The Critics: CRIES AND WHISPERS
Sunday 09 November 1997
It was appalling. He-Man and his similarly steroid-inflated sidekick, Man-at-Arms, would ride around on the back of a green tiger and deflect laser beams with their swords, thereby thwarting the evil schemes of Skeletor and his sidekick, Beastman. We were never told which of these characters, if any, was a master of the universe, or what the job entailed. Nor did we learn how they came to have names which matched their attributes (Skeletor, for instance, would have had to put up with a lot of teasing at school, were he not lucky enough to have had a skull instead of a head). The cartoon was little more than a jerkily animated, poorly drawn advertisement for the plastic figures that cluttered the toy shops at the time, and it often finished with one of the characters declaiming the moral of the story. This was usually something to do with the importance of being nice to your parents, and never, as far as I can remember, to do with muscular, handsome people being morally superior to ugly, weak people.
Appalling, as I say, and if I'd been chairing the Broadcasting Standards Commission at the time, I might well have grumbled about "the relentless growth of the cartoon genre", as Lady Howe did this week. According to Wednesday's newspapers, the BSC has published a report on today's children's television, which concludes, in the Guardian's words, that "old favourites like Playaway and Play School [are] being replaced by ... The Simpsons and cheap animated series".
I wonder which cartoons Lady Howe has been watching. The Simpsons is transmitted at 6pm, so it doesn't even count as children's programming, even before you take account of the sophisticated, beautifully structured, multi-layered humour.
And those cartoons I've seen which definitely are aimed at children - and that's probably more than I should admit to - are almost of the same standard. Rugrats and Hey Arnold would seem to have been made with Lady Howe's diktat in mind: "Quality programming for children should encourage the child's development as a good citizen, with critical abilities and an interest in a wide range of issues." That they fulfil this specification without being patronising or sickly is more or less a miracle.
Best of all there is Saturday morning's Batman, an Emmy award- winning masterpiece. With its stylised art-deco design, its clever plotting and its atmosphere of shadowy menace, it beats the live-action Batman blockbusters in every possible regard, and no one but George Clooney devotees would disagree.
This may not prove that all cartoons are better now than they were a decade ago, but many of them are, and to lump all of the medium's offerings together as a single, insidious genre is a mistake. I'd also question whether cartoons are "cheap" alternatives to live programmes. When you think of the time that must be spent slaving over each episode by Batman's armies of writers and artists, you can't imagine that employing Floella Benjamin to look through the round window would be a great deal more expensive. Still, cartoons may be cheap as far as the BBC and ITV are concerned, because the stations are buying the finished products from America. It's this practice that may be at the root of Lady Howe's objections. She is embarrassed that Britain's animation industry doesn't have much to show for itself bar an Oscar every year or two for Wallace & Gromit, but it's a bit much to blame our country's failings on Rugrats. Parents who are concerned about the number of cartoons their children watch should think back to He-Man and breathe a sigh of relief. They don't make them like that any more.
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