Thursday, March 15, 2012

15 March 2012: Quick

Got five minutes, so wanted to post a couple of things. First, this headline, taken straight from the BBC News website this afternoon:

"Legal challenges against the scrapping of a tax loophole that allowed the Channel Islands to sell low value goods VAT-free fail."

Now I don't mind that Jersey used to offer VAT-free goods, or that this was due to a legal loophole, or that said loophole was to be scrapped or that there was a legal challenge against said scrapping or indeed that said legal loophole had failed. What I objected to was that I had to not only read the sentence four times, but actually work it out piece by piece to figure out what it was saying and determine if it meant things would be cheaper or not. (Answer = "not cheaper").

And secondly, looks like the Save The Hobbit campaign, which got support from the likes of Stephen Fry and Ian McKellan (Gandalf himself, of course), has succeeded. Hurrah! Not that I get to go there much these days, but there's something reassuring about knowing that not all unique pubs go the way of the Old Black Cat.

Happy Thursday. Time for another meeting.

Monday, March 05, 2012

5 March 2012: Tumble

This one's been brewing for a while - since our visit to the UK in January, in fact - but my sis spotted a news article from the Guardian concerning the same subject and I knew it could wait no longer.

According to said article, there will soon be Mr Tumble - The Movie.

That statement will have a small minority of you cheering, and the rest (from both sides of the Atlantic) scratching your heads in puzzled bemusement. But I know what it's about, because during our visit to the UK, my mum (bless her) decided it would be good to put a cushion on the floor in front of the television, sit Hannah down on it, and switch on CBeebies - the BBC digital TV channel for the under 5s or so which just celebrated its tenth birthday.

Well, needless to say this went down well with Hannah. Back home we offer her occasional trips to Dora the Explorer and a little Bagpuss or In The Night Garden (thanks to birthday DVDs), but here was a constantly-on channel aimed right at her! Well, we thought, it's holiday time, she can watch a bit more TV than usual.

Of course, what also happened is that as well as Hannah watching it, we watched it too, and watched her watching it. And I began to see what has happened to BBC programming for pre-schoolers since those many years ago when I'd watch Brian Cant or Fred Harris trying to make Little Ted sit up straight on Playschool.

The first thing to say is this: it's a lot better than you'd think, and a lot better than pre-school equivalents over in the US. Partly because there's no adverts (no adverts to speak of on PBS Sprout either, to be fair) but the reason Hannah clicked with it was because it was, for the main part, actual real people (and usually adults) rather than animation. It surprised me that she preferred that, given the flexibility of animation, but there was no question that she really liked seeing even the continuity announcers being real grown-ups playing around with toys.

And then you get to the programmes themselves. 'In The Night Garden' was there, of course, just before bed time (although Hannah also got into the 'Goodnight Song', so we've had to YouTube that a few times for her since) - whenever the Night Garden characters appeared, there was a visible jump from her (not yet 18 months by this point, remember). But we also soon picked up which shows were her favourites and which ones she didn't care for.

And the winner, unquestionably, was a programme called "Show Me Show Me", which was roughly twenty-five minutes long and generally featured two adults playing with five toys, interspersed with occasional songs and video shorts. In other words, it's Playschool, innit?

The presenters, Chris Jarvis and Pui Fan Lee (the latter of whom I find slightly irritating for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, although I did read that she used to be a Teletubby so that might have something to do with it...) - anyway, apparently they used to be CBeebies continuity presenters who got a show of their own when their contracts were up. And it's really good. Just pacy enough to keep Hannah interested without being over the top, and sufficiently non-patronising that they can make in-jokes and only-parents-are-going-to-get-this references without ruining the show.

Other favourites included Mister Maker, an art/craft show fronted by the eponymous Mister Maker, who energetic performance makes him appear to have some kind of bi-polar thing where he is right at the top and about to plunge over the edge... then there's ZingZillas, a bunch of monkey-costume musicians whose ten-minute show is a nice length; some train animation thing called Chuggington that I don't particularly get but seems to have Playschool alumnus Floella Benjamin somewhere in the background; and Grandpa In My Pocket (aimed at much older children than Hannah I think, but she loves it), featuring James Bolam of all people - playing yet another version of James Bolam, of course, but that's always pretty good value.

And then there's Justin.

Ah, Justin. What can you say, other than he appears to be on just about every other show on the channel and everyone loves him. Justin Fletcher MBE, of course, given the award for services to children, television and communication, as I understand it. He was on something called Tikkabilla (another Playschool clone that my sis says I was lucky to miss), voiced several of the Tweenies (another show we avoided happily), and today still hosts a joke-related show named Gigglebiz and Hannah's other favourite: "Justin's House" (essentially a weekly pantomime with much audience participation). And of course, Mister Tumble.

The show is actually called 'Something Special' and is about to start filming its eighth season. Justin plays both himself - meeting special needs children and doing some activities with them - and said character Mister Tumble, a strange man dressed in spots and with a mild clown-like appearance, whose sections of the programme are shared by an unseen child (presumably representing the viewer) who talks and interacts with Mister Tumble and his unusual family (all also played by Justin). The Guardian article tells you more about the show, the sign language it uses and Fletcher's family (although it fails to mention that his cousin is Guy Fletcher from Dire Straits) but what surprised me was that for a slow-moving show aimed at special needs children aged 4 to 7, it GRABS Hannah's attention almost as much as Show Me Show Me. She interacts with the sign language to some extent and ALWAYS performs the magic to transport Mister Tumble's Spotty Bag to Justin ("touch your finger to your nose, blink three times and off it goes..."), usually ahead of cue.

The show is slow-moving and generally not all that interesting to me (contrasting with Show Me Show Me or Justin's House, which I'll happily watch all the way through) but it seems that it's not only Hannah that loves it - children of all ages and across the needs spectrum are huge fans of the show, so much so that (like In The Night Garden), the BBC dare not take it off the air even for one day. And I suppose that's why Justin has his MBE - he is such a good communicator and is able to teach children in the context of fun, as well as giving such great exposure to special needs children in such a positive way.

So enough gushing from me, the challenge now we're back in the US is to get Hannah back from being a telly junkie... especially as it's not long now until her little sister arrives...