TELEVISION

New programs for the thinking child

Patricia Hluchy January 9 1984
TELEVISION

New programs for the thinking child

Patricia Hluchy January 9 1984

New programs for the thinking child

TELEVISION

Patricia Hluchy

Amid the stock, one-dimensional children who abound in television drama, a character like Al Brenner is a welcome figure. The adolescent hero of R. W., a CBC minidrama scheduled to appear on Jan. 12, Al is neither cloying angel nor incurable misfit, the two prevailing stereotypes of young people on TV. Like real children, he is a little of both. A gifted, deceptively mature 12-year-old, Al has just skipped two grades and is panicking about his abrupt expulsion from childhood. Sensitively played by a wan, solemn Christopher Crabb, AÍ spends his days hidden in the rafters of the family garage, tinkering with electronics instead of facing the new pressures of the “R.W.”—the real world.

With Al and a host of other full-blooded young characters,

CBC Television has itself plunged into the real world of children and their growing pains. In recent years the network and a growing number of independent producers have created a new breed of realistic, quality dramas aimed at children between 6 and 14, an audience that television has largely neglected in re-

cent years. This week the CBC launches two such dramatic series, both of them coproductions with independent film houses. Sons and Daughters is a series of six half-hour dramas—including R.W.—premiering on Jan. 5. Another newcomer is The Edison Twins, an adventure series which debuts on Jan. 3. The two shows join Just Down the Street, a weekly series of realistic minidramas now in its second season. As well, several nondramatic shows have fuelled the boom in programming that

responds to children’s sensibilities. Among those is CBC’s threeyear-old Switchback, a regionally produced variety magazine already appearing in Halifax, Vancouver and Winnipeg, which premieres in Calgary and Regina on Jan. 8 and 29 respectively.

All of those programs, particularly the dramas, are antidotes to the traditional after-school fare of cartoons, soap operas and reruns of adult shows. Industry observers say that the new wave in children’s drama is partly a response to the fact that, by school age, most children have started watching adult shows and are too sophisticated for the traditional children’s program. Moreover, virtually nowhere in the television spectrum do children see an accurate reflection of their own experiences. Said Nada Harcourt, head of CBC TV’s children’s department: “TV has not really dealt with kids in a three-dimensional dramatic way.”

That failure of television to portray children realistically has haunted Harcourt, the most significant figure in the recent genre, since she began working in children’s television at the CBC seven years ago. Intent on producing dramas that, she said, “really put a child foremost,” Harcourt contemplated a series of dramas with the strong, young characters and youthful sensibility of such films as Les bons debarras and E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial. But the three producers who constitute Atlantis Films Ltd. in Toronto had their own plans for making quality drama for children. Having already produced The Olden Days Coat, an award-winning, halfhour children’s drama based on Margaret Laurence’s story, in 1980, Michael MacMillan, Seaton McLean and Janice Platt were anxious to do a series based on literary works for children. The Atlantis collaboration with Harcourt yielded Sons and Daughters, a series of lush, evocative dramas that compress an amazing wealth of wisdom and characterization into 30 minutes.

8 Apart from R. W., based on an I original screenplay by Jack E Blum, Stephen Cole and Paul

Shapiro, the films stemmed from works by such authors as Earle Birney and Alice Munro. Munro’s short story Boys and Girls inspired the first film in the series. Set in the 1940s, it portrays Margaret, a 13-year-old farm girl who rebels when her parents demand that she do more kitchen work because her younger brother is big enough to take on Margaret’s beloved outdoor chores. The drama could easily have descended into simple-minded didacticism, but instead it has subtlety and resonance.

The same philosophy informs The Kids of Degrassi Street, a series of 10 dramas appearing on the show Just Down the Street, which consists solely of independent productions. Street has a more down-to-earth, endearingly naïve quality than Sons and Daughters. But producers-directors Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood of Toronto’s Playing with Time Inc. were equally intent on creating honest characters with real problems. In fact, they have largely depended on untrained neighborhood children in the dramas, insisting that the cast members be as natural as possible. The effect is like spying into real children’s lives.

There is a similar naturalism to the acting in The Edison Twins, although the 13-episode series, a coproduction of Nelvana Ltd. in Toronto, Hollywood’s Disney Channel and the CBC, is the slickest and least realistic of the new children’s programs, as befits an adventure series. Tom and Annie Edison, played by Andrew Sabiston and Marnie McPhail, are wholesome, middle-class teens with their own science laboratory. Thanks to the twins’ abundant curiosity, they become embroiled in a variety of scrapes and mysteries that allow them to apply their scientific knowledge.

Similarly, the purpose of Switchback is primarily to entertain. Described by its founder and Vancouver producer Nijole Kuzmickas as a “video cocktail for kids,’’ the live program is a compendium of everything from Batman reruns to rock videos. The two-year-old Halifax program encourages audience participation in contests, interviews and an electronic swap shop. Like the new dramatic programs for children, which attempt to prod their minds, Switchback rejects the notion of television as a tranquillizing babysitter.

While the current flurry of activity is undeniable, industry observers note that production for young people has declined dramatically in the past 10 years because networks have generally considered it a low priority. But for the time being, many film producers show no signs of being daunted, and their perseverance has breathed new life into the current season.