The other night I was watching the electric television (a box in my drawing room that supplies occasionally interesting moving pictures at fantastical expense. Good for DVDs though). Anyway, the entertainment that caught my notice was one entitled Richard & Judy’s Children’s Book Club. The gentleman and his goodwife were perusing (okay, I’ll stop with the archaic voice). Basically Richard and Judy are now doing children’s books. And THE CAT KIN was their number one recommended read!! No, hang on, that was just a dream. Fiddlesticks. Anyway, it was interesting, and fun, and not before time. It seems the nation is undergoing something of a children’s literacy crisis, with one in four unable to read (can that be right??) so kids needs Richard and Judy’s books just like they need Jamie Oliver’s meals in the dining room. Perhaps even more so.
It was a well-made programme, with the notable presences of Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz and Zeus (I mean, er, Philip Pullman). However, the show irritated and bothered me in a number of small but niggling ways. Firstly, the tone. The presenters talked about children’s reading as if it was some radical new theory (“We’ve got a woman here who reads books with her children!”) rather than something fundamental like shoes or sunlight. Maybe it was an acknowledgement of the mountain they had to climb, but if so, it was starting from a much lower point that the original Book Club for adults. The way they were talking, you’d think books were the new generation of iPhones. (Maybe if they were we wouldn’t be in this situation at all…)
Another gripe frustrated me further. The three super-authors they had on the show were invited to read extracts of their most famous works. No, wait a moment, actually they weren’t. Rather, all three authors’ most famous works were shown by using examples from the FILM VERSIONS (in Jacqueline Wilson’s case, the television adaptation of Tracy Beaker). Now, consider… are we sending out mixed messages or what? On a programme pleading on its bended knee for children to pick up a book and read, to discover the ecstasy of the printed word, we try to exemplify this by showing film clips? To quote the Classics, well DUH.
Now, I’m as slavering as the next fan when it comes to seeing the film of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass. That’s not the point. The point is, kids know what films are. And in a 10-second clip there’s nothing to choose between The Golden Compass and any spectacular fantasy film. In the case of the clip of Horowitz’s Alex Rider movie, there wasn’t even any dialogue, it was just Alex involved in a high-speed chase that looked like Bond on a budget. Been there, done that.
Can’t programme makers have the courage of their convictions? What would be more daring, more innovative, than having the authors stand up, the lights dimming around them, to read their favourite passages. Would people turn off, turn over? I don’t think so. Merely when Anthony Horowitz was talking and fielding questions, the faces of the kids in the audience were rapt. Their eyes were shining. But it wasn’t the gormless, unreacting TV-watching look. This was something alive, interacting. You could feel the buzz. If those authors had been asked to read, and if the cameras had alternated between them and the spellbound young audience, the effect would have been electrifying. Bookshops the next morning would have resembled Northern Rock as parents stormed the shelves.
But then I suppose people would stop watching television, and the BBC don’t want that, do they?