What is it about children’s programmes like The Wombles that makes journalists so self-conscious? Talking heads on nostalgic clip shows suffer similarly – as if they feel the need to cover their embarrassment with innuendo, clichés and ‘ironic’ jokes.
On the 40th anniversary of the Wombles TV series, I saw three examples. First the Mirror published a piece by Angry Britain (that’s his name). It was fairly knowledgable and positive, but slipped in comments such as “in exchange for a ‘double helping’ from Madame Cholet – a double helping of dinner, that is”, “behaviour today that would most likely earn them an ASBO”, and “we were being subliminally fed the message by the BBC that we must not litter, we should recycle and that the Top of the Pops studio was a fun place to hang out”.
The Guardian’s article came across as a bit of a rush job, with an odd mixture of topics ranging from “Who would win a fight between a Womble and a Teletubby?” to “How do Wombles get it on?”, via “Why did their mission to teach a nation not to litter fail so abjectly?”. Most bizarre was a whole paragraph about whether the Wombles cleared up their own ‘mess’… “Otherwise, Wimbledon Common would have become a vast Womble latrine.” Some of it didn’t even make factual or logical sense, though readers were quick to point out these flaws in the comments section.
And then there was Newsnight, later that evening. For no apparent reason, presenter Kirsty Wark introduced a short clip as follows: “Well that’s all from Newsnight tonight, but before we go, The Wombles first hit TV screens 40 years ago today. Surprisingly, they weren’t strangled at birth. So we leave you with a brief visit to Wimbledon Common. Goodnight.”
Her deadpan, expressionless manner meant it was difficult to tell whether this was her personal opinion or just words she was reading from the autocue, perhaps without realising quite what she was saying. Was it really meant to be broadcast, or could it be a silly gag that someone had forgotten to remove before going live?
Several viewers tweeted their reactions at the time, and more Wombles fans came out in support when Mike Batt complained about the remark. See a collection of comments below. A few days later, Kirsty Wark responded: “It was meant to be a joke but to all Womble lovers, please accept an apology.”
There’s nothing wrong with a good joke, but is it really necessary to stoop to the lowest common denominator by sniggering about TV characters’ biological processes, or just plain insulting them? Millions of us remember our childhood television programmes fondly, so why can’t the media just be proud of our cultural heritage?