Consumer Kids: How Big Business is Grooming our Children for Profit

Ed Mayo & Agnes Nairn, Constable (2009)

It’s another day, and here’s another book warning us about the evils of modern capitalist society. This one focuses on the influence of consumerism and advertising on the lives of children. As the father of a five year old, I have an interest in the subject, but I’m also sceptical of the grand claims often made about the power of advertising by both its advocates and its opponents. Not so this book’s authors, who boldly state that ‘marketing today is… the very air that [children] breathe’.

The authors are campaigner Ed Mayo and academic Dr Agnes Nairn, who evidently believe that their approach to the subject is more considered and sensible than most; a middle ground between traditionally polarised positions. And, at one level, the book is a useful objective survey of modern marketing practices, which pays particular attention to the new approaches made possible by widespread access to the Internet and considers how these are these different to previous forms of marketing. Any book that can help us understand changes in society is to be welcomed, but the prominent use in the book’s subtitle of the word ‘grooming’ – with its associations of sexual predators and paedophiles – should tip us off that this isn’t going to be a sober assessment.

Sure enough, the emotive language continues inside. If you thought that ‘behavioural tracking’ was a way of companies keeping tabs on what you buy in order to predict what you might want to buy next, think again: ‘Be under no illusions, someone is stalking your child’. And when a conference pamphlet describes children as ‘secret weapons’ in the war of marketing, Mayo and Nairn choose to take the meaning literally rather than dismissing it as an ill-advised example of marketing industry posture.

‘Catching Children’

That’s the title of the first section of the book, which continues in this overheated and alarmist vein, and follows a template set by popular books such as Fast Food Nation – light blue touch paper, stand back and wait for eruptions of middle class outrage. It also shares the latter book’s simplistic worldview: big corporations run everything, we are subject to powerful commercial forces beyond our control, and we all need protection. And none more so than children. Accordingly, almost every liberal bugbear of the last couple of decades is here, magnified through the lens of child protection – advertising, gambling, teen magazines, pornography, anorexia, body image, objectification of women, materialism, supermarkets, computer games, media violence, mobile phones, junk food, salt, plastic surgery, alcohol, Disney, etc etc.

And, like Fast Food Nation, Consumer Kids is largely content to preach to the converted and doesn’t make any serious attempt to persuade dissenters round to its point of view. Take for example the statement that ‘Around half of children aged 8 to 15 eat from a fast-food outlet at least once a week’. This is clearly intended to be self-evidently shocking but what if, instead, it seems a) unsurprising and b) nothing to worry about? In so far as Mayo and Nairn acknowledge other outlooks, their approach seems to be ‘if that hasn’t shocked you, then perhaps this will’.

One particularly unpleasant example given – a company who marketed pole dancing kits to children – seemed so unlikely, even in today’s highly sexualised times, that it prompted me to check its provenance. The reference given in the book turned out to be erroneous, but Googling the accompanying quotes took me to a hysterical newspaper piece about a mother who happened across the offending items in the Toys section of the Tesco website. If you resist the temptation to scream ‘outrage!’ and instead read the actual details of the story, it looks more like an administrative mistake, arising from confusion about how to categorise ‘adult toys’, than a deliberate attempt to sexualise our children.

Such dubious evidence suggests that, before flying into a blind panic and calling for restrictions and censorship, we should ask ourselves what actual impact this all has on the lives of our children? Despite the book’s claim to detail the ‘real effects of the runaway commercial world we live in’, the evidence it presents runs counter to its message. Every allegation of marketing malpractice is undercut by the supporting testimonies provided, which demonstrate children being far more intelligent and media-savvy that the authors give them credit for, inadvertently suggesting at the same time that a lot of the effort put into marketing is wasted and ineffectual.

Yet Mayo and Nairn appear to be blind to this, and their interpretations of their evidence compulsively negative. For example, when they discover that many young girls gleefully torture their Barbie dolls, they may be right, at a stretch, to speculate that their subjects are ‘reacting viscerally against a product that tried to package a very particular fantasy of how they should be’. We might see this though as a healthy example of children growing out of the toys they liked when they were younger.  However for Mayo and Nairn ‘There is no magic, only betrayal.’ (This begs the question, would they prefer young girls to stay enamoured of their Barbie dolls forever?) Likewise, when the inevitable happens and children learn that many adverts promise much but deliver little, Mayo and Nairn can only grant that they have ‘grown to expect disappointment’.

From this glass-half-empty outlook, advertising is seen as a minefield of thwarted expectations and disappointment. But children’s engagement with advertising isn’t that straightforward or one-sided. I remember spending hours poring through a Hornby trains catalogue when I was a child, fantasising about the games I could play if I got this train or that engine shed. It made a more lasting impact on my imagination than the actual, pretty limited, train set I finally persuaded my parents to buy (although I enjoyed that too). Nowadays I’m pleased to see that toy catalogues still grip my son’s generation with similar fascination, and ‘telly selly’ time (as advert breaks are known in our house, thanks to Tiswas) can be a cause of great excitement. The fact that children won’t get to own everything they see doesn’t automatically lead to lasting heartache and pain, and learning that you can’t have everything is an important part of growing up. I’d argue that children’s capacity to engage imaginatively with advertising and their ability to reflect upon its relationship to reality suggests that the situation is a lot less alarming than Mayo and Nairn would have us believe.

Stealth marketing

However the authors have a trump card: ‘stealth marketing’. In other words the secretion of products and brands within TV shows, films and other media. By Mayo and Nairn’s way of thinking, it doesn’t matter how clued up today’s kids are, they aren’t equipped to deal with adverts which they don’t realise are there. This is because ‘the stimuli which kids don’t really notice and which create emotional associations are the ones which influence them in the most powerful ways’

To back this up, Mayo and Nairn cite experiments in which watching films containing product placements apparently influenced children to choose Pepsi over Coke and unhealthy Fruit Loops over a healthy fruit salad. Interesting perhaps, but how much do these cases really tell us? As any parent will know, children will generally choose sugary junk food over the more virtuous equivalent, with or without the guiding hand of the marketing industry. And is persuading people to make a choice between two all-but-identical products such as Pepsi or Coke that big an achievement? (And what if Coke and Pepsi both place products in films, do they cancel each other out?) Such real world considerations do not figure in Consumer Kids, as Mayo and Nairn take the findings of this and other experiments conducted in controlled circumstances and brazenly extrapolate them to society as a whole. Ironically we learn that, in his capacity as a consultant, Mayo tells companies not to believe everything that marketing industry lobbyists tell them, yet he and his co-author seem happy to uncritically trot out any study that fits their prejudices.

Attacking the marketing industry

For a high-profile consumer activist and a Professor of Marketing, Mayo and Nairn seem staggeringly naive and ill-informed about the marketing industry. The picture they paint is, it seems to me, based on superficial observations rather than insider knowledge or insight. Whatever you think of the commercial world, it is not monolithic, and companies are not acting as one to ‘catch our children’. They are competing for our attention, some more successfully than others, and some playing dirtier than others.

Despite claiming that their book ‘uncovers the latest marketing tactics and discovers what big corporations are really up to’, it is not really the tactics that the authors object to but the ends to which they are put. They bemoan pester power when it’s exploited by corporations, but are conspicuously quiet about its government-approved use in schools to get children to guilt-trip their parents into recycling, for instance.

And while they rightly reject the marketing industry’s attempts to give its actions a socially responsible sheen, they take pretty much everything else it says as read. You don’t have to be a genius to see that marketing professionals have a vested interest in persuading people that what they do is incredibly effective (hence the almost mystical significance attached to ‘the brand’) but this beginner-level knowledge seems to have escaped Mayo and Nairn.

Attacking parents

Companies and corporations are not the only ones who come in for criticism. Mayo and Nairn also appear to have a rather dim view of parents, despite claiming to look out for their interests. This particularly comes out in the section about diet and obesity. As many critics have pointed out, the measure of obesity has been expanded in recent years to cover more and more people until it has become effectively meaningless. So we might sympathise with the parent (quoted in the book) who says of their child, ‘I don’t really think about whether [my children] are physically healthy because I can see that they are. If they were ill, I would know’. But according to Mayo and Nairn, if we dispute official advice that our children are overweight or obese, we are simply fooling ourselves.

I could go on…

…because there’s something to object to on almost every page. In that at least the book is good value. Nevertheless, the authors and I agree on something fundamental. There are much better ways of organising society than around commerce and there are better things we could be doing with our collective time than creating Barbie dolls or pole dancing kits. But if we are unhappy with the consumerist society, we need rigorous political debate about what could replace it, and honest discussion about which aspects of it work and which don’t. The jaundiced and one-sided picture presented by this book muddies rather than clarifies our understanding of the world we live in, and the authors’ willingness to cast parents and children as victims, helpless in the face of all-encompassing consumerism, is arguably more disempowering and destructive than the things they criticise.

Having said all that, the second part of the book is a different matter altogether. Entitled ‘Children Set Free’, it looks at ways in which children have turned the commercial world to their advantage, and finally takes the open-minded and inquisitive approach promised at the beginning of the book. This I found genuinely thoughtful and interesting, but it takes up a paltry fifth of the page count and is so bizarrely at odds with the previous chapters it feels like it was written by different people.

Mayo and Nairn suggest these closing chapters ‘could offer a vision of a society that … neither relegates children to the position of someone else’s customer nor assumes that they will be passive victims that need to be protected by older generations.’ A noble sentiment, but the authors should reflect upon their own role in relegating children to that position, before they criticise others.

Culture Top Gear-style

I tuned into The Culture Show on BBC2 last night to catch their feature on the excellent American telly drama The Wire and its creator David Simon. Simon is an articulate and opinionated person with a lot of interesting things to say about the television industry and society at large, but I had a feeling the folks at the BBC would find some contrived way to mess up this golden opportunity. Sure enough, they decided to give the feature a ‘theme’ based on the show’s name, putting Simon in handcuffs and getting presenter Lauren Laverne to confront him with taped ‘wiretap evidence’ of his views about the show.

Simon is good value even under such duress, but this sort of time-wasting and gimmicky approach unfortunately seems to be increasingly common these days. Indeed, The Culture Show rather blatantly steals its format from the revamped Top Gear, being filmed in front of a live studio audience, and having its presenters Laverne and Mark Kermode stand up and chat in a pseudo-spontaneous fashion between the glossy and edit-heavy features.

A friend who is in a position to know tells me that, within the Beeb, the highly popular Top Gear is now seen as the Holy Grail of magazine show formats. Consequently it’s not good enough any more for a show to cover a subject just because it’s interesting, or to do so in a straightforward way and let the subject speak for itself. Every piece now has to have a Top Gear-style ‘angle’ involving celebrities, ridiculous challenges or better still both.

But this misunderstands the reason why Top Gear is popular. At the end of the day, it’s because of its content, not its format. As Patrick West argues, it’s the fun, imagination, joie de vivre, love of risk taking and the wilful disregard for political correctness that makes Top Gear stand out from other shows and appeal even to non-petrol heads such as myself.

The Culture Show seems staid and self-satisfied in comparison, rather ironically for a programme that is supposed to be interested in breaking barriers and challenging taboos. Lauren ‘isnt everything so humorous’ Laverne in particular exudes ironic disinterest. And while Clarkson and co may be boorish and infantile, they clearly love cars and their passion is infectious. Give me their half-scripted blokeish banter any day over the excruciatingly forced and arch exchanges between Laverne and Kermode – a match made in TV hell if ever there was one.

The Culture Show is so bad it almost makes me pine for its predecessors The Late Show and The Late Review. The Mark Lawsons and Germaine Greers of the world may be boring, pretentious and middle-of-the-road but at least they all share an unstated assumption that culture is worth taking seriously. The Culture Show on the other hand seems convinced that nobody really likes culture at all.

The Story of Climate Change

In August 2006, influential UK think tank the Institute of Public Policy Research published Warm Words: How are we telling the climate change story and can we tell it better, a review of the way the media discusses climate change and in particular how it handles the question of whether climate change is caused by humans. It concluded that the alarmist language typical of the ‘climate change discourse’ is counter-productive, because it implies that the situation is so bad nothing can be done about it. Amongst their recommendations for addressing this situation was the following:

To help address the chaotic nature of the climate change discourse in the UK today, interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won, at least for popular communications. This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective. The ‘facts’ need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken.
(Warm Words, p.8)

There’s lots that interesting about this statement, not least the IPPR’s apparent belief that their audience for ‘popular communications’ would never read the document or find it at all sinister. Yet some did and interpreted it as a straightforward incitement to deceive the public. I think the truth is more subtle. On one hand the IPPR do appear to be sincere in their believe that man-made climate change is real; on the other they tacitly acknowledge that the science is not conclusive. Effectively they know the evidence isn’t solid enough to back up their position and so they make a leap of faith. Fair enough, but they hope to deny us the information on which to make a similar decision for ourselves. They just want us to blindly follow suit. It reveals something about the IPPR’s mentality that nowhere in the document do they reflect upon the idea that it’s ok for people in the media to say one thing amongst themselves and another to the public.

We can’t know for sure how many in the media read this report and took it to heart. There’s certainly been no noticeable reduction in climate change alarmism since its publication. But while the environmental lobby have been behaving ‘as if climate change exists and is real’ for years, it seems to me that they did begin to assert this in an increasingly aggressive way in the wake of the report.

Of course, they might be right. But if the debate were to be conducted only on their terms, how would we know? Indeed, a common argument put forward by environmentalists is that climate change is just too complex and technical for the average person to understand, and as a result ‘denialists’ find it easy to bamboozle Joe Average with facts, figures and rhetoric. Science Museum Director Chris Rapley crystallised this point of view in his description of a public climate change debate:

“It was fascinating to watch how easy it was for someone who wants to make a point to drop down to a technical level, at which point 96 per cent of the people in the room are not competent to judge the merits of the technical case and so are making their decision on no more than someone’s posture, timbre of voice and whether the person looks honest or dishonest.”

In doing so he revealed a dim view of the public’s ability to rationally judge a debate. And although his point is aimed at sceptics, it would apply equally to those on his side of the climate change debate, as the practice of flinging about obscure stats and references is not confined to the sceptics. To Rapley’s credit he at least argues that the way forward is for climate scientists to improve and strengthen their arguments. But in general, the eco-lobby argues that such technical discussions only distract and confuse the public and so should be kept out of the public sphere. This amounts to a call to shut down debate; to suppress any information which doesn’t fit the ‘bigger picture’.

Anyhow, the debate does not entirely turn on technical matters; it involves philosophical and political questions about subjects like risk, the nature of scientific evidence, and the relationship of humanity with the planet we live on. And you don’t have to be a climate scientist to see that many environmental arguments rely upon ad hominem attacks and fallacious reasoning. Take the notion of ‘climate change denial’ as an example of both. As has been widely pointed out, this weasel phrase is calculated to 1) suggest psychological shortcomings on the part of the ‘denier’ and 2) draw a parallel with holocaust denial. The absurdity of which would be unwittingly articulated by one environmentally-minded writer who argued, without irony, that climate change denial and holocaust were the same, except that ‘holocaust denial denies the past, climate change denial denies the future’. Quite how it is possible to ‘deny the future’ when it hasn’t happened yet was not made clear.

Other have pointed out that the much vaunted notion of a ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change misrepresents how science works. Consensus is irrelevant in science and any claims that a subject as complex as climate change is 100% settled and understood should raise eyebrows. Even the much-cited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports are treated as sacrosanct by environmentalists, only claims to be 90% certain that humans are responsible for climate change. That leaves a not insubstantial 10% margin of doubt, which is surely worthwhile of consideration and investigation. And besides, as has been argued on Spiked Online, science can only tell us the physical facts. How we respond to those facts is a matter for politics.

So almost two years on from the publication of the IPPR report, what has been the effect of ‘behaving as if climate change exists and is real’? Well, despite repeated claims that ‘there is no debate’, environmentalists have been forced to rethink their arguments and shift their position in light of a series of revelations casting doubt upon the AGW hypothesis, not least the recent admission that global temperatures have not risen for a decade. And for a debate that never was, climate change has certainly generated a lot of passionate column inches and blog posts not to mention scientific papers, both supporting and attacking the AGW hypothesis. It also seems that the increasingly shrill tone taken by the environmental movement has prompted a number of scientists to say ‘enough is enough’ and publicly question some or all of the climate change hypothesis. One thing is certain, the number of people willing to admit scepticism has grown.

And just last Sunday, a poll published in The Observer found that ‘most Britons doubt climate change’. Whether or not you agree with all the reasons given by those polled, this can be seen as a sign of intelligent behaviour; an indication that, despite years of being fed a party line, people still have a healthy sense of scepticism and can make up their own minds on such matters. But according to the logic of the environmental movement, it just means the public have been duped.

So while one would hope this poll would prompt a rethink on the part of the media, it only seems likely to intensify calls to silence dissenters. The latest of these has come this week from NASA’s James Hansen who called for oil chiefs to be put on trial for crimes against humanity for spreading ‘misinformation’ about climate change. No doubt oil companies do engage in self-interested spin from time-to-time, but the implications of what Hansen is suggesting should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who gives a fig for freedom of speech.

Personally, I suspect the truth about climate change is somewhat more prosaic than the apocalyptic scenarios beloved of alarmists such as George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Al Gore. The environmental movement after all has a long history of exaggerating its case in the pursuit of what it sees as the greater good. Monbiot has even written in defence of ‘crying wolf’ as a tactic. Yet if the media wants to keep telling ‘the Story of Climate Change’, it would do well to remember what happened to the protagonist of that particular tale.

21st Century Who

I can’t say I’m sad to hear that Russell T Davies, the producer behind the 21st Century revamp of Doctor Who, will be leaving the show at the end of 2009. I’ve found his version of the programme pretty unwatchable. I don’t have a problem with the huge liberties he took with its format. As a huge childhood fan of the original show, I’ll be the first to admit that it needed a big kick up the arse following its sad decline during the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy years.

And to be fair to Davies, his radical revamp was actually in keeping with the history of the show, in that Doctor Who has always reflected contemporary BBC production values at any given time. The changes Davies made in bringing it up to date are in line with wider changes in television drama over the last decade or so, and just seemed shocking because of the lengthy gap since the show was last broadcast. If Doctor Who had never stopped, we probably would have seen the same changes happen in a more gradual fashion.

So what has changed in television drama during this time? Well apart from the obvious advancements in digital production techniques, and the availability of affordable computer graphics, television producers (and society as a whole) have become much more interested in the personal lives and emotions of their characters, and less in their deeds and actions. This is epitomised in the way the new series treated the Daleks; on the one hand taking advantage of modern special effects to make them more convincing killing machines and on the other exploring what would happen if a Dalek had a soul, in the travesty that was the ‘sad’ Dalek of series 1. As for the Doctor himself, this usually inscrutable alien was given a big dose of 21st Century human-style emotional baggage, resulting from the death of his entire race, the Time Lords. And of course we discovered for the first time that he’s a sexual creature, a development which generated publicity-friendly storylines such as his snog with Rose Tyler.

The episode that finally killed it for me though was School Reunion in Series 2, which brought back popular 70s assistant Sarah Jane Smith. This looked like an attempt to comment on and make sense of the asexual relationships between the Doctor and his predominantly female assistants in the original series, a concept that must seem curious and anachronistic today to some, now that sex is assumed to be central to everyone’s lives. So Davies and co rewrote Doctor Who history, retrospectively injecting sexual tension between Sarah Jane and the Doctor which simply wasn’t present in the original show, leading to the embarrassing and undignified spectacle of a middle aged Sarah Jane and a twenty-something Rose Tyler bickering over the Doctor like a pair of lovesick school children. It’s ironic that, although the Doctor’s relationship with his female assistants was often criticised for being sexist, in bringing the character into the more ‘enlightened’ 21st century the show’s producers seem to have missed the very characteristics (gumption and independence) that made Sarah Jane an attractive and forward-looking character in the first place.

The idea that sex is the key motivator in our lives is of course a popular undercurrant in modern British television. Even shows like This Life or Attachments, which on the surface are about professionals from different industries, turn out to be mainly interested in the bedroom hopping antics of their characters. It seems that whether you’re a lawyer, a website designer or a Time Lord all you’re really after is a shag.

This is an extremely dispiriting and self-centred outlook. It’s also a bad foundation for drama. It’s notable that the best telly dramas and comedies (most of which are American) proceed along different lines, whether it be CSI, The Wire, My Name is Earl or even Friends for chrissakes. These feature people who struggle to achieve things that are bigger than their own lives, and any sexual attraction between them is a side product of who they are and what they do. And it’s no coincidence that the more central sex is to a show, the more shallow and depressing it is (think Sex and the City, Nip and Tuck, Desperate Housewives, etc, etc).

Speaking of American television, at the time of Doctor Who’s relaunch much was made of the influence of Joss Whedon’s critically acclaimed show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s no doubt the new Doctor Who emulated some aspects of Whedon’s show, but the differences between them are revealing. Buffy took an established format – light-hearted action adventure – and turned it inside out, using it as a framework for complex and lengthy storylines that repaid attention over many episodes. Doctor Who in contrast looks very dumbed down, with its simplistic storylines and plot twists which are signposted in the most unsubtle way (just in case the audience doesn’t get it). Buffy was packed with obscure and intelligent cultural references, Doctor Who with self-consciously hip references which would be familiar to everybody. Whedon has a healthy disrespect for therapy culture and other modern trends; Davies appears to have taken it all on board uncritically. At the end of the day, the key difference between them is that Whedon has interesting stuff to say and assumes his audience are intelligent enough to understand it; Davies is a dull and conventional thinker who treats his audience as stupid. Either that or he’s just not a very good writer.

Still the BBC have a hit on their hands, as they don’t hesitate in reminding us. You can’t argue with the viewing figures, although it should be pointed out that an average of 6-10 million viewers isn’t that popular (and is only twice as many viewers as the show had in late 80s nadir). It’s striking that most of the adults I know who watch it do so with a certain amount of resignation, muttering phrases like ‘it’s crap but…’ and ‘well that’s as good as it gets these days’.

I recently revisited some of the Tom Baker stories that spooked me as a kid and found that they stood up surprisingly well. And it struck me, back then Doctor Who was a children’s show which appealed to the whole family. Now it’s a family show which is fit only for children.

What’s wrong with children’s television?

Children’s television has always come in for a lot of stick. If you believe its diverse critics, it teaches children bad habits, atrophies the imagination, propagates stereotypes, encourages passive behaviour, and can even harm their teeth and lead to alcohol abuse and sexual promiscuity.

Many of these claims are evergreen but two criticisms in particular have become dominant in recent discussions about the subject:

  1. The malign effects of advertising.
  2. The dominance of American-made shows.

These both reflect a concern that television is turning our children into young capitalists, by encouraging unthinking consumerism and spreading cultural imperialism (specifically American capitalist culture).

Some critics even aspire to invert this relationship, positing that children’s television could be used to undermine the status quo. Author Philip Pullman, who has described the state of children’s television as ‘social poison’, has made this explicit: ‘Taking children’s needs seriously is not different from taking every human need seriously. It is absolutely central to a true and humane vision of the whole of life. If we need to challenge the prevailing neo-liberal, market-based religion in order to do it, then we should do so proudly.’

I believe that this line of thinking is in fact destructive and leads us towards making worthy but poor quality children’s programmes. It’s revealing that discussion of the content of children’s television is conspicuous by its absence. Shows are judged merely in terms of whether they transmit the right or the wrong ideas; how entertaining, original, imaginative or well-constructed they are appears to be an irrelevance.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the widespread praise heaped upon Lazytown, often talked about as the antidote to poor quality children’s TV. This show shares many characteristics with ‘bad’ children’s television – pantomime-level characters and formulaic storylines, garish colours, over-the-top action, cheesy music and a highly successful range of merchandising. But all this is ok because it is in the name of health education. (Lazytown encourages children to get fit and eat lots of fruit).

I’ll expand upon the points above soon. See you next time when I’ll argue that advertising on children’s television can be a good thing.


Idle curiosity took me to the cinema last weekend to see Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s much-maligned attempt to recreate a sleazy low budget 1960s/70s double bill. After a disastrous performance at the US box office and a fall out with Tarantino’s patrons at Miramax over the film’s 3 hour plus running time, the film was split into its constituent parts – Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof – in the hope this would make the films more a more attractive prospect. This didn’t prevent them attracting near-universal hostility from critics and widespread indifference from cinema goers.

The concept certainly sounded pretty bad: another opportunity for Rodriguez and Tarantinto to indulge their shared adolescent obsession with trash culture. I’ve not seen any of Rodriguez’s films before, but Tarantino, who has already spent a fair amount of his career making films based on genres such as blaxploitation, kung fu and heist films, has certainly shown every sign of having directed himself into a dead end. Kill Bill didn’t stand up to a second viewing and rumours that his next project was to be a remake of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! just seemed to confirm a severe case of arrested development. Wasn’t it about time that he started looking outside cinema for his inspiration?

It’s fair to say my expectations for Grindhouse were pretty low, but what do you know, the film was a blast and those 119 minutes flew by. Planet Terror turned out to be a wittier, bloodier, and more entertaining Shaun of the Dead. But it was Death Proof, Tarantino’s serial killer / car chase segment, which left my head spinning for days.

On the surface Tarantino just seems to be repeating himself – his trademark snappy dialogue, lengthy conversations in cars and bars, trash culture references and surf guitar music are all present and correct – but there’s a lot else going on in the film. Tarantino just sidesteps cinematic convention so often, so effortlessly, and with such skill and flair that’s it’s easy to miss what he’s up to even though it’s staring you in the face.

There’s more to him than the sum of his influences. Just look what he does with the most meagre of material. B-movies were sometimes structured rather haphazardly, due to deficiencies of craft, imagination and/or budget. Characters could appear and disappear for no good dramatic reason, major plot lines would be go nowhere and films would sometimes end without warning or fanfare the moment the story reached its climax. Paradoxically though, now that almost all films (be they mainstream or alternative) have the same three act structure, this is one of the things that makes B-movies of the past unpredictable and interesting. Tarantino realises this and sets out to make a film which is deliberately structured along B-movie fault lines.

And it’s this almost avant garde approach to structure that seems to have baffled a lot of Death Proof’s critics, prompting cries of ‘where’s the story?’. Well there is a story, but it lacks the usual signposts that tell us: where we are in a film; how to feel about it; and what’s coming next. Where there are signposts, they all point in the wrong direction.

And true to B-Movie form, Death Proof ends without warning the moment where the film’s protagonists achieve what they had set out to do. A normal film would follow this with a 5 or so minute coda where the characters reflect on the events of the film and we get a glimpse of what the future holds for them. None of this in Death Proof, which leaves us with no guidance about how to make sense of the brutal, exhilarating, unpleasant events we’ve just witnessed. We have no choice but to make our own minds up. Sure, Tarantino’s films are known for their violence, but this is uncomfortable and challenging for the viewer in a way that Pulp Fiction wasn’t.

Of course, not all B-movies are blessed with interesting eccentricities and Tarantino is also aware that more often than not they promised much (via attention-getting titles and advertising campaigns) but delivered little. Salacious titles like Beast from the Haunted Cave and Hot Rod Girl disguised rather tame and conventional films – many of which could now be shown on afternoon telly without controversy. Tarantino said his aim was to recreate the B-Movie experience but deliver on the promise. Well the biggest promise of B-movies usually related to sex, and both Rodriguez and Tarantino (deliberately) cop out on that front, but I won’t tell you how as that would spoil the fun.

In all other respects, they deliver a note-perfect pastiche of the 70s American cinema experience, down to the degraded picture quality, audio glitches and cheap and cheerful graphics advertising forthcoming attractions – familiar to a Brit like me from our equivalent of a grindhouse cinema, the ‘flea pit’. Plus of course, there’s the fake trailers for non-existent films, widely considered to be the funniest parts of the film.

Enjoyable as this was, I hope it signals an end to the fashion for pastishing film and television of the past – we’ve already had Mr Cholmondley-Warner, Look Around You, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and even Macdonalds adverts doing the same. Enough already.

As for the double bill concept, it does work after all; the segments complement each other well and there’s running gags and other little details that build up across the films. No doubt the impact was lessened when the films were split up. Their box office failure is a shame, for the wonderful cast if no one else, and in particular stuntwoman Zoe Bell who plays herself and treats us to the lengthy and frankly breathtaking stunt which takes up a large part of Death Proof.

Grindhouse and it’s children now join the ranks of some sadly underrated films by generally well-thought-of directors, films which just seemed to catch people in the wrong frame of mind and about which no critic now dare say a good thing – the others that come to mind are Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Manchausen and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter. In the case of Death Proof, some of the film’s most vehement critics don’t appear to have even watched the film, judging by the way they got the film’s premise wrong. C’est la vie.

Looking forward to that remake of Faster Pussycat

The joys of children’s television

Children’s television is a secret pleasure for many parents – a chance to put your feet up and grab some much needed sofa time. If you’re lucky you might even fall asleep for a few precious minutes. All under the cover of bonding and spending quality time with your loved ones.

And, of course, many of us also use the telly as an ‘electronic babysitter’ – letting it entertain our kids, leaving us free to make the dinner, do the chores or catch up on our hobbies. (We’re supposed to feel guilty about this, but as Spiked’s Jennie Bristow argues, there’s nothing wrong with ‘electronic babysitting’ – our children benefit from relaxing in front of the telly just as adults do).

Sometimes we even have the time and energy to properly watch children’s television with our children. This can be surprisingly enjoyable, as shows like Sesame Street, Pingu and The Clangers have adult appeal, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident. It can also be very depressing, as the quality of much of what’s on offer is dismal.

But while children’s TV comes in for a lot of stick these days, I would argue it usually for the wrong reasons. More soon…