When one’s children are ill one takes refuge in the television. There is no sense in going to bed when a child is unsettled, for being awoken from a deep sleep under the duvet is infinitely worse than being woken from a light doze on the sofa, or simply braving the exhaustion and staying up with something reasonably engaging on the box. The next day the child will be even more tired than the parent, which will make him, or indeed her, especially difficult to entertain in a constructive manner. Of course, the parent will be too tired for the constructive occupation of offspring in any case, so the TV is once again invaluable. It is only when one’s child has been ill through the night that one may tuck him in on the sofa under a fleecey blanket, with several pillows, a number of well-loved soft toys, an unlimited supply of juice, the odd cracker, and enough banal television to cook his brain, and feel like an exemplary parent. One may even avoid loading the dishwasher on the excuse of keeping the child company. It seems like a no-lose strategy. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the honeyed tones of Mark Rylance can’t ruin it for everyone.
Recently, the adult members of the S household have gotten around, finally, to watching Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of HiIlary Mantel’s novel of the same name. It aired close to a year ago, and was duly recorded, but only recently viewed. A few episodes in we have primarily been treated to a very good performance by Mark Rylance in the role of Thomas Cromwell, that coniving rotter of Henry VIII’s court. (Ms Mantel’s portrayal of the man is rather more sympathetic than Mrs S’s, or history’s, estimation of him.) We are already in no doubt of Cromwell’s scheming capacity for menace towards, for example, good Queen Catherine of Aragon and the sainted Thomas Moore. Of course, we are meant to understand how very damaged Cromwell is: beaten and abused by his father, leathered by the brutality of Rennaissance mercenary warfare on the Continent, and ultimately (spiritually) broken by the death of his beloved wife and young daughters…it’s no wonder he prefers politics to family. Also — and this is a key narrative point of the drama — Catholics are mean and elitist too boot. Much has been said about the questionable historicity of the enoblement of Thomas Cromwell. (If one feels swayed to sympathy with Cromwell by Wolf Hall, simply keep in mind that this man orchestrated the dissolution of the monasteries. Suffering doesn’t make you a saint if it is palliated by revenge.) However, no rancour for the subject can really detract from Mark Rylance’s accomplished and subtle performance.
Little N has been ill recently: a fever, maybe a bit of an earache, a sniffle, but nothing serious. She is simply a bit too sick to sleep well. So, being tired in the daytime, and still under the weather (which is, in any case, cold, drizzly and gloomy), she was tucked up on the sofa with cozy blankets, beloved cuddly animals, juice, etc, and allowed to watch her favourite show, Bing. This is a BBC animaion aimed at toddlers that follows the everyday escapades of a young rabbit named Bing. This bunny is cared for by Flop, a stuffed animal of uncertain species, diminutive stature, unending patience, and unfathomable folksy wisdom. We are not meant to wonder (though Mrs S of course cannot help herself) how it is that childrearing works in this cartoon world where all the toddlers (mostly rabbits with the odd elephant and panda thrown in) are cared for by these mature soft toys (mostly elephants, maybe a dog, and whatever Flop is) when the toddler rabbits are at least 50% larger than those who are apparently responsible for their welfare. And how are these mis-sized cross-species families formed to begin with? Where are the mommy and daddy rabbits? Ah well: traditional families are very passé these days, and perhaps the producers assumed that patent absurdity produces less outrage than blatant post-structuralism. However, despite completely undermining the metaphysics of the family, Bing, like Wolf Hall, is a fabulous show. Unlike Wolf Hall, it is sweet. It understands children, and how one should speak to them (assuming that one has this rarified parental existence devoid of all time-pressure or other responsibilities: let us say it is aspirational). Flop is always gentle and understanding. Common Flop catch-phrases are “It’s all right, Bing. It’s no big thing,” and “Good for you, Bing Bunny!”. The show always has a lesson to teach, and it is not subtle. At the end of the five-minute episode, Bing comes on screen and recaps the story, explaining what he learned. Then Flop enters and summarises with the words “[i.e. Using the toilet]: it’s a Bing-thing.” Thus endeth the lesson.
The real fly in the ointment is not the uncertainty of Flop’s ontology, nor the mysterious origins of the giant toddler-rabbits. It is that Flop is most definitely and unistakably voiced by Mark Rylance. (A beautiful voice he has, too!) This means that if one has, for example, spent the evening watching Wolf Hall while listening out for a poorly two-year-old, and the morning indulging said child’s wishes for a Bing marathon, incompatible narratives begin to nonetheless entwine themselves in one’s sleep-deprived mind. Mrs S is genuinely surprised each time Flop does not conclude an episode with the sentence “Politically-motivated execution: it’s a Bing-thing.” Likewise, when she resumes watching Wolf Hall, Mrs S will no doubt expect Thomas Cromwell to say, when mulling over the marital strife of Henry VIII: “It’s all right, King, it’s no big thing…if we accuse her of adultery and incest we can chop her head off.” Whether this overlap in cast imports menace into the simple morality of a children’s show, or inappropriately softens the edges of an adult tale of bad behaviour, Mrs S does not know, but watching, or rather listening to, either now makes her feel all peculiar in the head.
One truly hopes Mark Rylance is not a devoted method actor. (But if he is, Mrs S would very much like to know what kind of animal he pretends to be when he practices Flop.)
Upon reflection: a giant toddler bunny being guided by a small stuffed I-know-not-what is a passable description of either show. It’s picturing Damien Lewis with bunny ears that causes the metaphor to break down.
When N gets up from her nap Mrs S will insist on watching Frozen instead. Expect soon an essay on how Anna is a much more satisfactory heroine than Elsa…