For the Children

Source: Extracts from D.J. Enright, ‘For the Children’, in Fields of Vision: Essays on Literature, Language, and Television (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 72-76 (adapted from original essay ‘Quick Brown Fox – D.J. Enright writes in praise of Basil Brush’, Listener, 15 March 1973)

Text: [I]n the early 1970s I wrote a piece on a children’s programme for the Listener. […] [T]elevision was new to me. After many years abroad, living in countries where either there wasn’t any television or else it had just been introduced as a prime tool in the processes of ‘human engineering’ and therefore wasn’t taken very seriously. I had returned to this country – England – where television was both firmly established and basically free.

Now that I have learned to look on television not as in the hour of thoughtless middle age, would I enjoy The Basil Brush Show as much as I did then, when the set seemed apparelled in celestial light and its buttons and its knobs were still a mystery to me?

[…]

The pun is the essence of poetry, or its microcosm. The scorn frequently professed for punning is merely a sign of the higher illiteracy, in all likelihood linked with the taste for ponderous formulations and the concomitant suspicion that punning is a sort of cheating. Punning is at or very near the heart of a television programme in which the visual is combined with the verbal in a partnership of equality, something rarely come across – a children’s programme, nominally, and truly.

The Basil Brush Show is a team effort, and credit is due to the producer, Robin Nash, to the writer (of course), George Martin, and to the cameramen. It is also due to Derek Fowlds, most graceful of feed-men, who really seems to enjoy the proceedings and behaves as if Basil’s interventions were unexpected (perhaps some of them are). thus providing a sense of spontaneity to counteract the obviously drilled and sometimes less than gripping insets or side-shows. The feeling conveyed of a continuous relationship between Basil and Mr Derek, an intimacy still open to new discoveries, must have done much towards the show’s sustained popularity. But the lion’s share of thanks must go to Ivan Owen the prime mover, or (as Basil puts it when he has let his brush down) ‘my man, who speaks for me and generally lends a hand.’ Though outwardly simple and uncomplicated, Basil is an expressive creature, intelligent, nervous, and cunning. Just as onnagata, the Japanese actors specializing in female roles in the Kabuki theatre, contrive to be more like women than women are, so Basil is more like – no, not exactly a fox – more like a living being than many living beings are.

[…]

The show follows its own conventions closely. The two principal characters are discovered in the act of welcoming a duly appreciative audience of children. Then comes a passage of chit-chat, perhaps making play with one of Basil’s many relatives (naturally there is a Herr Brush in Hamburg), or Basil scores a point or two off his colleague: Mr Derek is getting to be almost as well known as his jokes. Now and then Basil falls into a pensive mood, and from the gravity of his demeanour one would suppose him musing on the wickedness of blood sports or the transient nature of jelly babies. On one such occasion he had simply misheard a reference to Khartoum, and confided to the audience how fond he was of cartoons, Yogi Bear in especial.

A guest appearance follows, a marionette theatre (a nice touch) or a magician, the Little Angels of Korea, a school choir or a pop group. This yields to the main course: a playlet, often topical in flavour, minimal in plot and with guest help as applicable. Basil and Mr Derek set about buying a house; they get into trouble at the Customs; they rehearse Romeo and Juliet (‘It’s a bit of a drag!’ complains Basil, dressed as Juliet); or they find themselves on holiday at the North Pole instead of Nostra Palma, that sunny spot on the Med. The Christmas edition featured a party given by Mr Charles Dickens for some of his more congenial characters. Music intervenes, mercifully brief, and the show concludes with the serial reading by Mr Derek of a book, latterly The Adventures of Basil the Buccaneer. The story is skeletal and the style unembellished, but Mr Derek is helped out or hindered fruitfully by Basil, who by turns is absorbed in the tale, at cross purposes with the text, and engaged elsewhere, perhaps with his pet mouse or a bag of peanuts.

[…]

Lavatorial humour of a traditional and innocuous kind (even Freudianly relieving, maybe) crops up regularly. Mr Derek assures Basil that babies’ high chairs always have a hole in them: ‘that’s the whole idea.’ ‘I think it’s a potty idea,’ says Basil. And after some talk of Nell Gwyn, when Basil hears that Charles II spent twenty-five years on the throne, he comments, ‘All those oranges, I suppose.’ The subject of underwear attracts repeated variations: ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist/combs in a commotion/undies in an uproar/tights in a tangle.’ The audience identify with Basil, he is one of them, just a bit bolder and more privileged, and delight to see him putting down an adult, even one so amiable as Mr Derek. For all the excursions into Frankie Howerd country, Basil is unfailingly shocked if he thinks Mr Derek has used a naughty word – ‘Unmentionables must not be mentioned- – and his extreme delicacy obliges him to spell out the title of a children’s book, ‘Winnie the … P.O.O.H.’ ‘Mrs Lighthouse’ being one of his bugbears. A riskier joke occurred when he wished he could act in the theatre and Mr Derek told him, ‘You’re no Thespian’; he replied, ‘You don’t have to be like that to be an actor, do you?’ The children laughed like mad, presumably at the expression of shock and concern written all over his body. Like other good artists, Basil Brush can give pleasure at various levels simultaneously.

This being a serious occasion, we should attend to the profounder aspects of Brush’s art and thought. I am not thinking so much of his dealings with Sir Gerald Nabarro, Lord Longford, Mr Edward Heath, traffic wardens, or the Trade Description Act (‘Half a pound of tuppenny rice!’), nor of his alertness to pressing problems like gazumping and traffic congestion (‘Oxford Street, yes. That’s where you sit in your car and watch the pedestrians whizzing past’). But disciples of Zen could meditate profitably on Basil’s koan in a letter to his cousin Cyril: ‘I am writing this letter slowly, because I know you can read very fast.’ The piece of advice about not mentioning the unmentionable should be pondered by writers, and also Basil’s answer when asked what style he paints in, traditional, primitive, surrealistic, or impressionistic. ‘Mine is more the … contemptuous style.’

[…]

He once confided that he would like to be ‘an executive … running a factory or something … about fifty quid a week’. It was pointed out that he had no experience and therefore coildn;t expect a highly paid position. The pundits might care to study his rejoinder. ‘And why not? The job’s a lot harder if you do’t know anything about it!’

‘Boom, boom!’ (bangs head against Derek) (laugh) …

Comments: Dennis Joseph Enright (1920-2002) was a British poet, novelist, essayist and academic. The puppet fox character Basil Brush first appeared on BBC television in 1962 and was given his own show in 1968, which ran until 1980. It was recorded in a theatre in front of an audience of children. A different Basil Brush Show was broadcast by the BBC 2002-2007. ‘Mrs Lighthouse’ is a reference to Mary Whitehouse, a campaigner against sex and violence on television.

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