Kids on Film: What Children Want—and Aren’t Getting—from Film

In 2009, the BBC partnered with several British Universities and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to answer the question, “What do Children Want from the BBC?” One of their main focuses was on the programme Newsround, which presents news stories for children both on television and on the CBBC website. To the surprise of the researchers, the children they questioned were not particularly focused on class or gender, but on cultural diversity. Following several quotations from children who wanted more representation of their local areas, the report concludes (somewhat peevishly), “The cultural diversity of the UK poses news service providers with a number of challenges. While we recognise the difficulties associated with representing such cultural diversity, it is a fair point that children in the different nations should have the right to see more of themselves and their communities represented on Newsround” (34).

It is interesting that the report framed “cultural diversity” as a matter of nations (that is, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales). Although it looked specifically at class and gender in sections of the report, it did not mention race at all. Yet many “local communities” within Britain are still based around racial, ethnic, or religious affiliations—and even if this is not true, it seems odd that the BBC would ask about gender and class but not about another identity marker whose representation in the media is frequently debated and made subject of improving initiatives. Girls and working-class children are allowed to have concerns about their representation on the BBC (although according to the report, they apparently didn’t) but not Black British or Muslim children.

Since the report appeared, of course, the BBC has concerned itself with racial, as well as other kinds of cultural, diversity, as has the pre-eminent British organization on film, the BFI. In 2014, both organizations pledged to increase diversity in film and television, with particular emphasis on children’s and youth programming (see Children’s Media Foundation’s Angela Ferreira’s report on this here: http://www.thechildrensmediafoundation.org/archives/3146/diversity-film). But as 2016 begins, what has really changed in terms of media representation and children? Not much, because—just as the BBC report suggests–we don’t want children to think about racial divisions, afraid (perhaps) that talking about it will cause racial divides to increase.

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Still from the 1966 Jemima and Johnny.

For evidence of this, film is a good place to start. British film has several fine films that are about or include discussions of race and racism for teens and young adults, from Horace Ové’s 1975 film Pressure to the 2002 international hit Bend it Like Beckham (since turned into a west-end musical) to Destiny Ekaragha’s 2013 Gone too Far!. But British children’s film is a different story. I can think of only one film, focused on children (though in itself not necessarily a children’s film—it is aimed at adults at least as much as children) that is also focused on race and racism: Lionel Ngakane’s 1966 Jemima and Johnny, about the son of a white right-wing nationalist and the daughter of West Indian immigrants becoming friends in 1960s London. Ngakane was an ANC exile from South Africa, distressed at the racism he saw in his new home, and this beautiful, almost wordless film was his plea for Britons to stand up against racism. Although the BFI places it on its “Top 10 Black British Films” list, it has sadly not put the film onto DVD; you have to go to one of their mediathèques to view it, which means that a film that could be used to start discussions in British classrooms about racism will go unseen by most students.

Publicity photo from the BBC production of David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy 2015–Joe Spud’s best friend Bob is absent from most of the media photos.

Most British-produced film for children, however, is still presented on television rather than in the cinemas. Frequently these films are adaptations of children’s books, such as the Christmas 2015 production of David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy (2010). The book version of this story has illustrations done by Tony Ross. The main character Joe Spud’s best friend Bob is described as being fat, like Joe, with a mop of curly hair. Tony Ross presents a blond, white Bob. The BBC production made Bob a Black British child. A good move, both for fans of diverse television and for the BBC, as it was an easy change to make; but the presence of Black British characters is not the same as representation. The BBC, and the other British television channels as well, have been good about presenting Black British and other BAME characters on shows for children (not great, but good) for a long time—shows like Play School and Play Bus had Black British presenters as early as the 1980s, and children’s programmes such as Tracy Beaker present a diverse cast. But the BAME characters are generally sidekicks, not main characters, and the focus is on them as part of a unified British cast; rarely is their cultural, racial, religious or ethnic background a significant part of the story.

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You can buy Blackman’s novel, but you can’t buy the DVD of the BBC show made from it.

And if most British television programmes for children are adaptations of books, then why are there not more adaptations of Black British or BAME authors’ books? David Walliams and Juliet Donaldson had new adaptations of their books on television this Christmas, in addition to the old standby authors such as Roald Dahl and Raymond Briggs in reruns. But Malorie Blackman, British children’s laureate between 2013 and 2015, has only had one of her books adapted for television, Pig-Heart Boy (1997; Whizziwig has also been on television, but it started there and became a book afterwards). Despite winning multiple awards, the video is one of the few produced by the BBC not to be released commercially in recent years. Her most famous series, Noughts and Crosses, has been a radio play and a theatre production, but this revolution has not been televised. Neither has her less controversial Betsey Biggalow series for young readers. And Blackman is only one of many authors whose works might be televised or filmed. I write mostly about Black British authors because that is my area of research, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a devout Muslim child, or the child of Polish immigrants, or a British Chinese child growing up in mainstream Britain and never see someone like me on after school television or at the cinema. If British media means to show an inclusive, diverse Britain, they can’t wait until kids have reached their teenage years to begin to represent them.

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