It is almost Christmas (three days to be precise) which means that it is time to don a suitably cheesy jumper, gorge on mince pies, and watch a selection of festive films; and just like almost every year, one of the films I will be watching is The Muppets Christmas Carol. Besides being a good movie in its own right, for me this film has several valuable lessons to teach historians regarding how we try and communicate history to children, an issue which is of the utmost importance.
Before I begin, let me wax lyrical on why I love The Muppet Christmas Carol. Firstly, it has got the Muppets in it, and only those people who have a block of cold, hard steel where their hearts should be do not love the Muppets. Besides their inherent charm, all of the Muppets are cast perfectly; and furthermore Michael Caine plays the role of Scrooge to near perfection, shifting between pantomime villain, genuine monster, and miserable wreck effortlessly. The film’s tone is pitch perfect, blending comedy and tragedy together seamlessly; and it would be remiss of me not to mention the soundtrack, which contains not only some of the best songs in Christmas films, but the best songs of any film period.
Overall, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a pretty darn good movie. However, what I like most about the film is that it never talks down to its audience. Obviously it is targeted children and families, but even when watching it as a teenager or in my twenties I have never felt that it is ‘dumbing down’ the story; or telling it in that pernicious, ‘kid friendly’ way, with certain plot elements omitted or entirely inappropriate ones added in. What The Muppet Christmas Carol does is tell the story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a manner that stays true to the dark, but eventually optimistic, spirit of the original book, albeit with a cast of puppet frogs, pigs and aliens.
As such, The Muppet Christmas Carol has a very important lesson for public historians, as I am willing to bet that this film has introduced a generation of children to the story and morals of A Christmas Carol who would have never even contemplated reading any of Dickens’ books. For the purposes of this blog, it is particularly significant as children are a demographic which are often treated rather condescendingly (if not outright ignored) by historical programming. There are some exceptions, notably the Horrible History television series which, from what I have seen of it, teaches children about several important historical subjects in a way which is engaging and humorous; but which nonetheless respects them as an audience and does not treat them like idiots, and as such is a show which can be watched and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age.
The problem is particularly evident when considering documentaries which are targeted at adults, as I cannot help but feel that historical documentarians barely consider the idea that young children might watch their programmes as well as their parents. Certainly, I must admit that the subject matter of these shows is often factually and morally complicated, and as such hard to communicate to a younger demographic; and furthermore, factors such as a programme’s timeslot or the channel on which it is broadcast will affect the overall style and tone of the show in a way that makes it hard for it to have universal appeal.
However, some of my favourite programmes as a young child were Sir David Attenborough’s Life series, documentaries which regularly covered themes and topics which could definitely be considered ‘adult’, but which did so in a manner which could captivate young and old alike. Obviously, Sir David had some advantages over historians, as watching a cheetah chase a gazelle across the Serengeti will almost always be more interesting to a child than watching someone read through the Domesday Book, but to throw our hands up and surrender without even trying is inexcusable. I would argue that Tony Robinson’s programmes provide an example of how it can be done, as whilst they are not perfect, and often confuse light-heartedness with outright silliness, for the most part his programmes are crafted in a way which appeal to a broad audience whilst retaining their academic rigour, both in terms of their subject matter and in their presentation.
Obviously I am not saying that is possible to make all history programming interesting for all ages, as there are some topics which even the most skilled documentarian would struggle to make universally accessible. All I am saying is that we should at least consider the idea that children might be interested in watching documentaries about topics which are traditionally seen as ‘adult’, and that as such our programming should attempt to be more inclusive. After all, there is so much history which has universal appeal, or at least it does if you think about it in the right way.