Thursday, 1 September 2016

Seventies TV: Sesame Street

As an adult, tell people you are watching Sesame Street and you get mixed reactions. Firstly people make fun of you, then they tell you how much they used to love it, and then they will end up singing a song to you. The more filthy minded will of course make a point of telling you what C really stands for, but we needn't let them delay us at this point. The point is that while it was conceived as a children's TV show it is one which is fondly remembered by people my age and younger, and I'm going to post about it here because this is my blog and so I wll. I'm calling it seventies TV because that was the age in which I first watched it, I'm rewatching some episodes which have been released as 'Old School Sesame Street' on region 2 DVDs and don't intend to watch beyond that one decade.
The first thing I have to say about Sesame Street was that when I was a child I perhaps didn't benefit from it as well as those who produced it would wish me to. Given that it was intended for pre=school children I was probably older than intended when I first saw it and slightly too old for its educational messages. In fact I didn't realise until I read round the subject, just how educational Sesame Street was intended to be, to the extent that it was actually government-funded and intended to have measurable curricular outcomes. Yes you read that right, that's the fun taken out of Sesame Street in one stroke! Don't worry, just focus on the fun bits like I did.
Another way I didn't understand Sesame Street the way its creators probably saw it is of course that I am British, not American. In the 1970s, this was enough to make Sesame Street seem fairly foreign, probably more so than it would nowadays. I have just been watching the pilot episode, in which it showed cows being milked and the process through to the cartons of milk being sold in the shops. This would have seemed very sophisticated to me, since at that time our milk came in bottles and was left on the doorstep by a man who left it there in the morning.
Another thing which seemed foreign to me at the time was the racial mix of Sesame Street. I remember that there were black people in it, and again found that very sophisticated because there were no black people where we lived at the time (in fact in the Black Country village I grew up in people had been out of it so rarely that a trip to the next village was seen as a major undertaking and the buses stopped running around 8pm). The existence of black people wasn't a problem for me, because I had met them in Kenya when we went to visit my aunt, they just didn't live where we did! I see that the early episodes were criticised for not including any characters of any other ethnicities, such as Hispanic, and if they were present in the ones I watched, I didn't even notice these other ethnicities, but that must say something about my own perceptions. Probably locally if exposed to them I could have found large populations of Afro-Caribbean, East Asian, and South-East Asian people. On the other hand, I doubt that the Greek Cypriots up the road would have ever appeared in Sesame Street. For me, the world of Sesame Street was always going to be foreign and remain so.
A further way in which I have just noticed the foreignness of it, is that I have forgotten how much of the show was around nature or at least outdoors. I remember thinking Sesame Street very sophisticated because the children played out in the street (we weren't allowed to in case we got stolen or something). Watching the show again after all these years, I am surprised to see how so many segments, particularly those around animals, are set out in the country. I had sussed as a child that Sesame Street was a more urban area than we lived in, though.
Something which is familiar from the 1970s, is the happiness which I consider characteristic of the 1970s. I'm not being completely fair obviously, comparing a children's TV show with real life, but my recollection of being a child in the 1970s, was that it was a wonderful happy time of freedom and bright colours. In retrospect I think that this was probably because we were all off our heads on the additives in the food. In fact at work the other day we had a retro picnic, eating only things we could remember from the 1970s, and I certainly didn't get the rush I used to years ago!
My happy recollections mean that Sesame Street is in a somewhat different category from the other 1970s TV series I have posted about here. I notice a distinct pattern when I talk about how I remember a show, then realise the show and its context are completely abysmal and finally discover that the case are mostly in prison for paedophilia. In this case, I see that the actor playing Elmo has been accused of sex with an underage boy, accusations which were then withdrawn. This puts Sesame Street in a totally different place from the majority of the 1970s shows I post about here. It also puts it in a different place from the majority of shows I remember from my childhood. It is just as well that Jimmy Savile never replied to my letter asking him to fix it for me, Stuart Hall, the presenter of It's a Knockout, was of course jailed, and Blue Peter presenters were notorious for going off the rails.
I'm feeling my way towards a conclusion with this list of differences from the world I knew - it is the obvious one that the world which gave birth to Sesame Street was not only different to the one I was living in, but it benefited from a strong dose of unreality. I have just read now that the state senate of Mississippi voted in 1970 not to broadcast Sesame Street because of its racially integrated cast. No seriously. The world depicted by Sesame Street was a happy, racially integrated, pleasant one, but still wasn't quite the world it was being made in. This is the one shade hanging over Sesame Street, that it was set in a world in many ways as awful as the world many other 1970s shows inhabited, but its distance from the world known to me made it appear a better world. Naturally I can only attribute that to the influence of the American dream (and would simultaneously have to cough and turn a blind eye to the simple fact that we are so prosperous in Britain as a direct result of invading most of the world and owning slaves).
My conclusion on Sesame Street is that it brings back many happy memories but unfortunately doesn't really take the pressure of being viewed by adult eyes, particularly when you discover its overtly didactic aims and some of the 'controversy' behind the scenes. It is mainly a disappointing trip down memory lane for someone of my age because it is not possible to watch this show in the way a child would. Show it to children, by all means, I'm sure the educational system on both sides of the Atlantic is no longer up to what it was in the 1970s and Sesame Street can provide some remedial early learning.

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