Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Telly and Travels

There have been many reports that speak of the evil of television. How it saps our brains, making us stupid and fat, and that you shouldn’t be allowed to watch a second of it until you are least 57 years old.

They may have a point.

However, television was my livelihood for the best part of a decade. As a teletext subtitler for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, I was in a fairly unique position of being paid to watch inane daytime TV whilst not simultaneously being in receipt of welfare benefits. I became quite the expert on giving animals “the care and attention they need”, bad name spelling on Ricki Lake, good spelling on Countdown, weird collections, competitive watercolourists and arrogant quiz masters with the middle initial G. I could also tell you quite a lot about job vacancies in the Midlands and petty crime in Northern Ireland.

Occasionally the television I was paid to watch was primetime and less inane. Frasier. ER. The West Wing. Friends. (So I said LESS inane.) Occasionally I would get to subtitle a documentary that would lead me to research its subject online. Or I would discover the work of a new director or writer that would lead me down new avenues of viewing pleasure.

And therein lies MY point. You can actually learn things from television, if you concentrate enough or think a little outside the, er, box. Even if it’s only something that might score you a few points in a pub quiz, or a recipe that you might then go and cook for a couple of friends.

And television can make you laugh, which has to be healthy. One of the reasons I loved my subtitling job was the zany humour and camaraderie in the office, which showed that even those inane daytime shows can have an uplifting effect in the right hands.

So it’s not all bad.

There was an article in the press recently that claimed that people who wrote all these studies berating children watching television hadn’t spent enough time watching CBeebies. And I agree. In its own little way, CBeebies is quite brilliant. Every programme has some sort of arguable educational content. Thanks to programmes like Numtums and Get Squiggling: Letters, CBeebies taught my daughter to count and to recognise the alphabet before many of her friends who spend all day away from television in supposedly more stimulating nursery environments. There are no violent cartoons on CBeebies, aside from a strange brand of martial art called tree fu. There is an attempt at cross-cultural mixing which means that remote Scottish island communities and North Yorkshire fishing ports perhaps have a greater blend of ethnic diversity than you might expect. There are programmes specifically targeted at children with disabilities. There are no adverts. I would be the first to agree that commercial breaks are lethal for your child’s whining pester power. If my daughter watches Channel Five’s Milkshake in the mornings (the home, alas, of Thomas The Tank Engine and Peppa Pig), I hear “Mummy, I want one of those!” recited like a mantra to every single advert. This is undeniably a bad thing. But I do think that a lot of the studies of children and television must have been conducted in countries where every children’s channel is commercially driven.

For CBeebies has been my lifesaver on many an occasion. On paper, I do not want to be the sort of mother who lets her child watch television from dawn to dusk. Or at all, really. But in reality, my experience of parenthood has involved an awful lot of lurching between crises, which have been lessened slightly by the ability of CBeebies to keep my daughter calm, happy and entertained. The week my daughter learned to walk, I ripped my left kneecap out of its socket and had to spend a month on crutches, unable to chase her or lift her or get down on the floor and play with her. My newly mobile child was at that point too little to concentrate on activities like painting or playing games, so I had to switch on the television to keep her still.

I also have a horrid auto-immune thyroid disease which worsened greatly after pregnancy and which, despite being on artificial thyroxine and now getting acceptable blood test results, has left me with a swollen goitre in my neck that occasionally stops me breathing at night, my energy levels at virtually zero, my depression levels at extreme, and my brain feeling like mud most of the time. Most days I manage, but when our daughter is ill and cannot sleep at night, which means we are awake for hours with her too, I lose all ability to function and without local family to turn to for a bit of a break and not wishing to infect the children of my friends with whatever vile disease is riddling our household, I rely on my friend CBeebies for baby-sitting assistance to get through at least some, if not the vast proportion, of the day.

But at some point on an average day, of course it has to stop. CBeebies may be our saviour in a crisis, and may enable me to cook dinner each evening without a child clinging to my leg, but I am not suggesting that it should be the highlight of the better weeks of our lives. However much I am prepared to respect CBeebies, there is only so much Justin Fletcher I can take on a given day. The repetition of shows and links is depressing. And while the presenters are so much calmer than the mass-produced hyperactive maniacs who all look and talk the same on Milkshake, the links between programmes are at best randomly tenuous, normally stilted, and at worst smacking of total desperation on behalf of the writers. And CBeebies may have an educational content for a child, but it has a mind-stultifying effect on a grown-up, and a horrid way of stopping you getting on with anything else.

My use of CBeebies during the bad times has unfortunately resulted in my daughter in insisting on the television being on if we are in the lounge. And this does not make me feel good about myself. Just turn it off, you say. Show her who’s boss. To which I reply, have you ever tried to enter a battle of wills with a two-year-old? Especially a two-year-old with enough grasp of technology to use a television remote. Three year olds are proving a little easier, but the battle is not yet entirely won.

And so we travel. We go out. This may be a jaunt to the shops just to get my daughter off the couch and out of the goddamn house. Or it may be a journey to a toddler class, a soft play centre, a park, a museum (of which our city is blessed with many). Or a day trip to the coast or a historic house or garden (as long as it has a miniature railway or an adventure playground). A couple of times a year, we go on holiday. It is an attempt to ensure that when our daughter is asked what she has done on a weekend, she doesn’t just reply “Watched CBeebies.” (Or that if she does, it’s a lie.) Largely, we succeed. Before she started attending pre-school every day, her first question when she woke up was not “What’s on television?”, but “Where are we going today?”

But even I can’t be true to my own standards. I hate the fact that I am too shattered to do anything on an evening other than stare at television, but that is the harsh reality. My head is running marathons, writing novels, painting pictures, but my body is collapsed on the sofa unable to remember a single one of the things that all day I had been planning to get done once my daughter was asleep. I could go out, but when it’s cold and dark outside, that has little appeal. I also want to spend a bit of time with my husband, even if he’s not much less tired than me and equally desirous of an hour or so of vegging in front of the television.

So I intend for this blog to turn my TV viewing into brain reuse. I will watch programmes, and write about them. And the programmes I write about will have been chosen because they have made me remember somewhere I have been. And I will write about wherever that was.  Telly will lead to travel. Because if telly does rot the mind, then travel broadens it. So this blog will at worst hopefully leave my brain in some sort of neutral condition. Though ironically if I didn’t spend so much time staring at TV, I’d probably get a whole lot more blogging done. Right now, the likelihood of a blog entry appearing within even a week of the programme that inspired it is pretty low. Bear with me. 

The great thing about the Internet is that it enables you to be whatever you want. Suddenly, I am no longer “just” the full-time mother I never intended to be. I am a television reviewer. I am a travel writer.

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