What's wrong with frightening the children?

The best children's classics are all X-certificate with their pain, perversion, torture, and violent death

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When my kids were small their favourite game was an exciting entertainment called Joan of Arc derived from a bedtime story I once told them about the unfortunate career of the Maid of Orleans. Everyone wanted to be Joan, of course, so they had to toss for it. The lucky winner was then seized, tied to a stake surrounded by thundery bits of paper, cardboard and kindling and then prodded with sharp sticks by siblings vaguely dressed as French soldiers chanting "Renounce your faith or perish in eternal fire". Bloodied (the sticks were often very sharp) but unbowed, the valiant Joan would reply "I will never renounce my God" whereupon they burnt her to death. Once, when the four rough Dutton boys from down the road joined in and became overexcited they very nearly did but it only added to the fun.

When my kids were small their favourite game was an exciting entertainment called Joan of Arc derived from a bedtime story I once told them about the unfortunate career of the Maid of Orleans. Everyone wanted to be Joan, of course, so they had to toss for it. The lucky winner was then seized, tied to a stake surrounded by thundery bits of paper, cardboard and kindling and then prodded with sharp sticks by siblings vaguely dressed as French soldiers chanting "Renounce your faith or perish in eternal fire". Bloodied (the sticks were often very sharp) but unbowed, the valiant Joan would reply "I will never renounce my God" whereupon they burnt her to death. Once, when the four rough Dutton boys from down the road joined in and became overexcited they very nearly did but it only added to the fun.

I mention this only because I've just heard that the London theatre poised to stage a brand new production of Mary Poppins is advising customers that the show isn't suitable for children under seven because it's too scary. They are deliberately trying to base the play on the book rather than the Walt Disney film of 1964 starring Julie Andrews as the all-singing, all-dancing, flying nanny. When she saw the film, P L Travers, author of the original book, burst into tears. Not scary enough, she wept, in fact not scary at all. It had been her deliberate intention to pinpoint the misery that so many children went through from being reared by beastly, embittered spinsters forced into domestic service as childminders because there was no other alternative.

That's Hollywood for you, helping the medicine go down as usual with a spoonful, or in this case, a whole bottle full of sugar. Pretty Woman, the film that launched Julia Roberts in her first big role as a lippy, chippy, happy hooker, was originally a dark story of vice, violence, disease and death. Bearing in mind their penchant for pyrotechnics and St Joan, I think my kids would have preferred the unhappy version.

Children don't want to be cosseted and cajoled. They want the living daylights scared out of them, which is why Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are has sold a billion copies worldwide. Children at bedtime are fed up to the back teeth with hearing their mothers drone on about the day Piglet saw a Heffalump. They want Sendak's horned, hoofed monsters rolling their terrible eyes and grinding their terrible teeth in a frenzy of orgiastic, sacrificial rites.

The best children's classics are all X-certificate with their emphasis on pain, perversion, torture, sadism and violent death. Think of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid having her fish tail cut off so that she can kid the prince she's a normal girl even though every step she takes is like treading on razors. And what about Grimm's Wicked Wizard (clearly a paedophile) forcing the princess, whose brothers he has turned into swans, to knit them cloaks from stinging nettles?

Maybe living as he does in the wilds of Inverness-shire, Cameron Mackintosh, producer of the new Mary Poppins, has become out of touch with the sado-masochistic ways of modern kids who probably witness half a dozen murders on television every day and three times as many in their video games. The real reason I suspect that he's advising under-sevens to stay away is that they'll be bored stiff. It's a lovely idea to take the whole family to the theatre for a treat but it doesn't work. Believe me, I speak from experience. I once paid a fortune to take all of mine to see The Wind in the Willows at the National. The set was amazing. Isn't it amazing, I enthused, to the six-year-old. Yes, he said, but could he go home after the first act to watch Man United vs Arsenal? His elder brothers said selflessly that they'd better go with him to make sure he was OK. The girls remembered parties they had accepted invitations for, and in the end it was just the old fogeys, my husband and me, watching Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad strutting their stuff. "Why are we watching middle-aged men wearing funny clothes pretending to be ferrets?" my husband whispered.

It's appropriate, I suppose, that a show about a nanny should want to nanny its audience or have we all got so paranoid about children wearing protective clothing, in case conkers drop on their heads, that we've lost the plot? My cynical alter-ego reckons that this is the theatrical equivalent of getting people to sign a disclaimer so that if one of the little treasures does wake up in the middle of the night shivering and screaming "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" we won't sue Sir Cameron for negligence.

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