On Therapy Animals

The worst job I ever had was brightened up one day by a therapy puppy being brought into the office. Based on the rest of my time in the job, I’d say this was more a treat for the bosses rather than a sign of their interest in our wellbeing. But that day at least, as I stroked the tiny beast’s back and palpated his droopy cheeks, I did feel a little better. It certainly reduced the lingering stress from that morning, when I’d had to ask Amnesty International over the phone if they’d like to sell our products through their online store, then hang up the moment they asked what country the products were made in.

Various studies have found that animals in the workplace, like plants and whatever the opposite of clowns are, boost employees’ moods and increase productivity. This interests me, as in most cases since then my own experience has suggested these findings are completely untrue. When present all the time, animals are a massive, welcome distraction from the drudgery of work, and productivity goes way down. A case in point is the aftermath of the therapy puppy’s visit. So taken were we all with it that everyone started bringing their own pets into work.

Within days, the keys on our keyboards could no longer be pressed down for all the cat hair that had been moulted onto and into them. One of the team brought their bird in, which literally parroted our line manager’s words back at her until she went insane, and pecked off half my fellow intern’s face (the line manager’s bullying had taught him not to complain, which is why it took us that long to notice). It grew impossible to make a phone call over the howls of the animals, who clearly agreed with the majority of the team that our workplace was a loathsome environment. We considered and quickly ruled out getting therapy dogs for them, realising it would exacerbate the problem all round.

There, at least, was a workplace where animals were certainly not conducive to an efficient work pattern. Elsewhere, different conclusions might be reached. A notable grey area, for instance, are farms. Working with livestock is nigh-on impossible without animals in the workplace. But if their presence only increases, this will generally be a sign of poor sales, so the numbers do need to be carefully controlled to ensure a healthy business.

At the other end of the scale to my old office, one workplace where animals are definitely needed in quantity to guarantee optimal performance is a zoo. Here, they create more satisfied customers, and largely boost the mood and productivity of the keepers too. Any escaped animal is always a worry, not just because of any potential risk to the public, but because any reduction in animals will worsen the zookeepers’ moods and could even have a domino effect in terms of efficiency. I’ll never forget the legendary Bristol Zoo Palaver of 1996, when almost every single animal gradually escaped, the rate of breakout having increased exponentially after one penguin strayed out unnoticed. The zoo had to be shut down for several years and slowly built back up again from the one remaining, strikingly loyal, goat.

Museums have cleverly got round the zoo problem by making sure all their animals are thoroughly stuffed beforehand, making them the most productive environments in the UK, surviving even after nine years of slashed government funding entirely because of carefully planned therapeutic taxidermy.

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Peter Fleming on Toys

Hi everyone. I’m away this week, so have given writing duties over to Peter Fleming. He has very kindly written some of his thoughts on toys and his experiences playing and working with them as one of the pioneers of British children’s TV. Thanks, Peter!

Hello there, my young friends!

Well, well, well, toys, toys, toys. Is there anything that has brought so much joy to children as toys? The answer is a qualified yes – but only in the case of those children who had access to BBC Children’s television programmes. As such, foreign children and the children of parents who avoided paying the licence fee had to make do with just toys.

I had the opposite problem, and was lucky that the children’s home where I grew up did have television, as there were frankly no toys to be had in the entire building! Instead, the very earliest children’s television fuelled my imagination, and I fashioned my own toys out of whatever I could find. Rags, milk bottles, handfuls of dust – you name it, I came up with a character and a story for it! These ended up inspiring programmes I made during my own career. The rag I played with grew into Charlie, the Ragged Ghost (1965). My favourite handful of dust, which I kept in the corner below my bed, safe from the cleaners ever reaching it, went on to become The Ghost Made of Dust (1966). And who could forget Julie, the Bottle-Shaped Ghost (1975)?

Another thing I tried to do was fashion programmes set within whole worlds of toys to fire up the imaginations of the next generation down who might be going without them. Tilly’s Toy Factory (1967) showed a young girl making all the strangest toys she could think of, helped by the elderly toymakers and woodcarvers who lived in the factory she visited every week. We never named these craftsmen or explained their circumstances in order to keep a sense of mystery, and more importantly, to encourage children to be nicer to strangers, an area where we felt society was consistently failing. Entirely because of that point (although I was later told only partially because of that), the series lasted only a few weeks.

Following that, The Museum of Fun (1968) touched on similar themes with young Johnny’s regular visits to be shown round an ancient toy museum by Miss Harker. As an educational element, the toys were often host to the spirit of whatever child had played with them back in history, and would describe the old world around them. Later, of course, Miss Harker herself was revealed to be a large, Edwardian puppet, come to life! I now look back on the programme as a wonderful combination of my duel interest in toys and ghosts, and it was fondly remembered by audiences too, eventually topping Channel 4’s The 100 Most Inadvertently Sinister Kids’ TV Shows of All Time in 2003.

Best of all, Uncle Kenneth’s Doll’s House (1969-71) depicted a little girl who was sick of her boring, stuffy parents, and wished she could live in her peculiar uncle’s doll’s house instead – only for the wish to come true! Surrounded by now life-size wooden and fabric dolls, and trapped in an existence that ran like clockwork, she was at first frightened by their mechanical movement and muffled voices, but soon grew to enjoy the lifestyle, eventually becoming a doll herself in the final episode. I intended it as a way to make my daughter less scared of her own doll’s house, but if anything it had the opposite effect. Trouble was, the programme was so successful that I had to ignore her feelings and keep going! If only I’d realised the effect that would have a few years later, I might have thought again!

Nowadays, I find my boyhood yearning for toys to play with still comes to the surface. As I float about on my little raft, rags and empty milk bottle drift past and bring back fond memories, and I come up with new ideas from other bits and pieces I find too! Who knows, perhaps one day audiences might find themselves enjoying The Voyage of the Shopping Trolley, or Phillip, the Talking Stick, or Come Back, Sophie, Please Come Back! All those have been inspired in just the last couple of weeks by things I’ve sailed by or caught myself shouting out in my sleep – so you see, there’s still a whole world of possibility!

Best wishes,

Peter

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One Born Every Minute

A few months ago, I asked myself how many people in the world there are whose face is known and recognised by more than half the world’s population, if any. 3.5 billion people or more would need to know who they were.  Musicians and entertainers were possibilities, but world leaders were the most likely candidates, alive and dead. The Telegraph noted in 2006 that the Queen’s face was the most reproduced image of any human being since Jesus Christ – and barely anyone gets her skin colour wrong, either. But we can’t be fully certain. No surveys to date have been sufficiently thorough to provide a sample anything like the size we’d need.

The only way to find the most recognised person for certain is to ask every single person on the planet to list every single person they know or recognise, living or dead, and tallying the results. I took it upon myself to commence such a survey, but quickly grew tired halfway through the first day, having asked roughly ten (exactly eight) people in my neighbourhood. It goes without saying this is too small a fraction of the world’s population to use, although I did find myself fortunate in so much as the entire sample were fluent English speakers, which may prove a more challenging area as the survey goes on.

After the first week, I realised I’d need more people on the ground to tackle the problem, but with no resources to fund them, decided to take an ad out in Eccentric Billionaire Monthly, the magazine for people who’ve inherited more money than sense. Within days of the issue reaching subscribers, my idea had been taken up by a Lord near Dundee and I had been made co-ordinator of a sprawling team of researchers.

We started with the oldest questionees across the world to make sure we had their answers in time – this was the point when our first concern arose with the process. If any questionees died before the survey was complete, they would no longer be recognising the people they listed, and we’d have to discount their testimony. We’d have to retain their contact details to make certain at the end of the survey that their answers were still valid (a GPDR nightmare, and one that necessitated the creation of a further team just for data entry).

Another issue with the method occurred to us when we came to the other question that had occurred to our eccentric billionaire backer – who is the least-recognised person in the world? He wanted to know this either for reasons of philanthropy or gloating, we weren’t sure. The trouble is the least recognised person would surely not be listed by anyone we were asking. And this would likely happen to a number of people, for instance recluses who don’t have any living friends or family. We reasoned this can be combatted in the final stage when we, the questioners, list the people we recognise. If we’ve done our job properly, this will ensure every person in the entire world gets listed at least once.

The likeliest candidate for least-recognised person will be a baby – they have come into contact with the fewest people, and if you hold up photos of various babies to others, it will be very possible they are not recognised, or are mistaken for other babies, since most babies look exactly the same. We have arranged to create a further sub-team to maintain a rolling update of who the newest, and therefore least-recognised person, in the world is, ahead of completion of the main survey.

One further issue has struck us – one of communication. With young children especially, and other exceptional cases, people may not be in a position to communicate who they do and don’t recognise, as they can’t read or write. A difficult problem to get around, but we’re working on it, and are hopeful that we’ll be able to provide a definitive answer as to who the most-recognised person in the world is sometime in 2040. This answer will only be definitive for a split second before it becomes outdated by more people dying, and more learning who someone is, but at least we’ll have a marker of our progress, before presumably starting all over again a few years on.

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Peter Fleming on the Environment

Hi everyone, Tom here. I’m away this week, so Peter Fleming will be filling in with his memories of promoting green awareness in his work as one of the leading lights in the golden age of British children’s TV. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

It is a sadly increasingly seasonably warm February that we find ourselves in this year. As I travel the waterways of Britain on my little raft, I see the impacts of pollution, litter and the greenhouse effect first-hand, not least last March, when the raft became frozen in the water for several days and I had to slide along on my own until I reached a riverbank at a gentler angle to climb up and seek shelter.

My mind often drifts to my efforts with my production team in the early 1970s to put forward environmentally-minded programmes. From the late sixties onwards, we sensed the growing appetite from young viewers for series with an ecological bent. These were historically laughed off by the old radio men who ran the BBC, dismissed as the children of cranks, or people who read newspapers, or qualified scientists. But we were part of a newer generation, and we took these concerns seriously.

Accordingly, we took every opportunity to show off our green credentials and present an environmentalist message. The Grasshoppers Appreciation Society (1969), Windmill Winifred (1971), and The Solar-Powered Boy (1974) all did their bit to help, and we also scrapped previous programmes we’d made, in spite of their popularity, for the undesirable lessons they taught. Jude’s Crude Oil (1969-71), about a little boy starting his own refinery, had to go. So too did Hurrah for the Coalmen (1968-73), which irritated vast swathes of our viewers in Wales and North of England no end, eventually provoking the miners’ strike of 1974. But that was all worth it for the move away from coal power, not to mention the six mediocre episodes of Doctor Who the strike inspired.

Following our example, the Children’s department increasingly attempted news ways to ensure energy-efficiency at the BBC. The most notable example I can recall was in 1976, when they tried powering the whole of TV Centre by building a gigantic dynamo all round it, disguised as a large circular treadmill, then bringing in 2,000 children from local schools to run around on it (they claimed for an episode of Record Breakers). A clever ruse, and successful to an extent! The children’s run lasted a full week before parents grew concerned as to their whereabouts, and the Sixth Floor noticed from their higher vantage point that there was no production team supervising or recording them.

In spite of the occasional outcry in the popular press and the odd internal and police investigations, our actions paid off, and we helped show the next generation how important it was to look after our planet and keep it clean. Vindication came in 1978, when we contacted the Keep Britain Tidy organisation to offer our assistance to produce their new series of public information films warning children against litter. We had spent several years approaching Mary Whitehouse for the same reason, having misunderstood the name of her Clean Up TV campaign. Mrs Whitehouse, it transpired, was never keen on our programmes, describing them as, “insufficiently stunted and backward-looking for my taste.” When we finally corrected our mistake, Keep Britain Tidy replied straight away.

Thus, Granny Green was born – a series of films showing the consequences of children naughtily dropping litter in the park! They would always open with a shot of a child casually dumping an item of rubbish on the grass (a sweet wrapper, a cello, a small family car). Then, out of the bushes would slowly drift our titular granny. From behind the rustling leaves she would softly advance, singing, “Don’t drop litter, put it in the bin,” to every line of the tune Ten Green Bottles. As she sang, she would slowly reach out to the child, tilt her head to one side, advancing ever closer. The child would run!

After this, the film would follow the child around their daily life, as everywhere they went, they heard the eerie echo of her song, with the words now changed to, “If you ever drop litter, I’ll put you in the bin.” Very worrying for the litter-dropping children watching, and most of all when the child in the film would turn in for the night, only to see Granny Green gliding across their bedroom floor in the dark, putting them in a sack, carrying them quietly back to the park and indeed putting them in the bin with their original litter – making good on her promise! And as she walked back behind the bushes, she sang the final verse, “They’ll incinerate the litter, and burn you up within.” A wonderful message to encourage the viewers to practise clean living!

Granny Green’s impact was felt at once across the country – the level of litter found in parks left behind by children absolutely plummeted as the campaign went on. Largely, this was because children that saw the films, on the television or before film screenings, would then opt not to visit a park or indeed go outside at all for the next few years. I admit, looking back, that it was a drastic strategy, but one which I should think those children’s children will now be very grateful for! (That’s if those children indeed did have children, as I imagine staying in for so long will have impacted on their social skills quite enormously).

Keep green, my friends! Or Granny shall come and get you too!

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming was appearing at the Leicester Comedy Festival last night, and did well. Tickets were available here.

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The Announcement

‘Transmitting in ten seconds,’ she heard the floor manager say over the rush of her mind.

Silence descended and deafened. After all this time, all the rehearsals, it had come. Everyone in the room felt the weight of history on them. But none so heavily as her. She had the eyes and the ears of the nation now. The first announcement. The one that would be played and re-played. The generations unborn who would see it. The history classrooms she’d echo through.

‘In 5, 4…’

‘Good luck,’ said the little voice in her ear.

A deep breath. She held it.

The red light came on.

She began.

‘This is the BBC. It is with sorrow and regret that we announce Her Majesty the Queen is dead. She died in the early hours of this morning following a collision on a country road outside Windsor.’

Thank God for that, she thought to herself.

Thank God it was one of the deaths they’d practised for. Stroke, heart attack, peacefully in her sleep… they’d done all the plausible ones. But she’d woken up at night for years, worrying. What if she’s taken out by a sniper? What if a gorilla jumps on her? Unaccounted for U-Boat? Lightning strike? Thank God, thank God.

It was going so well. The moment of her career. Her heart was racing. All as smooth as it could possibly go.

‘We understand that-‘

And then it came. The voice in the ear. Fuck. Not now. Not this.

The other thing she’d worried about.

How to navigate this? How to get past it? Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.

The silence felt forever. The camera burned into her. She felt the millions of eyes on the other side burning into her too.

‘Take a breath,’ said her ear. ‘Clear your throat. And go.’

‘I’m sorry, we- We must apologise sincerely. We have just this moment been informed that our information was wrong.’

The nation paused. She paused. She went on.

‘It’s Chris Tarrant. It’s Chris Tarrant who’s died. Not the Queen.’

Strange, but she could almost feel the vibrations from the sighs of relief. From the groans of exasperation. From the shouts of confusion and anger.

‘Clearly, there has been some miscommunication. Again, we apologise for any shock caused to you unnecessarily. To confirm, the TV presenter Chris Tarrant has died in a road collision just outside Windsor. He was 72 years old- can we cut the music?‘

The National Anthem cut out.

‘He was 72 years old. Once again, we must reiterate that Her Majesty the Queen is not dead. It’s just Chris Tarrant.’

Poor Chris Tarrant, she thought. Of all the times to go.

‘Still sad, obviously.’

She felt for him. Overshadowed. This is all she’d be remembered for now too. No history classes for her. Just the bedrooms of cackling boys. But still, she could salvage this. Win back the moment for herself, for her career. For Chris.

‘You’re watching BBC News, where we have just learned that former TV presenter Christ Tarrant has… Sorry, no, the Queen is now dead.’

The voice in her ear again. For fuck’s sake.

The National Anthem came back on.

Fucked it. Absolutely fucked it. I bet it was that researcher, she thought to herself. She’s always been after me. Bet she sabotaged it all. My career in bloody ruins.

‘We can confirm, the Queen and Chris Tarrant have both died.’

A pause.

‘They were in the same car.’

She waited for further words. She received them.

‘We’re not yet sure why.’

And the morning groaned on. The longest morning there had ever been.

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Doctor Who: Enemies of the World

This week, former candidate for Governor of Georgia Stacey Abrams was reported to have watched episodes of Doctor Who to warm up for delivering the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address. Fans were delighted, but such revelations should be met with caution. There are many other occasions documented where the political impact of the programme has been far less than helpful:

  • The show toying with a Liberal-governed future in the 1970s backfired, when The Green Death (1973) encouraged them to take Jeremy Thorpe seriously long enough for him to become embroiled in a murder plot, and their nod to Shirley Williams with a reference to a female Prime Minister in Terror of the Zygons (1975) pushed the public into the arms of Margaret Thatcher.
  • Thatcher herself watched The Monster of Peladon (1974) as it went out, hearing its conciliatory message in the wake of the contemporary miners’ strike, but the story was so boring and sub-standard that Thatcher grew enraged, and instead decided to crush the mining communities across the UK and destroy British manufacturing and the areas that depended on it as soon as she got into Downing Street. As PM, she also watched Paradise Towers (1987), whose portrayal of lesbians as cannibals reinforced her prejudice against the LGBT community.
  • Gordon Brown watched The Sound of Drums (2007) and decided not to call a snap election off the back of it. Having seen the Master elected in a landslide, he reasoned that it now seemed far more plausible than before that the Tories could get back in. David Cameron also watched the story at the same time, and decided to hang in there. (For glimpses of Britain following a no-deal Brexit, viewers are advised to go back and watch Last of the Time Lords – and no shrunken Keir Starmer in a cage is going to save you.)
  • Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) promoted apathy in the face of global warming to politicians of the day, who felt the whole issue was made to seem far-fetched by wrapping it up with the menace of scientists bringing dinosaurs back from the past. The story also made clear that the environmentalists were the baddies, and fossil fuel lobbyists capitalised on this, choosing conveniently to forget the messages of The Green Death and Inferno (1970).
  • Fury from the Deep (1968) also made clear it was never the energy companies to blame if things went wrong, just the unfortunate result of parasitic seaweed monsters in the North Sea interfering (immense government funds were directed towards seeking and thwarting these creatures, in what was the biggest recorded waste of taxpayers’ money in modern history until Chris Grayling was first awarded a salary). On the other hand, The Faceless Ones (1966) did its bit against climate change by convincing parents that if they allowed their children to fly abroad, they would be kidnapped by sinister globular aliens and have their identities stolen.
  • 1979’s City of Death chose as its villains wealthy European elitists who, in spite of living across the map and across different points in history, were literally all the same sinister, stinking-rich individual, later revealed to be a green-skinned, one-eyed alien in a mask. This has since been cited as a further example of the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism in popular culture, indoctrinating its child audience in good time for them to vote Leave in the 2016 EU Referendum. (For glimpses of Britain following the resulting no-deal Brexit, viewers are advised to go back and look at the drab and unpleasant set design of The Horns of Nimon later on in the same season.)

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Dayclubbing

Travelling to a gig last Friday that I do quite regularly, it struck me on the long walk from the station to the venue that a night club I walked past every time, on a Friday night, had never been open. It didn’t seem either shut down or boarded up – in vertical terms, then, completely clear.  I couldn’t understand it, so I asked at the gig, describing whereabouts the building was. “Oh,” they said. “That’s the day club – it’s where the night shift people go.”

I was curious, and decided to stay in Widnes after the gig so I could visit the club during its opening hours of 3-8am. Within minutes, I had realised that this was the safest, most secure night club (if you could call it that) I’d ever been to.

Most of the bouncers there were off-duty, but their work came as second nature to them, so you had to pass about fifty to get any near the dance floor. Only two bouncers are actually employed, a couple of weedy 18 year-olds of the kind who will continued being asked for their driving license well into their thirties due to the sheer lack of confidence they exude – as far as I could tell, hired as an amusement. Even once you reach the floor, you’ll still find it full of surly, burly guards demanding to see your ID before they allow you to continue flossing (the only dance move they permit).

The upshot of all this is that any stragglers still out on the town when the regular clubs shut will certainly be too wrecked to get anywhere near the bar. No one in that state can cope with that many interrogating stares. In fact, the vast majority will start questioning their own memory and judgment after the sixth consecutive ID check in 30 seconds, give up and go home. Paradise.

Having had to listen to it every night, all these bouncers are, like me, absolutely sick of the music that gets played in clubs. So they insist anything played is as far from what they hear on the clock as possible. This means there’s a far higher proportion of BBC sci-fi sound effects than you’d normally get, which makes me feel right at home. You can also find yourself dancing to The News Quiz, or at least trying to. And you really haven’t lived until you’ve let yourself go to the theme from The Vicar of Dibley.

On top of the bouncers’ impact on the security and the music, other patrons all work to ensure the smoothest-running club you could imagine. There is absolutely no risk of slipping on the floor, because it’s given full coverage by road gritters half an hour before opening – this is topped up every ninety minutes. Should you be taken ill, never fear – at all times, there will be at least ten paramedics within a five-metre radius of you. After nine hours on the job, they tend to want to forget as best they can the harrowing work they do, but on the other hand, by the end of their shift they’re very much into the swing of it. Best of all, taxi drivers are let in for free, on the condition they take everyone else home at the end.

I left Bouncing Bouncers a changed man, and I can’t wait to go back. I’d always assumed night work was among the most thankless available, but now I can see the true reward offered to you at the end of your shift, I may well start looking for some more keenly.

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