In front of the idiot lantern
9 April 2002
Weekday mornings during the primary school summer holidays used to be spent watching the type of TV show that’s sorely lacking in Thailand. From 9 till 11am it was a veritable feast of pioneering ‘edutainment’ although the term had yet to be invented. First, it was Sesame Street with Big Bird teaching us stuff like talking to strangers was wrong but bursting into spontaneous song with a grown man in an 8 foot-canary costume was perfectly acceptable. Or ‘X’ was a bugger of a letter to base an entire show around and New York was the safest city on earth.
Later, as cognitive powers developed and reasoned thought made an appearance, the first shadows of doubt about the goings on in Sesame Street took hold. There aren’t any birds that tall, monsters aren’t green and don’t live in ‘garbage cans’ – hang on, we don’t call dustbins ‘garbage cans’. Then there was the revelation that there was really a guy inside Mr Snuffalupagus and the end of innocence was upon us.
At the back of your mind there was also the nagging doubt that although Maria was pretty hot, you somehow knew that nothing would ever come of her flirtings with the perma-tanned guy who’d been with the show since the start and who was curiously platonic with everyone. Although, even to the casual observer, he clearly had a special bond with Bert and Ernie – the guys in matching pyjamas.
Within the space of two summers you’d graduated from humming along to meaningless songs about the letter ‘Zee’ to something altogether more grown up – ‘ Why don’t you?’.
‘Why don’t you?’ was a TV show which encouraged mid to late 1970s youth to get off their backsides and go and save the world – or at least hold a ‘Bring and Buy’ sale in their little corner of it. “Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go and do something more interesting instead.” – the catchy jingle told the watching millions – an idea which parents quickly adopted.
“Look at those kids in Belfast spending their summer holidays fundraising to save the Amazon and organising a Republicans vs. Unionists 5-a-side footie tournament to benefit hunger strikers, from both factions, in the Maze. Why don’t you go and do something like that? You’re almost ten you shouldn’t be spending your days in front of the TV.”
“Well, let’s see . . . Could well be because I’m not allowed out after 8 pm. Belfast kids get to play with petrol bombs – I don’t. Their school went up in smoke 2 years ago and those lucky sods haven’t been since. I live in a small village in Yorkshire therefore I neither know ,nor care ,where the Amazon is however, if you give me 50p I’ll go and cut it down on Saturday morning. Seeing as I don’t have a corporate sponsor willing to shell out for the costs involved in inviting George Best out of retirement for a one off, once in a lifetime (until the next time) event I’d be happy to go and kick a ball around with the kid from next door but that’s as far as it goes. And let’s be honest, the Women’s Institute have a monopoly on all tombolas, lucky dips and underground lotteries within a three mile radius.”
And lo, a cynical, sarcastic bastard was born.
Which leads me nicely onto the offering for Thai kids who are going through those difficult Kindergarten and Prathom years. Decent edutainment is thin on the ground. It’s a case of enduring toddlers stumbling around in heels attempting traditional Thai dances, glove puppets that put ‘ Lambchop’ to shame in the creativity stakes and an ambience that suggests the show was put together as a bet to see how little could be spent on half an hour of national TV.
What we need is a show that combines the cheeriness of Sesame Street, the get up and go of ‘Why don’t you?’ with a bit of local flavour. And this is it, achieved with a development budget of 37 Baht – coincidentally the price of a bottle of Super Leo.
The setting a traditional Thai house, landscaped gardens, the type virtually everyone would like to live in – see Sesame Street’s sanitised NYC as a reference. If we can get M.R. Kukrit’s old place on Suan Plu then that’d be ideal. It’d be occupied by an extended family. Good for inter generational passing on of ideas & traditions, respect for elders, team building activities with cousins etc etc.
There would also be walk on parts for Mr Somchai the mailman who’d pull up on his ozone destroying two-stroke and hurl the mail over the fence with a cheery “Uh!” Also popping in from time to time will be ‘Yui the Yakult woman’ whose destined to run over a kid on her pushbike and be hauled before the courts and sued for all she’s got in an episode on lack of road safety and consequences if you can’t afford good legal representation.
They’ll also be a dark skinned security guard who as we’ll finally discover in episode 783 isnt really a crazed wife murdering alcoholic lunatic, despite his outward appearance. He is in fact a decent caring guy who sends his 1,200 Baht weekly pay packet back to his family upcountry. As with all important lessons it takes time to learn. However, in show 784, he appears sporting a newly grown moustache and is immediately accused of stealing the family jewel’s, which just goes to show that you can never trust the peasants. Another pf life’s important lessons.
At this point we’ve got stuff that will keep the Mums happy but need something cuddly for the younger kids. Cute animals.
“Who’s that crawling under the gate? Why, it’s Sammy the soi dog. Has your mange cleared up, Sammy?”
” Perhaps, if you fed me something other than 5 baht of boiled rice a day it would. I’m a friggin’ carnivore for Christ’s sake”
Of course the animals talk. It’s called artistic license and giving rabid scavengers a cute persona has been proven increase awareness of their plight. This tactic also works for endangered species. Take pandas. National Geographic channel rate them as being responsible for more deaths in China last year than those big spiders that hide under in the overflow of the sink. A frightening statistic your average 6 year old doesn’t need to know and so, with the exception of ‘Incy Wincy’ spider, spiders are fear inducing devil’s spawn from Hades and pandas are cute, cuddly and certified ‘Kidsafe’.
All that’s needed now are a few worthy causes for the kids to devote their time to. Let’s take a peek over the fence, those discarded M-150 bottles, adults in ‘San Francisco Blue Sox Premier Conference Basketball 1987’ t-shirts and the sound of a hundred counterfeit Sony Playstations in use can only mean one thing – it’s a slum. More, than a slum, it’s an opportunity for the kids to to do good in the neighbourhood.
Social activism should be taught from an early age and the sooner the kids learn that there’s no place in the neighbourhood for a slum the better. This is even more relevant when land prices are on the up again and Uncle Prasit’s building company has bulldozers ready to move in and clear the area in preparedness for a new upmarket shopping plaza and Japanese buffet restaurant. So, “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho it’s off to City Hall we go.” Then back to the house, stopping on the way for a chorus of ” One of these kids is not like the others” as a 5-year old garland seller presses her nose up to the window of the MPV at Asoke junction.
The afternoon is spent catering for the brave firemen who came to the scene of the blaze, despite a recently enacted hosepipe ban in the area, and tried in vain for 10 minutes to beat of the inferno with back issues of Cosmo, which were collected in anticipation of such an emergency. In the evening the family gathers for a period of reflection, it’s time to sit back, throw on a few pieces of chicken onto the embers and reflect on what we’ve all learnt today.