Over-protecting children? Bleurgh!

Interview: Kids’ TV icon Timmy Mallett hammers today's sanitisation of children's programming, but swallows the ban on junk food ads.

Emily Hill

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‘I am uncomfortable with the policing of children’s telly. I think kids’ TV is part of the “scared culture”. Today we have a culture of being frightened of things, and I think we should be wary of that. It’s quite important that we encourage kids to make their own risk assessments – they’re better able to do that than we expect.’

It perhaps isn’t surprising to hear Timmy Mallett, the legendary kids’ TV presenter best known for hitting children over the head with a mallet (hence the moniker), talking about letting children get up to mischief without always being mollycoddled. Each generation ‘invents their own wildness’, he tells me, and they must be allowed their own space for ‘childhood silliness’ away from adult norms and concerns. Again unsurprisingly, he isn’t a big fan of the attempt to sanitise children’s TV.

Those of us born in the 1980s are likely to have a special place in our hearts for Timmy Mallet. While covering the Westminster Media Forum on the funding crisis threatening children’s TV in November last year, my attention was suddenly arrested by Mallett, who seemed to embody a whole childhood of Saturday morning memories. The last time I had seen him, he was on my TV, wearing the sort of Eighties fluorescent rave shirt that would blind even a Shoreditch hipster, with outsize comedy glasses adorned with glittering palm trees and a cut-out Cadillac. He was hitting Jason Donovan with a pink plastic mallet and fixing plasters to the chins of small children, while pulling wacky faces at his pet cockatiel, Magic, and simultaneously storming up the charts, with the unforgettable novelty classic ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’.

At the Westminster Forum, Mallett looked less like the human incarnation of Pepto Bismol, and more like what he is these days: a highly successful children’s TV producer (though still retaining the ability to entertain) and someone who actually takes children’s TV seriously.

Mallett has been drawn into the debate about the future of children’s TV, which some claim is in a parlous state. At the Westminster conference, TV executives, politicians, opinion-makers and TV enthusiasts had met to discuss what could and should be done to halt the anticipated decline in children’s TV production. The Ofcom ban on junk food advertising targeted at children came into effect in January, and the predicted impact of the ban will be a £39million loss in advertising revenue.

This has given rise to the Save Children’s TV campaign, a coalition of parents, producers, artists, educators and others ‘concerned about screen-based media for children in the UK’. They are trying to get both the government and the broadcasting regulators to recognise that good children’s TV programming is important and valuable, and encourage them to come up with some new forms of funding to replace ‘the revenue which will be lost if advertising is restricted’. Many are worried that in the rush to ban junk food ads that apparently warp young children into eating unhealthy foods, the powers-that-be have left children’s programming in the lurch without the necessary cash to keep going.

In the ‘save children’s TV’ world, Mallett is more optimistic than most. He says, ‘Hang on a minute – kids’ TV is great, kids’ TV is important, kids’ TV can still be done. And it’s going to have a bright and brilliant future if we stick to it’. He is also refreshingly wary of those who call on the authorities to back children’s TV on the grounds that it is educational and helps to socialise and ‘improve’ children, etc. We could also do with some good ol’ ‘junk TV’, he says, the kind of programming that is looked upon with snobbish contempt by some of those campaigning to save children’s programming for the good of society.

‘Fun is absolutely vital’, he says, pointing out that the anarchic fun generated by Dick’n’Dom In Da Bungalow, or by Tiswaz and Mallett’s own Wackaday show in earlier eras, is actually a lot more difficult to do and present than the TV purists will allow: ‘Saturday morning with a live band, some kids, some performing animals, a costume gag with a script that’s going to change as you link into it – it’s far more entertaining and challenging than Newsnight could ever be. There’s room for drama, there’s room for education – but it’s important for children to have something they can relax into, a space that their parents won’t really “get”.’

What about preserving a space for kids free from Ofcom and other wannabe mothers who think they know which ads are good for children and which are bad? Mallett says he supports the ban on junk food ads, though he recognsies it might not work. ‘Children will be used to eating [this food]. Will it necessarily go away cos the advert isn’t there?’ Indeed, one academic study suggested that ‘just two per cent of all children’s food choices were influenced by TV advertising’, which makes you wonder what the point of a ban is.

But Mallett believes that some in TV land are using the crisis caused by a ban on junk food ads to cover their own lack of vision and commitment to children’s TV. Rather than the ban forcing ITV to renege on producing good programmes for children, ITV is using the ban as a smokescreen – because in reality they have been scaling down any serious commitment to children’s TV for years. This is short-sighted, says Mallett, because children’s TV has a lot to offer in terms of creating a readymade audience who will grow up to appreciate ITV’s adult content, too – and also because kids’ TV fosters the presenters of the future. Ant and Dec, Noel Edmonds, Chris Tarrant, Rolf Harris, Cat Deeley…all cut their teeth on children’s telly, that test arena for talent.

For Mallett, Channel 5 demonstrates that it’s possible to create good TV on a budget. Channel 5’s Milkshake showcase is commissioning brand new shows, made ‘cheaply and creatively in the UK’, he says. ‘They’ve made this whole massive big series, The Beeps, using new technologies, to make dynamic, new animation. They didn’t need junk food ads, they found funding anyway. And thank God they have.’ Mallett hopes the current debate about junk food ads won’t give some TV execs the excuse they’re looking for to scale down their output.

‘Kids’ TV is great’, he says, as irrepressibly enthusiastic as ever. ‘If you do watch it, you go: “Actually I love it!” There’s a real thrill about coming in from school and putting on the telly and just chuckling.’ That is definitely worth preserving.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked. Visit Timmy Mallett’s website here.

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