Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

What’s the story

To my fellow Americans, happy Thanksgiving. Personally, I am thankful for having so many things to write about. When I started these weekly ramblings more than three and half years ago, I figured I would keep it up for a couple months and then stop after I ran out of things to write about. Unexpectedly, I’m still at it, and surprisingly, I can’t see the end of it on the horizon. Right now, I am juggling no fewer than six different pressing topics in my head, trying not to forget any of my great insights until I can key them into the computer. For example, a pilot for yet another incarnation of Dark Shadows is being prepared for the WB. If that doesn’t demand analysis, I don’t know what does. It’s nearly enough to make me start doing two columns a week. “Well, why don’t you?” asks a smart arse in the virtual audience. “Forget I said anything,” says I. (I’m lucky to get the time to write as much as I do.) Anyway, I will go ahead this week and write about what I said I would last week. I am actually leading up to something momentous (it will take me a couple more weeks to get there, however), and I might as well keep going.

As you might recall, I had announced that I had a theory about children’s television. I have formed this after spending countless hours watching pre-school fare on two continents targeted at my child. And here it is. The amazing truth is that kiddie TV is actually all based on old movies! Well, old movies and old TV shows.

I first began noticing this after my friend Dayle had given me a gift of the entire series The Prisoner on DVD. The Little Munchkin was fascinated with the box set and wouldn’t leave it alone. She kept demanding that I play it. Well, I thought, I might as well. That will put a stop this nonsense. She will either find it extremely boring or extremely creepy and move on to something else. Well, she sat and watched the first episode (where Patrick McGoohan quits his sensitive British government job and is immediately kidnapped and imprisoned in a coastal village from which there is no escape) a good long while. As long as she watches anything anyway. Hmmm, I thought, what is going on here?

Then it dawned on me. The idyllic setting of The Village wasn’t all that different from Teletubbie Land. Then I realized that in many ways the BBC’s Teletubbies was a virtual remake of The Prisoner. After watching countless episodes, I had noticed that the Teletubbies can never get out of Teletubbie Land. And just in case they should ever think about it, every so often a speaker rises out of the ground and a disembodied voice gives them cryptic messages and bizarre instructions. If that doesn’t do the job, then occasionally a big bouncing ball comes along to confound them. That whole “scandal” about Tinky Winky being gay (and after having watched countless episodes, I’m convinced he is, but it doesn’t bother me) was just a ruse to distract people from the true nature of the Teletubbies, which is that they are former British government agents being held prisoner against their will.

That got me to thinking of the provenance of other programs my daughter watches. Here is my take some others:

  • Sesame Street: This is the crème de la crème of children’s television. Generations around the world have grown up with Big Bird, Grover, Elmo et al. The Little Munchkin loves it. Unfortunately, the British satellite channel that had been carrying it, dropped it this autumn. This is basically a Broadway musical, probably one written by Jerry Herman. The talent that goes into the writing, the music and the acting is amazing. The truth is, of course, that parents like to watch Sesame almost as much as the kids. It can, however, get a bit repetitious if you watch it too much. And I still haven’t really warmed up to Elmo. Still, a film buff can occupy himself endlessly by identifying the movie references in its copious skits and musical numbers.

  • Bear in the Big Blue House: Spawned by the Henson stable that gave us Sesame Street, this series has the feel of a live-action cartoon. But as with Sesame, music plays an important part here. If this were a movie, it would be a classic musical from MGM’s heyday. The references are way above kids’ heads, but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying. It just means that their parents can too. It does follow the strange kiddie TV convention of having children figures (the bear cub, the otters, the lemur, the mouse) all hanging around all day and night with an adult figure (Bear) who doesn’t seem to be related to any of them. What is that all about?

  • Barney: The bête noire (well, bête pourpre) of adults everywhere, Barney has inspired no end of parodies, usually vicious, including a Robin Williams movie. This is because the program, unlike the Henson shows, makes absolutely no concessions to adult tastes. It is aimed strictly at pre-schoolers, and they seem to love it. It is the prime example of the adult-figure-with-the-children thing, made creepier because Barney always approaches the kids when they are hanging around after school or in the park. Their parents are very rarely, if ever, around. Sometimes the school janitor joins the fun. Movie-wise, it has the feel of the 1950s B movie musicals, mainly ones starring Dan Dailey and June Haver. But the constantly smiling, perfect, robot-like youngsters really make this an ongoing remake of a 1987 film sequel, The Stepford Children.

  • Balamory: I don’t know if Balamory is a real place in Scotland or not. I thought I read somewhere that it was and that its tourism industry had been boosted by this series, which is aired on the BBC’s children’s channel, Cbeebies. But my Scottish brother-in-law-by-marriage has never heard of it. Anyway, Balamory is a quaint coastal village, full of colorful and sometimes eccentric characters. So I suppose it is something of a remake of the 1983 Bill Forsyth film, Local Hero. The residents are so relentlessly pleasant and cheerful that they verge on being Stepford-like. Its theme song (with the oft-repeated refrain of “What’s the story in Balamory?”) is very hard to get out of your head, no matter how you try. And I do try. The Munchkin loves this show, but after a few hours of it, I find myself wanting to head to New York City to get insulted by a stranger in the street.

    Come to think of it, while I have never actually been to Balamory myself, I am convinced that I spent considerable time talking to people there on the phone during the month of October. But that story can (and will) wait until next time.

    -S.L., 27 November 2003

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