The trouble with life as a student is that, after a while, you get into the habit of over-analysis. All the hours spent discussing the minutiae of novels, ideologies, philosophies, surrounded night and day by people who are too clever by half, you get into a state of mental delirium, where you can see Jungian commentary in the Marks and Spencer adverts, Nietszche in Neighbours, kabuki in Coronation Street. Or, as I found, the complex ethical and sociological structures at play in the world of children’s television.
It all started, as these things invariably do, with a very late night. I’d been at a seminar earlier in the day, discussing the theatrical work of Samuel Beckett. If you’ve ever studied Beckett you’ll know that this pretty much means a discussion of every essay, philosophical, political or literary, that has ever been written. That night, or more accurately the following morning, during one of those meandering conversations which suddenly turns out to have been going on for several hours, I started to tell the others about Act Without Words II, a short mime composed by Beckett, thought of by some critics as a retelling of the Sisyphian myth.
Sisyphus was a king of ancient Greece, ordered by the gods, for who knows what transgression (probably incest, this being ancient Greece), to roll a boulder uphill for all eternity. This concept of constant work without reward, nor accomplishment, excited Beckett’s famously cruel sense of humour. I opted to dumb down Sisyphian literature for my friends by describing it as “meaningless and repetitive tasks with no success. A bit like the Chuckle Brothers”. I probably shouldn’t have said that, for it opened up a whole grade-A can of worms.
The endless trials of the unfortunately named Barry and Paul Chuckle (“Let’s not over-hype ourselves, Barry. We’re expecting chuckles, not guffaws”) have always fascinated me. The joyful abandon with which they laid into the week’s task, regardless of aptitude or training, should, I feel, be a lesson for us all. Paul would be occasionally cynical, but never world weary, whilst Barry was the happy go lucky dreamer of the pair. Bricklaying, window washing, plumbing, whatever - they would set about it with the minimum degree of fuss and the optimum of bad luck. And ‘no slacking’. The idea that there was more to the duo’s adventures than mislaid pots of paint and quaintly unintimidating brushes with the law delighted us. And so we decided to delve deeper, and discover more of what lay below the surface of the 3-5pm slot of the British weekday.
Of course the programme that immediately leapt to mind like a well-oiled cougar was that stalwart of mid-90s CITV, Funhouse. Armed with a combined twenty-plus years of higher education, we now saw it for what it obviously was; an indictment of organised religion. It all made sense. The arbitrary tasks assigned by a beatific figurehead (Pat Sharp, the latter day Jesus Christ, complete with flowing locks and disciples in the form of the ever-present twins). And the reward at the end, eternal peace achieved only through following the strict dogmatic doctrine of the church of funhouse. Sharp saw what he was doing; illustrating the horror of the unruly scramble, the holy war, to finish atop the hierarchy of mayhem.
Moving on, we decoded another of ITV’s trademark chaotic gameshows – Finders Keepers, surely emblematic of the search for meaning in everyday life. For whilst we are searching we do not know what it is that we search for, we can only rationalise our discoveries with the benefit of hindsight. We envisaged a bleak bonus round; guest presenter Albert Camus laughing laconically whilst offering a playstation two to the frantically searching sprogs if they could but find their soul within the house. They always fail.
And who could forget The Queen’s Nose, a paean to the wish fulfilment culture of commodity fetishism, the fifty pence piece representing the false consciousness created by global capitalism, our heroine subservient, a tool of the economy. Let us not forget that it was only through the selfless invocation of (Gary Mabbutt (the working class man; the proletariat) that she could free herself of the oppression of the 50p and all that it symbolised.
Now we were on a roll. Bernard’s Watch - a Derridean meditation on the inherent subjectivity of time - came next, followed swiftly by Blue Peter, which obviously taught us the lesson of import substitution. Why buy a Tracy Island, when it is within one’s capabilities, with a little sticky back plastic and some egg cartons, to manufacture one’s own, with its own individual flaws and idiosyncrasies? In these financially insecure times, such a message can only be a boon to the sound development of young minds.
But it was getting late, and we were getting tired, our ideas more fractured and disjointed. It was when we reached the conclusion that Get Your Own Back was “an attempt to reconcile the tyranny of ontology through the medium of Dave Benson Phillips and his redemptive gunge” that it was deemed to be best for all concerned if we got some sleep. It was a fractured repast that night, my dreams haunted by visions of Neil Buchanan teaching Rothko the art of papier mache. Three parts water, one part PVA. So it is, was, and ever shall be.