At primary school, I had an incredible time learning incredibly little. Lessons were wild, teachers were sport and I made friends who have lasted me until middle age.
For most of my life, I’ve considered these not only memories but principles: more than anything, children need to be happy, and there’s plenty of time for serious stuff later on. But then my daughter went into reception and – amazingly – I began to swither, theorising that she is not me, so her circumstances are different from mine. And then coronavirus appointed me headmaster of Harris homeschool and – amazingly – I became absolutely certain, announcing that things needed achieving.
Following discussion with the chairman of the governors, formerly known as my wife, non-essential subjects were quickly binned to focus on skills, rather than information, alongside a bespoke programme of enrichment studies, ie, liking the stuff we like. Meanwhile, I furnished myself with a new suite of parental neuroses: how do I bestow the benefit of a one-on-one education from someone existentially invested in the outcome, while maintaining a father-daughter dynamic, while assuming a new role of best friend, while ensuring demarcation between home and school, while not being an overbearing moron at a time of intense stress such as to cause permanent psychological damage? This is a rhetorical question, not because everyone knows the answer but because there is no answer.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that what I’m really watching is not a lot. By the end of each day I’m so drained and occasionally elated that I offer even less resistance than usual to my boss’s Real Housewives imposition, every minute of which was justified the moment Porsha congratulated Eva for the “social distancing” performed by her “titties”.
In the end we opted to omit that from the curriculum, but as part of tutoring my daughter in the ways of righteousness I decided that we should watch Dark Towers – made in 1981 as part of the BBC’s Look and Read series. If you went to school in the UK, you’ll likely be familiar with the genre: a story is told over the course of a few weeks, around which language and grammar are taught by presenters in outfits running the full spectrum of beige to brown, and who look 64 but are in fact 23.
If Dark Towers was one of yours, you’ll definitely remember its magnificent theme tune and almost definitely remember an accordant nightmare epidemic – which stopped our class watching the final few episodes. Though I wasn’t one of those who let on, I’d be lying if I made out I was revisiting some childhood happy place. But Dark Towers was was one of the first stories to incite in me a visceral reaction, and if parenting is about preparing kids for the world, then squashing anxiety and maintaining perspective are handy things for them to know.
I wondered whether the experience would be diluted by watching on a normal telly rather than a tardis on stilts that required a physics degree to operate. But the show shifted medium seamlessly, and its epic, sprawling, soaring introduction remains just brilliant as I remembered – though now I’m desperate for a Tenaglia remix.
I must confess, though, that I’d half-forgotten about Wordy, an orange floating-head droid with letter zits. He and the presenter – clad in head-to-toe ginger, a phenomenal turn-up for the books – use the library they’re in, along with a collection of songs from the legendary Geordie Racer, to inculcate a love of words, wordplay, books and expression. I conceal my smirk when the “Magic E” ditty comes on, but the purity of it all is actually quite moving.
But centrepiece of the show is the story – written by Andrew Davies who, though he never again scaled such lofty heights, went on to enjoy a fairly decent career. And what an opening he delivers here! “Tracy was a loner,” a voiceover intones. “She thought boys were daft … and she thought girls were daft!”
Where to go after that? Well, “I like books better than people” – offered by Lord Edward Dark, the young heir to the eponymous edifice – isn’t a bad effort, and his relationship with Tracy offers a classic oddballs-make-friends subplot. But the principal narrative follows their bid to save the crumbling towers from the various crooks – one played by a youthful Christopher Biggins – who are after its treasure. To this end, they are helped by various supernatural happenings: “Would you be scared if you saw a ghost?” asks the voiceover in episode four, sweeping up any kids still unpetrified.
On this basis, my daughter eventually decided that Dark Towers wasn’t for her. I deployed my usual it’s only a story shtick, as well as reminding her to face fear and persevere. But she would have none of it and, as the plot progressed, I began to re-evaluate my own advice. “Girls were not like you in my day”, the friendly ghost tells Tracy condescendingly; “You read far too many books,” Edward’s dad chides him; “I don’t trust anyone,” Bunce surmises. Which is to say that the switched on, pleasant characters are kids and the ignorant, stubborn, mendacious fuckwits are adults.
It’s a weird thing, being an adult, and an even weirder thing being a parent. You assume authority for shaping another person, then through example and indoctrination encourage them to be like you when sometimes even you don’t want to be like you. The pressure is awesome, the love overwhelming and the scope for error daunting. Whatever goes right feels like nature and whatever goes wrong feels like nurture.
All of this is exacerbated by lockdown, the claustrophobic sameness magnifying feelings and multiplying flashpoints, with each day raising new versions of the same essential quandaries: take joy wherever you find it … but 17 biscuits and eight telly hours might be excessive. Unusual times provoke unusual behaviours … but new bad habits mustn’t ingrain; leniency is key at such a difficult time … but WHY YOU LITTLE! It’s a lot.
So, though I started Dark Towers to close a door from my own childhood, it resonated with me because of the one currently in progress, for which I am responsible. Watching it, I was reassured that sometimes kids know what’s best for them, and the joy of seeing them think, emote and express is a strong one – even when you’d prefer them to just do what you say. What my daughter needs is not necessarily what I needed, and the one thing of which I can be sure is that the world does not require another me. Only Bond villains seek to clone themselves.
Very clearly, the parents in Dark Towers are failing at their principal job – raising happy children – which, in a pandemic, is a parent’s only job. If you teach them stuff, that’s great, but if you teach them to love being alive, that’s enough.