Wednesday, February 28, 2007 by

A question of etiquette – how old is too old to be making serious value judgments on kids’ TV shows? I don’t mean the judgment of the pros and programme-makers – but the judgment of anyone who grew up watching and enjoying kids’ TV, especially those who maybe went on watching a bit too long and consumed too many joints and Sports Biscuits while doing so. What’s the cut-off? 30? 40?

And how can one regain the life of the mind as it is lived by a child? Proust spent tens of thousands of pages doing it. Freaky Friday and Big wasted a lot of film stock doing it (although in terms of artistic value I think old Marcel probably gets the vote for effort).

I am nearer 40 than 14, and resolutely child-free. I would rather spend an hour French-kissing a gryphon than a minute in the company of anything smaller than a teenager. I tolerate children when I must, however. And, given these nostalgia-powered times, the realities and certainties of childhood seem close enough to touch. After all, how many nonegarians are not nine at heart? It surely can’t be such an imaginative leap.

Anyroad, it requires no imagination to conclude that the BBC’s Raven seems to be a programme almost designed not to appeal to any child at all but rather to lagered-up postgraduates on a retro jag. Indeed, so blatantly does it fly in the face of any conventional wisdom of programming-by-age-and-focus-group that it’s almost admirable. But not quite.

Because Raven’s shtick is so stupefyingly bizarre it’s best to sit down before attempting a description of it. Think a kind of cross between Highlander and We are the Champions. Go on, try. It’s a juxtaposition so weird that it was presumably created either a) to neutralise the inherent silliness of each ingredient or b) to win a parlour game of Least Likely TV Hybrid. But this is only the start.

David Mackenzie is the titular Raven, a cape-swirling, soot-bearded Celtic wise-warrior, part-Young Lochinvar and part-Merlin, with a magic avian-headed staff from whence he gets his name. Four youngsters in sackcloth, mail and helm negotiate what might have served as a kind of spoof Dark Age obstacle course in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Outsize boluses, bludgeons and maces swing menacingly; cowled demons, faceless in their ravenous evil, madly paddle coracles; words like “tower”, “ring” and “wasteland” dot a runically-inscribed map. Raven utters cryptic phrases like, “Only by learning the way of togetherness will ye learn that which makes a true warrior”. Yet in the midst of spookily swirling mists, these kids are asked find the way of the warrior by such epic labours as, er, knocking each other off logs with mini pugil sticks. The contestants, crucially for any audience involvement, don’t even appear to be “real” kids. Judging by their telegraphed reactions to Raven’s camp gestures, they’re all strictly junior pros, and often look like extremely damp, pissed-off junior pros to boot.

The special effects … well, frankly, aren’t. They would have looked cut-price a quarter-century ago back in, say, Into the Labyrinth. A contestant cocking up or failing to commit a specific task sees him (or her) dissolving in a satsuma-coloured gout of what one assumes to be flame, thereby “losing a life” in the process. I’ve been watching for chromakey to make an appearance. It hasn’t yet, but give it time.

Even to a digital-age dolt like the present writer, this all looks quite incomprehensibly amateurish. I’m slightly loath to swallow the conventional wisdom that all children are ipso facto addicts of the console, X-Box junkies, text maniacs; this line is peddled too often by the manufacturers of those wretched things for it to be entirely reliable. Maybe there’s a retro games craze on, but it seems impossible to even begin to imagine that anyone under 14 could find Raven anything but antique in 2007 unless they had been sedulously kept from all electronic media since birth.

Raven‘s defence is likely to be that kids are born dreamers, adventurers, fantasists, and hang the detail. Maybe, but even if they are, and even if they are intellectually unformed, not all of them are fools, by their standards or anyone else’s. The disasters of such obviously slapdash fare as Captain Zep and The Tripods in the 1980s proved that even children have a critical threshold.

Raven isn’t a bad programme; nor is it offensive. It’s just very, very, very odd indeed. What on Earth – who on Earth – is it for? It’s hopeless to try an evade the programme’s obvious Tolkein-debt, and so to a degree it can best be compared to a Gollum, a bundle of unanswerables – how did he get there? When? Why?

Independent of history, of ecology, it’s just there, and that’s it. Try and see it, and find out if you’re any the wiser. 9 or 90, I bet you’re not.


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