When the children won't play ball on children's television

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The Independent Online
ONE DAY, many years ago, when I was young and the BBC was young and my father was not that old, he and I watched a play going out live on BBC-TV about Florence Nightingale. It wasn't a great play, and I probably would have forgotten all about it had it not been for the moment when the actress playing Florence forgot her words, and the play - this was live television, remember - ground to an exciting halt.

She had got as far as the War Office where she had gone to ask for permission to go to the Crimea.

"So why do you want to go to the Crimea, Miss Nightingale?", said the grand official, and Miss Nightingale said nothing because she had forgotten her lines, and she just walked round the room trying to remember why on earth she might want to go to the Crimea, the War Office official staring after her, and a prompter shouting something about hospitals off-stage, and this went on for what seemed a full minute or two, when suddenly my father, who had been half dozing off, leapt to his feet, said "This is a very slow play, if you ask me", and switched off the set, so I never did find out what happened. (Is there anyone out there who saw this forty years ago and can tell me?)

Nowadays most television is canned and potted and deep frozen so most such moments are edited out, but I am glad to say I did spot something the other day which is well worth recording as an instance of television coming apart for a moment. Nothing as dramatic as the whole process grinding to a halt, but a nice unrehearsed moment anyway.

On Saturday morning I was late shaving, and as is my wont I switched on the television at random to sneer at some transmission, and found myself watching Live and Kicking, a children's programme which has all the forced hysterical jollity of an old Butlin's evening. Most children's programmes of this type have a large, bossy young woman, usually blonde, forcing people to have a good time, and this one is called Zoe Ball and she was interviewing a serious young girl about music.

The interview went something like this:

Ball: So you play the saxophone?

Girl: Yes.

Ball: And you've just taken your Grade 3?

Girl: Yes.

Ball: And how many marks did you get?

Girl: 132.

Ball: A hundred and thirty-two? But that's a distinction!

Girl: Yes. (Instant forced applause.)

Ball: Now, do you remember saying you wished you could have a certain something if you passed?

Girl: No...

Ball: Well, you did, and it was a Lost World video!

Girl: But I don't like The Lost World...

Ball: And we've got that video for you now!

At which point videos of the Lost World were dumped in the poor girl's lap. I wouldn't say she looked grateful. I would say she looked as if she wanted to be a thousand miles away. Miss Ball, however, looked mighty pleased with herself, as you have to when you're a children's television presenter, because she had just ridden an awkward moment with ease. She had asked a question, got quite the wrong answer, and totally ignored it.

My sympathy was all with the young girl. I was forced to see the film of The Lost World by a gang of kids and I thought it was clumsy and predictable, not half as good as Jurassic Park, which I didn't reckon a lot either. Moreover, The Lost World seemed to me to be a dead steal from the Conan Doyle book of the same name, which was far superior to the film which Spielberg had made. The Conan Doyle book has wit, and tension, and atmosphere, and a bunch of interesting characters, none of which could be said for the Spielberg version...

Of course, the reason that Zoe Ball couldn't believe the girl when she said she didn't like the Lost World - quite apart from the fact that she wouldn't have known how to handle such a moment - was that in the world of Live and Kicking everyone likes the Lost World. In that world, everyone likes trainers and hamburgers and football and Oasis and baseball caps worn backwards. It's the world of Children's Menus. Children's Menus always have sausages and chicken nuggets and chips on them, always nursery junk food, never a single interesting or unpredictable item. Children's TV is the same. When something unpredictable happens, like a child who doesn't like The Lost World, the system can't cope...

In fact, right after that, Zoe Ball told the girl she had won a free trip to Disneyland and Florida, and the girl looked equally unimpressed. I was just thinking how wonderful it would be if she told Zoe Ball she didn't want to go to Disneyland and hoping she would, when my father came in and switched the television off...

No, my father is dead now, so he can't switch off the television any more, but my wife yelled a last imperious summons to breakfast and that comes to the same thing, so I had to switch off and I can't tell you what happened next. Still, a nice moment while it lasted.