Review: Sir Derek and the Devil – the perfect antidote to visual tartrazine

Summerhill, BBC1, CBBC; A Boy Called Alex, Channel 4; Reaper, E4; In the Night Garden, CBBC
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The Independent Culture

Four out of five children now have a television in their rooms, the pampered little shits. The main source of entertainment in my childhood bedroom was a postcard of Millais' Ophelia. When that got boring there was quite cool wallpaper to look at. Actually, I don't envy kids most of the telly they get today, which is all visual tartrazine, hyperactive and moronic by turns, a grooming ground for later TV peccadilloes.

Last week Konnie Huq left Blue Peter after 10 years of messing about in hovercraft, gasping at insects and getting prettier and perkier with each programme. She started off like a shy school prefect and ended up like Davina McCall, but without the depth. I think that's what TV calls progress.

I decided to look at kids' TV this week because Summerhill started, a BBC drama about the liberal boarding school where lessons are optional. The acting is one down from Grange Hill, but the ideas are exciting. Could a school like this work? Would you want to go? You can practically hear the small viewers' heads fizzing.

The fact that Summerhill really exists will add to the fascination. It's a great idea, boldly done. The drama may well become more nuanced, turning on the axis it has set up, but it started off as biased as possible: the school is portrayed as a sun-drenched idyll, its pupils as attractively inclusive as a Benetton advert, its teachers infinitely "cool", its sacred freedoms threatened by nosy, militaristic Ofsted inspectors (stern and afflicted by cankles). I doubt this will wash with the viewing demographic. Children are conservative creatures and I can imagine them sitting transfixed and horrified by this middle-aged producers' fantasy school.

TV loves tragedy, and it loves Eton. It is shamefaced about how much it loves the latter, but it proudly embraces its obsession with the former: it is what telly mistakes for profundity. Tragedy can justify anything on telly, even Eton. A Boy Called Alex was a portrait of a young public schoolboy – Alex Stobbs – struggling with cystic fibrosis, pursuing his music scholarship regardless of massive medical complications and a perennial threat of death. It brought out the worst in you, sometimes, this programme. You wondered whether he was really as talented a musician as everyone was saying, or if sympathy came into it. It brought out the best in you sometimes, too. You wondered if you could possibly be so brave, so cheerful and so determined as Alex. It made you feel blessed to have a regular pair of lungs. And it brought out curiosity, too. You wondered how the vast amounts of drugs he had to take were funded, a reasonable question but not one anyone doing documentary telly ever asks: genre dictates that, generally, lavish documentary sticks to feelings, and Newsnight sticks to figures: a bifurcation CP Snow would have lamented.

A Boy Called Alex was for parents; their children will have been in their rooms watching Reaper, the new comedy from director Kevin Smith, imported as part of the ongoing E4 charm offensive (which really isn't paying off as far as the Big Brother Celebrity Hijack goes. The housemates are going to come out into a whistling void of disinterest).

Reaper is aimed at ages 18 to 34, but why have your own TV closeted away unless you are going to use it to watch shows where they crack jokes about killing hookers? When that line came out of someone's mouth, I assumed he was the character whose soul had been sold to the devil. Wrong. He was just the harmless sidekick. In fact, the demonic one is a lot nicer, loyal to his buddies, an all-round good guy. It's just a pity that slavering hounds of hell keep following him everywhere. A wisecracking show that is cleverer than it looks, Reaper is this year's My Name is Earl. If that means nothing to you, you clearly have a Millais postcard instead of a telly.

The very young are best served on the box, in the end. They have In the Night Garden, the enchanting, gentle, soothing show from the Teletubbies creators, filmed in a Warwickshire forest and featuring the sonorous voice of Sir Derek Jacobi, delivering some of his finest lines to date: "Hum Dum, Agga Pang, Ing Ang Oo. Makka Pakka, Akka Wakka, Mikka Makka Moo."

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