“The night is black and the stars are bright and the sea is dark and deep.”
If you, like me, are the parent of a toddler you will probably recognise these words immediately as the opening to In ‘The Night Garden’, the now ubiquitous television show aimed at pre-speech and early speech toddlers. The gently hypnotic narration can lull even the most stubborn two year old into at least a temporary calm.
However, that has been won in part by getting parents on side. That’s not always difficult, because the parents of very young children (frequently mothers) mostly welcome a quality programme which will allow them thirty minutes respite to close their eyes, play catch up with the housework, read, chat on the phone or even (shock) watch with their child.
These days, there is not excuse for not knowing that excessive television is harmful for developing brains (and possibly for fully developed brains, too), but restricting television time can be a challenge in an age when so many channels of digital and satellite are dedicated to beaming in the dregs of children’s television. The absence of television can equal high effort parental input activities which leave the parent (usually mother) frazzled, and using television to give yourself a little bit of a break can be utterly guilt inducing.
‘In The Night Garden’ stands head and shoulders apart from the maelstrom of nonsense that passes for children’s entertainment. Possibly because it is equally hypnotic for tired parents as it is for young ‘uns.
The soothing colour scheme of the set is green on green, with characters sleeping in dens in caves and bushes, on a boat and in a magical bed which comes when you call it, out in the open and gently shaded air. Multicoloured birds sing individual songs which harmonise together at the end of each show to form one big chorus. Of course, they are not called ‘birds’ in the Night Garden, they are ‘titifers’.
A friend recently confessed, sheepishly, that she’d quite like to visit the Night Garden and crash out in Upsy Daisy’s bed under a starlit canopy of leaves. Someone else is captivated by the interior of the Tombliboo bush and I’ve been coveting Makka Pakka’s colourful duvet cover and minimalist cave bedroom for months. ‘In The Night Garden’ is the chill out room to the frenetic pace of some of the other children’s programming on television. In fact, it was created in part as a response to the permanent state of anxiety we feel about almost everything in the early C21st.
Aside from the seductive design and hypnotic narration, the Night Garden is exceptionally well thought out, as commentary from the show’s creators, Anne Wood and Andrew Davenport, who also developed the Teletubbies product.
Each episode runs like a well executed lesson plan, with an ice breaker, an introduction, a story and a plenary session where you figure out what just happened. Structurally, it borrows from books with different markers representing the turning of a page or the ending of a chapter, and the recap at the end features the same story told using more formal language, such is the difference between books and speech.
Reassurance is a major theme in ‘In The Night Garden’, beginning each time with a ‘shared moment’ between parent and child at bedtime and repeating the same predictable pattern consistently throughout. Clues lead to expected and sensible answers, friends look after each other and everything is as it should be. Arguably, these are features which many parents feel are missing from their lives, but begs the question of whether one half hour shot of viewing can fix that.
An inevitable part of reassurance is the social and emotional aspect, which is heavy handed in ‘In The Night Garden’. Whilst all the characters have roles within the overall social and emotional well being of the Garden, there is one character in particular which seems to do the majority of sorting out, cheering up and general companionship. That character loves flowers and kisses, dancing and singing and has the signature colour: pink. Yes that’s right. The key vehicle for much of the programme’s feel good factor is Upsy Daisy... A GIRL.
Alright, she’s not actually a girl, she’s a doll, but she’s unmistakeably a girl doll which wears a skirt and has pink ‘hair’.
Really, this is a minor factor in the story of the Night Garden, but there it is, again and again. An entire cast of characters which, without any suggestion to the contrary appear to be male (with the exception of Mummy Pontipine who, frankly, is so neglectful I’m surprised the NSPCC haven’t intervened) and a lone girl who does what girls, ladies and women, those ‘loveliest of creatures’ have taken full responsibility for since the first hints of the Industrial Revolution.
Admittedly, the burden is shared, and Upsy Daisy doesn’t carry the full weight of it alone. Makka Pakka washes faces and everything else in sight like a demented child given a sponge for the first time, before the novelty has worn off. The characters, unlike small people, are endlessly compliant at having their faces washed, which provides an excellent model of behaviour for toddlers everywhere. Additionally, the Tombliboos seem utterly capable of brushing their teeth (in mouths which don’t open and using tooth brushes as big as their heads) without the supervision of either Upsy Daisy or Makka Pakka. Surely they deserve a gold star for that?
The thing is, Upsy Daisy is a sweetie. She’s the kind of girl who thinks of others and helps them whenever she can. She’s Carrie the Caregiver, for crying out loud.
I’m not suggesting that ‘In The Night Garden’ is a primary vehicle for social change, but it is setting a standard and giving parents expectations of the kind of behaviours they want to encourage in their children. More specifically, girl children: every other character is probably a boy and with the exception of brushing their own teeth and a slight obsession with hygiene, they behave in much the same ways as boys have forever and are not discouraged from doing so. Why not? Because for boys, this behaviour is not detrimental: it’s good to be a risk taker and to have a laugh. Upsy Daisy, on the other hand, is channelled into acting for the happiness of others, all the time.
Although it is unlikely that any toddler would absorb this behaviour via a television programme and proceed to act it out for the next seventy years, the idea that it does nothing to challenge the Cinderella Complex (Colette Dowling) whereby girls are groomed socially from birth to grow into adults who take responsibility for the social, emotional and often physical wellbeing of others. This is important and exhausting but undervalued work. The Tombliboos, on the other hand, get to act silly and are disproportionately rewarded for managing to do basic things. Give it twelve years, and you’ll see this is how boys are treated. With regard to almost whatever they do, it is worth more than the default ‘feminine’ work of the Upsy Daisies we continue to nurture everywhere, without a second thought.