A Country Life

by Henry on April 10, 2008

It seems to be children’s TV and organ procurement week here at CT; before I get started into something new I should probably note that Russell Arben Fox has “said everything I wanted to say”:http://inmedias.blogspot.com/2008/04/henry-farrell-and-keiran-healy-are.html in my earlier postbut has put it far more thoughtfully and eloquently. As the father of a two year old with an interest in the topic (albeit one whose TV diet is restricted to 2 hours on weekends, much to his disgruntlement), I’ve become much more intimately acquainted with the offerings of US children’s TV than I ever imagined possible or desirable. I’m especially interested in how US TV deals with the product of foreign cultures. Sometimes, it improves on them, as in the three dimensional _Noddy_ show. Not that it’s much good or anything, but the original books weren’t much cop either, and the frank racism of the original has been replaced by a soothingly multicultural Toytown in which PC Plod, oddly enough, is the only character to maintain a real English accent (I suspect serious dubbing of the UK original).

As an Irishman, I’m naturally more interested in _Jakers: The Adventures of Piggleywinks_ which is probably the most influential depiction of my native culture that millions of American children will ever be exposed to. And it’s surprisingly well done in my opinion – not classic Sesame Street good, but still not at all bad – you feel that the creators have taken some care in putting it together. Bits of the background, such as the national school ring reasonably true to my own upbringing, and even if it’s a concatenation of cliches, they’re well researched cliches. Most of the characters even have real Irish brogues (unlike “other shows with bigger budgets”:https://crookedtimber.org/2007/10/19/bad-accents/), although the grandfatherly narrator seems to have mysteriously picked up a pronounced Dublin working class accent somewhere in his peregrinations between Raloo Farm and Amerikay.

Still, there’s one glaring omission from its depiction of rural Irish life in the 1940s – there’s no mention (at least in the episodes I’ve seen) of the Roman Catholic church, or any other church for that matter. Apart from their occasional utterance of the eponymous expression of surprise, you’d think that the villagers were as godless a crowd of humanists as ever warmed the cockles of PZ Myers’ heart. I can understand why the program producers made this choice – it would be hard to tackle the role of the church in 1940’s Ireland without falling into the one set of cliches or the other, and the bits after the main show seem designed to highlight the universalities of the immigrant experience rather than the particularities of one small country. But it still feels odd to me every time I watch the program; having grown up in a small market town with less than 2,000 inhabitants myself, I can testify that the Catholic church was not only important but omnipresent. It organized and disciplined the community in good ways and in bad. When I was around nine years old or so, we were told by the headmaster of the local Christian Brother’s school (the unloved Brother Ryan – I sometimes wonder what’s happened to the vicious old bastard since) that the local cinema was to be boycotted because it had dared to show _The Life of Brian._ One boy who broke the boycott, and was caught, got several strokes of the stick in front of the class for his pains; none of us found this at all remarkable at the time. Of course, the country (and the town, on the couple of occasions I have been back through it) have changed dramatically in the interim, and not entirely for the better; while I wouldn’t want to go back to the Ireland of the 1970s, let alone the 1950s, I find the consumerism and materialism of the new Ireland pretty unpleasant in its own way too.



Delicious Pundit 04.10.08 at 3:39 am

That’s funny, my diocese also raised a hue and cry over Life of Brian, but my dad (then as now a pillar of the parish) took me anyway. One of the differences between the rural Northeast and rural Ireland, I guess.


grackle 04.10.08 at 3:40 am

This brings up an interesting question: does PZ Myers, in fact, in the sense in which you speak, indeed have a heart? The evidence is slim.


Spoon 04.10.08 at 5:32 am

Oh, I love Jakers! Mostly because Mel Brooks is the voice of the talking sheep, but that’s more than enough for me. (I was brought up on a straight diet of PBS, so oddities of the genre are a personal favorite subject.)


Mrs Tilton 04.10.08 at 8:32 am

my diocese also raised a hue and cry over Life of Brian, but my dad (then as now a pillar of the parish) took me anyway

Careful now. Down with this sort of thing!


chris armstrong 04.10.08 at 9:17 am

The most surprising thing about Jakers is how long, and how involved, each episode is. I mean, they’re aiming at a SERIOUSLY long attention span there, by most kids’ standards. I regularly lose track of what’s going on when I get distracted by an infant jumping on my head. In terms of kids’ TV generally, our kids only get CBeebies (the BBC’s channel for infants) and I really think it’s very good. With the odd exception it’s calm, non-flashing, non-noisy, informative and well-thought-out. Kids love to watch noisy and flashy trash, but gratifyingly, mine at least also like to watch real animals moseying around in a farmyard just as much.


Matt Weiner 04.10.08 at 10:51 am

children’s TV and organ procurement week

For some reason, I wish you’d written “organ procurement and children’s TV week.”


Barry 04.10.08 at 11:16 am

I was wondering about procuring childrens’ TV’s. I’d go for a newer one.


minneapolitan 04.10.08 at 11:19 am

I used to watch “Jakers” occasionally, but as far as I can tell, it’s been dropped by all the Anglophone channels here, and picked up by Univision. Since I don’t speak Spanish, I just click past it, but I have to assume that the re-dubbing adds several more soupçons of frisson to the viewing experience.

When I am up early watching Saturday cartoons, I invariably get sucked in to the day’s episode of “Viva Piñata”, a show whose premise (i.e. that there exists a tropical island populated by the Platonic ideal forms of various stock piñata animals, who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or horror, must occasionally instantiate themselves into the mortal world in order to be smashed by small children) is so fraught that I’m not sure where to even begin to analyze it.

Occasionally I also catch a bit of “The Emperor’s New School” (not affiliated with either the new school of hip hop nor the New School for Social Research, so far as I know) even though it ruins most of the premises that the original film used to such great comedic effect.


alwsdad 04.10.08 at 12:19 pm

Of course, network programming in the US also ignores religion for the most part. The Cleavers never went to church, nor did the Ricardos, the Bradys, etc. Too much of a landmine, even back then. There was always Davey and Goliath on Sunday mornings for that. The Simpsons are the only TV familty I can think of that routinely go to church.
The Omaha diocese in the 70s would periodically forbid some show (Maude, Soap(/i>), and so I naturally sought them out whenever the opportunity arose. There was relatively little in Maude to entertain a 10-year-old, but defying the priests made it all worthwhile.


Russell Arben Fox 04.10.08 at 1:04 pm

The Cleavers never went to church, nor did the Ricardos, the Bradys, etc. Too much of a landmine, even back then. There was always Davey and Goliath on Sunday mornings for that. The Simpsons are the only TV familty I can think of that routinely go to church.

Alwsdad makes a good observation, and the examples he brings up could be greatly multiplied (though I don’t think, at least originally, this reluctance was because religion was a “landmine” so much as the fact that it was taken for granted–by both writers and viewers–and therefore wasn’t seen as worthy of comment). And by pointing out The Simpsons he makes a point worth repeating: it’s usually genuine satirists that are most willing to acknowledge the whole human experience as a respectful subject, even if they then procede to tear it to pieces. (I’m reminded of surprisingly serious argument John Cleese and Terry Jones once had over whether The Life of Brian was “blasphemous”–Jones’s position–or merely “heretical.”)


ajay 04.10.08 at 1:28 pm

It’s not heretical – there’s nothing in “The Life of Brian” that’s incongruent with Christian orthodoxy. Christ appears twice in the film – once at the Nativity, once delivering the Sermon on the Mount – and in both cases he’s portrayed in entirely orthodox style. It’s made very clear that Brian isn’t the Messiah, he’s just an unfortunate who gets mistaken for the Messiah.
Blasphemy is a bit trickier – it can include irreverence towards religion, which is certainly a part of “Life of Brian” (though not towards the Christian religion; the Jews have a good case for blasphemy though).

And God himself never appears at all in “Life of Brian”, unlike the – I would argue – much more heretical “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in which he appears face to face with Arthur and the knights – counter to the Old Testament, which states that no one since the Fall, not even Moses, gets to see God face to face – and denies the efficacy of prayer and the value of contrition. But it didn’t attract any criticism. Why not, I wonder? Why is it OK to depict a ridiculous, comic God but not a ridiculous, comic Christ?

(“Oh, don’t grovel! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling. And don’t apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it’s “sorry this” and “forgive me that” and “I’m not worthy”. What are you doing now!?
ARTHUR: I’m averting my eyes, oh Lord.
GOD: Well, don’t. It’s like those miserable Psalms– they’re so depressing. Now knock it off!”)


Russell Arben Fox 04.10.08 at 1:56 pm

Point taken, ajay. I think Cleese was affirming the “heretical” position because the stance of the film is obviously pretty critical of organized religion in general, implying that the emergence of Christianity was skewed from the start by various paranoids and authoritarians who grabbed on to one or another bits of Christ’s message (or clothing) and used their adherence to such as an opportunity to attack one another. Nothing necessarily opposed to Christian orthodoxy there, but definitely a broad suggestion that the whole idea of “Christian orthodoxy” is silly. Whereas I think Jones’s perspective is that the film suggests that believing that there ever could be a “Messiah” (much less that the historical Jesus was such) is itself silly, which is definitely a blasphemous notion.

(You ask a good question about why making fun of God is easier to get away with than making fun of Christ. But you leave off my favorite bit from that exchange between Arthur and God: after God gives them their instructions about seeking for the Holy Grail, Arthur cries “Good idea, Lord!” To which God replies, somewhat affronted, “Of course it’s a good idea!”)


ajay 04.10.08 at 2:18 pm

Just to clarify – I certainly wasn’t trying to criticise or disagree with russell in that comment; just raising a point that’s always puzzled me about the Python controversy…

Also, have a heart, russell – if I kept on posting Python quotes till I reached one that wasn’t funny, I’d be here all day.


Peter 04.10.08 at 5:35 pm

Australia in the 1970s was not Ireland, of course. But I can recall being told by John Satterthwaite, then the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lismore (New South Wales), that “Life of Brian” was one of his favourite films. He saw it several times when it appeared. But then, he had a degree in civil engineering, so was not your typical Catholic Bishop.


Righteous Bubba 04.10.08 at 6:40 pm

But I can recall being told by John Satterthwaite, then the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lismore (New South Wales), that “Life of Brian” was one of his favourite films.

I have heard the same claims from a priest who added that Monty Python was a very funny man.


mollymooly 04.10.08 at 11:34 pm

“Life of Brian” was banned in Ireland on its first release, and rated 18 in the UK. So if your local cinema was letting a nine-year-old in, I don’t blame the priest for being upset, though really he should have caned the manager.

Comments on this entry are closed.