Stephen Fry: Doctor Who is a children’s programme

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Good old Stephen Fry has laid into the infantile tendency in television commissioning. I don’t think the fact that Doctor Who is a children’s programme is the headline an adult would pull from his talk. The Guardian has proved his point by making headline news about it. They’re idiotic enough to “live blog” Doctor Who as it happens – as if it’s perfectly acceptable for adults-without-children to be that into it.

But then The Guardian has a recent tendency to “live blog” a lot of unsuitable stuff – like the Cumbria murders, for example. Here’s Fry:

The number of times I turn on the television and I think ‘Gosh, children’s television’s gone on, that’s a really good art documentary … Oh my God, it’s nine o’clock in the evening. This is for grown-ups?’ It’s just shocking.

“The only drama the BBC will boast about are Merlin and Doctor Who, which are fine, but they’re children’s programmes. They’re not for adults.

“And they’re very good children’s programmes, don’t get me wrong, they’re wonderfully written … but they are not for adults.

He’s kind of right when he says Doctor Who is a children’s programme, though I think it comes into its own as “family” viewing – parents and children. I found it unwatchable after I hit a certain age, and then found the joy in it again when I could watch it with my own children. Nobody over the age of 14 should watch it unless they have kids under 14 with them.

I do think there’s a general tendency toward infantile products, which serves a core market of young (mostly) men with disposable income and questionable taste. I’ve long tried to accept that “there’s nothing wrong” with playing computer games – god knows I don’t want to be grumpy about them. On the other hand, they do mean that an entire generation has turned their back on wit and complexity in narrative in favour of one-liners, first-person shooters and getting to the next level… and the next.

There’s a blight in a certain kind of film – that whole “hero’s journey” nonsense – which leads to Star Wars, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings – and there’s a whole generation of young (mostly) men who celebrate those films ad nauseam and have never exposed themselves to anything else. Probably Jaws is to blame for this. A stunningly good film in technical terms, but plain stupid in narrative, character development etc.

In America, they’ve a proud recent history of making long-running television series with great writing and long-term character development. The problem with British TV is that (a) we don’t make long-running TV series that aren’t soap operas (which just repeat the same stories over and over again), and (b) nobody in British television is brave enough to take a chance on something different – and give it a good, long go.

History is littered with classic programmes that would have been cancelled and forgotten if the standards that apply today were applied back then. Fawlty Towers, for example, passed almost unnoticed on its first run. It was only a BBC strike that forced an early repeat that helped it find an audience.

Stephen Fry is right: but almost nobody knows what “adult” means anymore. I think that’s an institutional problem: there are no “adults” working in television. The kind of people who think it’s a good idea to put on a fairly long trailer for a programme just before it starts are not going to commission intelligent adult drama or comedy.

The BBC’s idea of an “adult” version of Doctor Who was Torchwood – which was exactly as infantile as Doctor Who, but with incessant kissing.

We get the culture we deserve, right?

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