TV hits the bottom line

The latest US import takes toilet humour to new depths. Vanessa Thorpe on the 'adult' cartoons that kids can't resist
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SENSITIVE parents who squirmed at the prospect of buying their child a garish Mutant Ninja Turtle top or a fluorescent Teletubbies bedspread should brace themselves right now. British shops are soon to be stocked with the ultimate in vulgar merchandise - must-have "talking turd" T-shirts and matching baseball caps.

It is all the fault of the cult American series South Park, which is to be shown on British TV for the first time this month.

Set on the sidewalks of Colorado, South Park is a scatalogically inclined cartoon show which was originally designed for adults. It tells of the cruel antics of a group of elementary school kids who have yet to be introduced to the concept of political correctness. As a result, they alternately make fun of each other for being poor, effeminate, friendless, pockmarked or Jewish.

The programme's twenty-something creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are, on the other hand, all too familiar with the strictures of modern political correctness. Under their direction, no human instinct proves so base that the series' crude protagonists, Kenny, Kyle, Stan and Cartman, are not prepared to revel in its depths.

The first episode will go out on Sky One on 28 March, but the full impact of South Park is unlikely to be felt until Channel 4 starts running the show this summer. In America the instalment which has caused the most outrage so far sees Kyle forlornly singing about being a "lonely Jew" at Christmas. Kyle, who is teased mercilessly, eventually invents one of the show's enduring successes - an imaginary talking faeces called Mr Hanky, who lives, naturally enough, in the toilet.

The show, which was first conceived as a one-off, zany Christmas video greeting, follows in the colourful footsteps of the hit TV characters Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, Duckman, The Simpsons and King of the Hill.

Each of these earlier cult shows was written with adults in mind and yet each inevitably picked up an avid pre-teen audience. The pay off for the shows' distributors is that it is the younger viewers, generally speaking, who are the biggest suckers for spin-off merchandise. More than $30m (pounds 18.2m) of South Park memorabilia has already been sold in the US.

In spite of the late time slot, the programmers at Sky One know they are playing with fire. The cartoon could prove one subversive import too many for Britain's concerned moral guardians.

"We have got to be very careful," said James Baker, head of programmes. "South Park is deeply, deeply tasteless and insensitive and there are certain people who are going to find it very offensive. We are going to have to put a strong warning out before the show."

At the same time, Baker is happy to defend his decision to screen the show.

"It covers a lot of important issues and portrays children in a realistic way. You would never get a piece of live action drama covering these kinds of stories - certainly not with children in it, at any rate," he said.

Regardless of how allegedly "smart" South Park is, the Venerable George Austin, Archdeacon of York, is one of those strongly opposed to the use of a child's medium to convey adult ideas. He feels it is both cynical and wrong.

"It is an erosion of childhood," he said. "There are too many shows on TV now that are trying to push back the boundaries.

"Because of cartoons like these, young children are using the language of adults in their twenties and thirties."