Emily Howlett: Dangermouse v Rastamouse! Accessible children’s television through the years

Posted on July 8, 2014

When I was little, the television was huge and terrifying.

No, really. It was a beast of a thing that took up half the living room, despite having only a teeny tiny screen.

My sister usually wanted to watch Button Moon or The Clangers, but I was too little to really bother about this weird, huge box with things apparently living inside it.

Then I got a bit older, and the television got a bit younger. It wasn’t quite such a monstrosity, and it had better things happening inside it.

My sister and I started getting up early on a Sunday morning to watch Captain Planet, or Rainbow Bright. After school there were the delights of Art Attack, Duckula and that mouse of note, Dangermouse!

(While raiding my memories for this piece, it occurred to me that every generation seems to have their equivalent television mouse; my parents had the ground-breaking Mighty Mouse, my sister loved the imagination-capturing Fingermouse, and I basically thought Dangermouse was a riveting crime documentary. Meanwhile, my son, my precious son, has Rastamouse. No further comment, m’lord.)

I continued to grow ever older, and the television ever younger.

Programmes came and went, along with their presenters. (Gordon T Gopher, anyone?) We had a horribly intricate little wire that could read the closed captions from videos, which revolutionised my entire attitude towards watching them; suddenly I could actually understand what any character was saying! I could understand the storylines! I could, finally, see why the Fox and the Hound could never be friends! (*sniffle*). I saved up and bought endless videos; Disney, Warner Bros, Kylie Minogue… Um. Moving on.

And! Ceefax, and the blessed 888. Subtitles on LOADS of random children’s programmes; including Byker Grove which had been pretty much impenetrable up until that point. (Surely the person who created the memorable 1990s subtitle of ‘Geoff! Geoff! (strong Geordies accent) GEOFF?!’ has gone down in TV history…)

So, how does this relate to today, and my life as a deaf mum?

Well, it makes me wonder how deaf people of my parents’ generation had any idea what was going on in the programmes their children watched.

Because, to be honest, without the subtitles telling me that the Ninky Nonk has come to say ‘bye de bye’, or that Andy’s latest dinosaur is ‘eating a poncho’, I would be at best, confused, or at worst, phoning OfCom.

I could probably figure out for myself that Raa Raa The Noisy Lion is tearing round the Jingly Jangly Jungle yelling ‘rargh rargh oooo oooo rargh’, but I would have no way of joining in a toddler conversation about Waybuloo. Those things can fly. They do yoga. They’re unnatural… Um. Moving on.

We now have massive telly screens, with wonderful bright, imaginative, interactive programmes for our kids to watch and learn from.

Most of them are subtitled, and quite a lot have in-vision signing too (although you do have to watch them at weird times, or weekends, but hey… That’s what iPlayer is for, right?).

A few programmes even have signing included in the actual content; let’s use Magic Hands as our example here, not the people-dividing Mr Tumble…

I’m not saying the accessibility of children’s television is perfect; for a start why can’t we have subtitles for the (clearly pre-recorded) links between programmes? I had to Google the lyrics to the Cbeebies link song ‘What’s On Your Plate’ just to find out what my son was trying to sing to me. Then I taught him the signs, too. Of course.

But, compared to the television shows of my childhood, it’s amazing out there now. And, as a deaf parent, I can connect with my boy in a way that I take utterly for granted. In a way those previous generations never could have.

I’m not going to stick him in front of the box for five hours, then do a pop quiz on everything he’s seen. But technology, and television, are such a big part of childhood now, it’s nice to see that there are at least some efforts being made to include deaf access.

Although, dear Rastamouse… You’re never going to solve any crime with flair. You’re never going to have an awesome eyepatch. And you’re never going to have Penfold.

Rastamouse, you’re just never going to have my heart, subtitles or no subtitles. But you have got my son’s. And, thanks to the subtitles, I know what you’d say to that…

“That’s irie, man. Wicked, yo.”

Emily Howlett is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer, horsewoman and new mum. Emily used to be found all over the place, but motherhood has turned her into somewhat of a self-confessed homebody. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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