This is a moral tale, but blink and you'll miss it

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S A moral in there somewhere, there must be, but I'm damned if I can see it. Merry hell is raging in right-thinking, child-loving circles because in the last series of his hugely successful Channel 4 programme TFI Friday, the presenter Chris Evans made a couple of seven- year-old children cry. Oh no, how awful. What did he do, smash their Game Boys, garrotte their guinea-pigs, slag off Sporty Spice, or tell them Father Christmas doesn't exist? Well, no. He invited them to a staring competition and they lost.

Times have changed. When I was a child I was taught that it was rude to stare and was given a sharp slap should my innocent, enquiring gaze dwell too long on Auntie Winnie's huge and pendulous bosom or Uncle Bob's unusually placed war wound. To be fair, Chris Evans wasn't asking the children to stare at anything specific; they just had to stare. First person to blink loses. It's the sort of game desperate parents persuade their children to play on long car journeys to Cornwall, say, when they're off to see an eclipse.

The crucial differences between Chris Evans's version in the TFI Friday studio and the one families play in their Vauxhall Cavaliers is first that it's in public, and second that there are prizes. Proper prizes. We're not talking Mars bars, we're talking pounds 15,000 speedboats and Golf GTIs.

The viewers who rang in to complain, and whose complaints resulted in a stern warning for Evans, fell into two camps: those who thought it indefensible to humiliate children in public and those who objected to bribing them with expensive consumables. What's surprising is that someone with Evans's reputation for being good with kids (half the listeners who phone in to his Virgin Radio breakfast show are on their way to school) would bother offering prizes at all. To a seven-year-old the kudos of being on telly, talking to a celebrity, is its own reward - more than enough to guarantee playground popularity for years.

The prizes are clearly aimed at the parents, designed to persuade them to allow their little treasurers to appear on the show. As for being humiliated because they wept in public, chances are the losers will tell you that it was worth it, to every last teardrop, because they were immediately rushed to the green room and given a Play Station as a consolation prize.

I didn't see the ITC comments but I bet there were pious remarks made about exploiting innocent children. Fiddlesticks. These days children have pretty much lost their innocence by the time they leave kindergarten. For his eighth birthday last year my son invited a few of his friends for tea. "Josh's dad drives a purple Lamborghini," said one of them to me conversationally. "Gosh," I said. "What does your dad do, Josh?" "He's a drug-dealer," said the innocent little lad, helping himself to an egg sandwich.

I don't watch TFI Friday and therefore didn't know about the staring competition, but if I had I would certainly have entered my son after delicate negotiations with the producer about swapping the speedboat for a washing machine and five years' supply of Pizza Express takeaways. Why shouldn't children pull their weight in a family? A friend with five children has had all of them appearing in commercials since they were toddlers. She made a fortune from her twin sons, who advertised everything from nappies to life insurance.

There is a moral in this story, and I've suddenly thought of it. Who stares wins. If you enter your child for a staring competition then it's up to you as a caring parent to make sure that he wins. When I go to Moorfields to have my eyes tested, the consultant puts drops in my eyes to stop me blinking. A few of those Moorfields drops judiciously applied before the contest, and I would have been laughing all the way to Comet to choose my new washing machine.