There are so many ways to prepare yourself for parenthood. You could take a pre-natal class and learn useful tips while building a support network of other expectant couples. You could read What To Expect While You’re Expecting and learn what fruit your baby is currently the size of. You could watch One Born Every Minute and scare the living crap out of yourself as women emit guttural noises while their partners try to scoop poo out of birthing pools with what looks like a child’s fishing net. You could watch Rosemary’s Baby and develop an unhealthy level of suspicion about the true parentage of your impending offspring. Or, if you want to be truly ready, you could listen to obnoxious pop music at full volume while pressing your face up against disco lights, because that’s the only thing that will prepare you for the world of kids’ TV.
Primary colours and loud, annoying songs are part and parcel of having children. And for all the ways that we like to support other parents (passing on clothes and prams, exchanging information, bringing food), the only area where parents insist on paying forward pain is in toys that make noise. If you’ve been subjected to it, you’re damn sure going to see to it that your newly blessed friends and family get their own dose. It will come to us all eventually.
The early, halcyon days of dictating what your kids watch on TV are short lived. I, somewhat foolishly, thought that Twirlywoos was as bad as it gets. That was until the morning that we left our son in front of Nickleodeon and he discovered Paw Patrol. I give that show an unholy amount of stick, but really, it’s not much worse than a lot of what’s out there. That’s a worrying fact. Really, TV should be an effective way of getting them to sit still and calm down in the run-up to bedtime, not offer stimulation on the same level as three cans of Mountain Dew and a value pack of Skittles.
CBeebies’ louder shows get a pass on the basis that they at least seem to have an educational agenda. Octonauts is an ordeal, but it has an ecological message and introduces kids to obscure oceanic species. Go Jetters is far too loud and far too bright, but it teaches them all about world geography, while Bing teaches them that rabbits are arseholes and Mark Rylance will do anything. I’ve already extolled the many virtues of Hey Duggee, which is one giant cuddly lump of bliss, and even the hallucinogenic oddness of In The Night Garden has its charms, if only for my son’s unadulterated delight when the Tombliboos pop out of their house. It’s along the lines as if you told me that R.E.M. were reforming just to play my birthday party.
Scouring kids’ TV for hidden gems has become my calling and I hit paydirt with one, less lauded CBeebies show: Sarah & Duck. It’s everything that other kids’ shows aren’t: quiet, gentle, incredibly surreal and oddly calming. I’ve even caught myself continuing to watch it when my son leaves the room. It’s the story of one sweet little girl (Sarah) and her pet duck (Duck). Unlike most children on TV, she’s not an insufferable pest and Duck’s main functions are to quack and try to sneak baked goods. Their lives are consumed by bread, lemons and sea cows.
Their neighbours are twin girls obsessed with ribbons and an old woman who knits everything and is constantly corrected by her impatient handbag. The planets and astral objects pop in to say hi, including Moon, a sweet-natured painter who’s secretly in love with Venus. A French captain controls the clouds from his nearby tower, their friend Cake (a cake) lives in the local bakery and tells awful jokes, and a little boy John lives nearby with his flamingo, Flamingo. What makes it all the more wonderful is how it never attempts to explain any of this endearing weirdness or dream logic. It just is.
Episodes cover such dramatic events as Sarah and Duck opening a lemon café, Duck losing his rhinoceros toy, trying to find a home for Tortoise for the winter, Mars ineptly standing in for Moon when Moon falls asleep on the bus and Sarah and Duck planting shallots. The latter introduces the best characters in the whole show, the four shallots who live in the front garden. The whole shebang is narrated in the most soothing of tones by Roger Allam, completing the sweetly narcoleptic feel. After the breathless frenzy of most kids’ TV, Sarah & Duck feels like a long, deep sigh.
Sarah & Duck is on BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime Video