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Category archive: Television

Monday July 07 2008

I have paid no attention to High School Musical, until now, when I realised that it would be worth linking to from here:

It’s the age of the audience you notice first, quickly followed by the punishing volume of noise the little blighters generate.

Disney’s High School Musical, first a low-budget TV movie and now a stage-show phenomenon, is a wholesome romantic comedy that tells the story of two teenagers in love in Albuquerque.

A British touring production has been doing boffo business around the regions since it opened in January, while this sister production has just opened in London for the summer holidays.

I was expecting an audience mostly of girls aged between ten and 14, and there were plenty of those around, but there were also hundreds of far younger children, from the age of four and up, many of them boys.

The only difference is that the chaps don’t tend to get dolled up in bright red cheerleaders’ costumes and wave pom-poms about like the girls.

“He loves it, he knows all the words of every song,” observed one doting mother of her tiny-tot son, and indeed he did: he happily belted his way through every number.

This venerable venue cannot have been the scene of so much audience-generated racket since the Beatles played here in the early Sixties.

I wouldn’t have a clue about how to go about proving such a proposition, but I can’t help feeling that the extraordinary enthusiasm for show-biz that seems to be sweeping the nation, but which I mean an apparent enthusiasm to be a celebrity-stroke-performer rather than just watch what celebrity-stroke-performers do their various things while getting on with real life, is somehow related to the shift away from such things as maths and science and engineering.  What will all these would-be performers end up doing?  They can’t all become performers.  Can they?

The thing is, shifts in popular culture often signal changes in the world which the more educated and official cultural commentators are unaware of, or prefer not to notice or think about.

One thought occurs to me, which is that show-biz is how the adults of the near future will keep children amused and out of mischief.  So maybe lots of these performers will become teachers, or child-minders.


One of the key figures in High School Musical seems to be the lady teacher, Ms. Darbus, who presides over everything, played in the London stage production by Leticia Dean (above), who used to be in Eastenders.  This is no out-of-touch old biddy.  This is someone you’d be glad to be.

And this, I think, is all part of the same story.

Graduation used to be a rite restricted to students leaving university, but these days schoolchildren are getting in on the fun - with American-style proms to mark the end of the exam season.

The stretch limousine pulls up and out steps a young couple: he, suave in a tuxedo; she, tanned and glamorous. They stop for a photograph then saunter past the doorman.

The scene might resemble a Hollywood film premiere but none of the guests is more than 16 and the event is a school leavers’ party in Canvey Island, Essex.

Good luck turning those girls into engineers.

Saturday June 14 2008

Undoubtedly the best educational snippet I have picked up on while in France, so far, is this video, of the teachers at the Sainte Therese Lycée in Quimper, miming away on YouTube to an ancient pop song.  This was done only days ago, and has already got huge publicity all over La France.  The media studies teacher put it together, apparently.

So, guess where I’m staying.  Quimper.  And guess where the daughter of my hosts (and my second goddaughter) goes to school.  Sainte Therese Lycée.  How cool is that? - as the boys at Kings Cross Supplementary would say.

Thursday May 29 2008

Tom Chatfield discusses computer games:

When Mogwai isn’t online, he’s called Adam Brouwer, and works as a civil servant for the British government modelling crisis scenarios of hypothetical veterinary disease outbreaks. I point out to him a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, billed under the line “The best sign that someone’s qualified to run an internet startup may not be an MBA degree, but level 70 guild leader status.” Is there anything to this? “Absolutely,” he says, “but if you tried to argue that within the traditional business market you would get laughed out of the interview.” How, then, does he explain his willingness to invest so much in something that has little value for his career? He disputes this claim. “In Warcraft I’ve developed confidence; a lack of fear about entering difficult situations; I’ve enhanced my presentation skills and debating. Then there are more subtle things: judging people’s intentions from conversations, learning to tell people what they want to hear. I am certainly more manipulative, more Machiavellian. I love being in charge of a group of people, leading them to succeed in a task.”

It’s an eloquent self-justification - even if some, including Adam’s partner of the last ten years, might say he protests too much. You find this kind of frank introspection again and again on the thousands of independent websites maintained by World of Warcraft’s more than 10m players. Yet this way of thinking about video games can be found almost nowhere within the mainstream media, which still tend to treat games as an odd mix of the slightly menacing and the alien: more like exotic organisms dredged from the deep sea than complex human creations.

This lack has become increasingly jarring, as video games and the culture that surrounds them have become very big news indeed. In March, the British government released the Byron report - one of the first large-scale investigations into the effects of electronic media on children. Its conclusions set out a clear, rational basis for exploring the regulation of video games. Since then, however, the debate has descended into the same old squabbling between partisan factions. In one corner are the preachers of mental and moral decline; in the other the high priests of innovation and life 2.0. In between are the ever-increasing legions of gamers, busily buying and playing while nonsense is talked over their heads.

I recall similar debates about television.  With telly the argument was pretty much pleasure versus “goodness”, measured by some other standard.  So if you think pleasure matters (I definitely do) then telly is great.  If not, then not.

The most obvious impact of television was simply the things that people didn’t do, as a result of watching television instead.  Such as: keeping an eye on or open for criminals, whether out in the streets or at home.  Crime always goes up in a country when television arrives, and since this happens so very quickly, it’s hard to regard it as resulting from any deep psychological damage, just to the change in the crime environment.  Not that there necessarily aren’t deep psychological effects, just that the obvious impacts are so much more obvious.

With games, what is surely new is that kids have independent access to their individual games machines, and can carry them around with them.

As for the intellectual impact, I don’t see how the damage could possibly be greater than the brain damage allegedly caused by television to some people, and especially to children who do nothing except watch telly.

Wednesday May 21 2008

I can’t say I get the details, but what I do get is that kids nowadays are utterly fascinated by their little games consols.  The contrast with their merely grudging acceptance of school work is palpable.  If that fascination could be turned back into physical activity, the health benefits would be huge.

Will historians decide that computer games got a generation of fatties back on their feet again, and off the couch that TV and the early internet had glued them to?

Thanks to Instapundit, who also links to this review, the final paragraph of which reads thus:

So what’s it good for? In fitness, no machine can ever replace the drive to be healthy. Not Bowflex, not Thighmaster, and not Wii Fit. The real difference here is that Wii Fit builds fitness consciousness, reminding us of our body’s state of being, chiding us for bad habits while encouraging the good. And this is while building up the basic fitness necessary to start doing high intensity workouts or sports. It makes exercise feel like a video game, and we all know we can have fun playing those for hours.

But the point is that this machine no longer interrupts the drive to get fit, the way TV did and the regular internet does.

This is surely a far more important cultural development than those damned Olympic Games, the health impact of which mostly is in the number of couch-potato hours spent sat in the couch watching them.

Monday March 17 2008

imageI caught Joan Bakewell on the telly today, emitting a particular Fixed Quantity Fallacy, in this case the Fixed Quantity of Education Fallacy.  (Here‘s a more generalised version of the same principle.)

What she said was that if the educational private sector were totally nationalised, all those wonderful private sector facilities – sports grounds, science labs, swimming pools, great teachers, and so on – would all become “available to all”.

No they wouldn’t.  A lot of these places and facilities would simply disappear, crumble, be shut down.  What now makes private sector schools superior is their Rules (see the previous posting).  Nationalising them would change these Rules for the worse.  These schools would become harder to work in, less fun and less easy to teach in.  Many of the teachers would give up, teachers who don’t now just teach, but who now look after sports grounds, science labs and swimming pools, tasks which would become much harder and more stressful.

On the other hand, changing the Rules of state schools for the better, towards how the Rules now are in private sector schools, would increase the quantity of education available, for all.

Sunday March 09 2008

Recently I recorded, pretty much by accident, a slice of Live At The Apollo with Jack Dee, or whatever it’s called.  But it wasn’t Jack Dee, it was Joan Rivers, and she had this to say, among many other things:


Education.  I spit on education.  No man will ever put his hand up your dress looking for a library card.

She also said something approximating to this:

All my jewelry is done by child labour.  Little fingers little stones.  What do want to be?  An eight year old prostitute?  Or work in my air-conditioned basement?

Food for thought, I think.

Sunday March 02 2008

Times Online reports on Dr Laura Grant:

She’s television’s hot new find, a 28-year-old beauty with a brain who they are billing as “the Nigella of science”, though she’s eaten fewer cakes. What the two women have in common is a passion for their subject and allure. Given the chance, plenty of viewers would happily experiment with Grant. She’s knowledgeable but not intimidating, serious but happy. “I have a light-hearted approach to myself,” she says cheerfully.

As she excitedly describes blowing up a car, purportedly to test the strength of Kevlar, the polymer often used in bulletproof vests (a sheet of it was in the car’s boot), it’s easy to see why the teenagers who she was tasked with enthusing about science were won over. ...


... The Big Experiment hits the small screen on Thursday, the first of a six-part series. Method: take a class of underachieving kids from east London, impress them with whizzes and bangs till they have your attention, then fast-track them through science GCSE. Results: teenagers who are more confident and interested in learning. Conclusion: science can make a difference. Easy-peasy. It’s Top Gear meets Jamie’s Kitchen. It’s visually entertaining, it’s socially intriguing, it’s informative. It’s good telly. Beyond that, could we learn from it?

It’s on the Discovery Channel, which I don’t subscribe to.  Maybe I should.  But with luck it will all show up on a free digital channel of some kind in due course, and on DVD for sure.

Wednesday February 20 2008

imageIndeed.  Here‘s a way to get your daughter interested in “math”.  And maybe your son also?  As featured in Newsweek.

And mentioned by one of the many commenters on this, who also linked to this blog posting, where Natalie Portman also gets a mention because she is also a mathematician.

Sorry about the pictorial havoc caused by the picture to the right to the posting below in the first draft of this.  Worth all the bother, I hope you agree.  What happens is: if there’s not enough text, the picture bashes its way downwards.  Hence this extra text.

The girl who was in The Wonder Years is now a math wizz
The diamond geezer says goodbye to Grange Hill
Goodbye Grange Hill
The Brazen Careerist on how to get a job you’re not qualified for
The dangerousness of Sesame Street
Tom Jones didn’t need no education
Summerhill on CBBC
Dara O’Briain on the vital importance in real life of what you learn at school
Leonard Bernstein - “television’s star teacher”
Those who can do - those who can’t get sent up rotten by Armstrong and Miller