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“We’re Just Normal Men” — A Love Letter To CBBC

7 min read

Children's television is silly, both by its very nature but also as an idea itself. The original vision, first thought up by BBC producers in the 1950s, was of a ‘service in miniature'; meaning literally that children could enjoy ‘mini' versions of all the same shows their parents enjoyed, from news to drama serials. In hindsight it was a naïve dream doomed to fail; or more accurately, be corrupted by commercial entities seeking to use it as a marketing tool. It's partly due to this that children's television rarely managed to garner the same respect as its adult counterpart, and why most grownups tended to view it as something that at best can occupy their children, and at worst ravaged their attention spans by hooking them on increasingly basic forms of entertainment. Nowadays, most parents would probably be delighted for their kids to willingly commit themselves to the pace of one hour of terrestrial TV.

Even as children's television continues its decline, entertainment for kids is at an all-time high.  Streaming services like Netflix and YouTube offer a massive volume of content tailor-made for kids, and whilst commercials are either non-existent or highly limited on these platforms, a sizable chunk of content is either directly about products or featuring characters that were partly made with a toy in mind. Companies like Moonbug (the British company in charge of the massively popular YouTube show CoComelon) employ rigorous testing in order to engineer their content to be maximally engaging to children. What started out as an innocent effort to distract post-war kids with slightly terrifying string puppets, has transformed into a mass business that barely resembles what previous generations grew up with — all that remains is the same nebulous sense of guilt and confusion felt by many parents.

However, for those of us who happened to grow up before all this, there's a high chance children's television played an inextricable role in your adolescence. You perhaps can't remember the name of a certain neighbour or teacher, but you probably remember every word to a theme song or ad jingle. For many, the shows we watched growing up aren't just prevalent sources of nostalgia but are often credited as playing genuinely important roles in our lives: whether it was Art Attack that caused you to first pick up a paintbrush or shows like My Parents are Aliens (an early writing gig for Succession's Jesse Armstrong) that helped shape your sense of humour. There is undoubtedly a growing reverence for many kids' shows now and a collective reappraisal of their true worth.

Recently, a certain CBBC clip from 2016 went suddenly viral, featuring two of the channel's hosts, T Dog and descending into fits of giggles after their infamous yet simple exchange. After becoming an overnight meme, the internet scrambled to find some semblance of context to the clip, but after the leading explanation from a Reddit post was debunked by Hacker himself, we are left with nothing more than a pure moment of two people relishing in uncontrollable laughter at nothing. The truth is there is no specific reason why it's funny, but there is something undeniably special emanating from that clip, a specific vibe and charm that feels achingly familiar, and it is that which demands further examination.

There is always a danger of over-emphasising the importance of cultural artefacts just because you happened to be in the target audience when they were released.  However, it is evident now that Gen-Z kids grew up in the last golden age of children's television.  The early to late 2000s brought an onslaught of children's TV classics, from CITV's Jungle Run all the way to more recent hits like Horrible Histories. However, after a 2006 ban on junk food advertising resulted in a cull of much of CITV's original output, soon became one of the last bastions of original, British children's television. For those who could access them, there was also fervent competition from America with new premium channels like Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, which raises the question of what made CBBC special to generations of UK kids?

Dick and Dom
TV presenters .

Pioneering Sillyness

At its height, CBBC was a realisation of that original vision from the 50s, giving audiences between the ages of 6 to 15 a news outlet in Newsround, topical variety in Blue Peter, comedy and drama in shows like and The Sarah Jane Adventures. A mandated diversity of programming as well as the lack of advertisements are the obvious advantages of a broadcaster that could put public service before profit.  However, the true virtue of this model is that it can nurture an environment for broadcasters to take risks on original content that would have been otherwise scrapped for commercial viability; it gives creators a space to make the purest version of the thing they set out to make, and for much of CBBC, that was to make the dumbest thing you've ever seen.

Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow is a perfect case study in the fruits of this particular creative philosophy. A show that Charlie Brooker once called ‘genuinely subversive', the duo's genuinely childish sense of humour created an atmosphere where kids and adults were in on the same joke. Surreal and weird comedy is one of the rare things that both adults and kids can find funny for the same reason, or the lack thereof.  Watching these two grown men become red in the face with laughter at the expense of a child wasn't cruel, it was egalitarian. It is a genuinely meaningful thing to imply to younger viewers that a silly sense of humour is not inherently childish. Other channels may have had more money, and more celebrity guests, and you may even argue better shows, but no channel could match CBBC for pure, unadulterated stupidity.

Though it isn't just silliness we see in that clip of Lauren and Hacker, it's CBBC's great big beating heart on full display. It's important to note that adult presenters doing bits with a puppet sidekick as an artistic medium is not long for this world; it would be short-sighted to argue that children's TV was inherently better that way. However, it is in these 5-minute links between programmes, on a tacky looking set with badly written jokes, where the true magic of CBBC resided. Children can sense insincerity, and a lot of kids' television has tried to artificially manufacture a feeling of ‘fun', but CBBC let there organically be such a thing by leaving in the moments where it went wrong.  Every little snicker let out by a presenter, every awkward silence after a bad visual gag, let kids in on the artificial nature of what they were watching, and it revealed to them the earnest intentions of the people trying their best to entertain them.

Hacker T Dog
Hacker T Dog

A New Era

After celebrating 20 years on the air this year, an expiration date has finally been put on CBBC with the recent announcement that the channel is set to cease broadcasting within 3 years to become an entirely online operation. As heartbreaking as this is, it has also been for a while, grimly inevitable. The last ten years have seen both viewership and funding for CBBC in a steep decline and whilst some might view the causality of this as chicken and egg, it is undoubtedly the direct result of actions by the current government which demonstrate a clear intention to dismantle public, independent broadcasters in the UK.

You could argue this is the BBC's best attempt at coping with a younger generation who are increasingly preoccupied with online entertainment.  However, not only is their attempt to appeal to a younger working-class audience deeply misguided, but it also perhaps allows BBC heads to avoid facing their own mistakes when they're faced with statistics today showing that less than 25% of UK kids say that they feel represented by TV. It's important to remember programmes like Limmy's Show, which wasn't shown nationwide almost entirely due to the fact it features working-class, Scottish accents. Yet, some BBC heads are still hopeful that commercial moves such as this could help fund future homegrown ventures. Patricia Hidalgo, Director of Children's & Education at the BBC, has envisioned a ‘British Simpsons' with hallmarks of British culture like roast beef dinners instead of thanksgiving turkeys. The reality of losing CBBC has sparked a collective conversation around why a public broadcaster for children is so important. This is a conversation that deserves to be had but comments like Hidalgo's speak to confusion about why exactly that is.

The cultural utility of British-made shows for young children is undoubtedly important, but a preoccupation with the ‘Britishness' of children's tv feels ill-placed; when we are forced to justify the existence of things that should be considered essential resources, we can start to focus on the wrong things that truly made them worthwhile in the first place. Presenter Fred Rogers in his 1969 testimony to the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications, described his programmes as an ‘expression of care'. There is arguably no better summation for the real necessary ingredient in great children's entertainment, not cultural box-ticking, or appealing to perceived trends, but because it was made by people who cared about what they were making and who were supported in doing that. CBBC continues to express that care, in the Newsround pieces made in the wake of the Manchester bombing, in the hundreds of BBC Bitesize Daily programmes produced in lockdown, and in the one and only Lauren Layfield who has since made programmes covering topics like mental health and periods for younger children. CBBC will never be like it was and that's a necessary thing, but it absolutely deserves to be around, and no matter what they try and tell us, that shouldn't change.