Steve Devrell: Why 'Little Britain' is bad for schoolchildren

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The Independent Online

I wonder how many parents have been subjected to Vicky Pollard's "yes but no but" routine from their children. How many have been slightly amused, but perhaps a little alarmed as their child comes home from school and announces that he is the "only gay in the village". These well known catchphrases from TV's Little Britain are sweeping the playgrounds of Britain as children latch on to the outrageous characterisations of this hit TV series.

I too am at least a partial fan of Little Britain and many of the other cutting edge comedy series that appear on TV. Unfortunately, so are many children and that I find quite disturbing. Children as young as seven can mimic word perfectly the characters of Matt Lucas and David Walliams. What they are less able to grasp are the implications of their mimicry.

Little Britain relies heavily on discrimination for its humour. Racial minorities, the overweight, gays, the elderly, transvestites, teenage mothers, the disabled and the incontinent are all subjects of ridicule in its series, but it is tackled in such a subtle way that most adults at least find it funny rather than offensive. Children cannot always grasp the self-mocking messages in the humour, instead they find the characters and their catchphrases funny - "I want that one"; "Computer says no", and so on. The characters become heroes to many children and large parts of the scripts are learned and reeled off without really understanding the self-mocking style of the humour.

One of the great successes, certainly in primary education over the past decade has been the way schools have tackled the '-isms' in our society. Much hard work has gone in to the theme of achieving equality. Concerted programmes in social development, assemblies and circle times have resulted in children taking a far greater stand against the various prejudices that exist in our society. In my school alone we have incident log books, playground rangers, peer mediators, school and class councils as well as a dedicated programme of circle times to reduce the various forms of discrimination that have traditionally existed in schools. In some cases it has been a real struggle to change the attitudes of children towards the various forms of discrimination that exists in our society.

For one thing, discriminating against minorities or the disadvantaged is an easy target and one that the victim is powerless to defend. It has also been a learned experience for many children, and one that they have inherited from past generations who lived in less politically correct times. When children watch programmes like Little Britain, the hard work that has been going on in our schools over recent years is sadly undermined; and children do watch it in their millions. In fact Little Britain's popularity seems to be waning amongst adults whilst increasing dramatically amongst children. They seemed to view it as a modern form of pantomime, with outrageous characters in outrageous costumes. The content, however, is clearly unsuitable for a young audience.

So whose responsibility is it to monitor the viewing of our children? Well clearly it is the parents', but unfortunately parents do not always have the will or inclination to make such decisions. Also, many children have TVs in their bedroom, making monitoring their viewing even harder.

The ultimate responsibility for what appears on our screens must rest with the TV companies. In a world where the more outrageous and controversial the material, the more popular the programme becomes, TV companies have become far less willing to exercise their own moral responsibility. There must be a feeling amongst TV companies that children suddenly disappear at 9pm and reappear the next morning. The watershed is not a protective wall for our young; it isn't even a hurdle. Children don't say "I'm turning the TV off before those unsuitable programmes start." And parents don't insist upon it. So it is down to the TV companies to take a more responsible role.

Nine o'clock is no longer a time when all children are fast asleep. It was in my day, because we were bored and cold and bed was a refuge. Today children stay up longer and TV companies fail to - or refuse to - recognise that fact. Popular programmes seem to go out at popular times regardless of content or audience. As Catherine Tate might say: Are the TV companies bovvered? Do they look bovvered? Obviously not, but they should be.

The writer is the pastoral and business manager of a large primary school in Solihull

education@independent.co.uk

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