubbed over some of the American programmes into the Queen's English.

P G Wodehouse wrote:

It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.
Tobermory has benefited a lot from tourism with children coming to see the houses portrayed in the series. But some have grumbled about the traffic, the car park being stretched and that the revenue from tourism is very modest compared to the 30 million the BBC have made out of Balamory.

Things do sometimes get out of hand. The BBC employ security guards to prevent the actors being mobbed by toddlers while filming is under way. Such problems won't exist for long. The BBC has decried that the series be axed. No very convincing reason has been given. The Fimbles and the Tweenies live on.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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Comments

A fine article, but I am amazed that you do not mention "Here Comes Bod", with added appeal for those of us who have a soft spot for John Le Mesurier. This has been tested extensively on my own toddler and it is perfectly clear that he adores its only faintly trippy minimalism. Truly, the past was better.

Posted by: Bunny Smedley at January 18, 2006 03:56 PM
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Having read this article I presume - hope! - that Harry Phibbs has a young child.

Otherwise his interests would be just too bizarre.

Posted by: Jane at January 18, 2006 04:10 PM
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The Magic Roundabout DVD linked is the 2004 computerised remake, not the 1970s original. Not the same thing at all.

Posted by: Bishop Hill at January 19, 2006 01:59 PM
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I really loved watching Balamory with my baby. The music would really catch her attention. I live California, but don't hold that against me. My family and I all loved watching Balamory with her. Suddenly we couldn't find the show anywhere, and we were all very sad. Balamory is so much more entertaining than the Teletubbies. In fact I hate the Teletubbies. I loved hearing the Scottish accents. Diveristy is important. The faster children learn that there are many people different from themselves, the better.

Posted by: Christine at May 15, 2007 03:34 AM
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