I have it on good authority that the people behind the CBeebies’ In the Night Garden know what they are doing. Last year I visited the BabyLab at Birkbeck college, the place which uses brain scans and eye tracking when observing babies’ responses to visual stimuli, and the scientist I met was convinced that the bedtime programme, originally created in 2006, must have been made with some knowledge of baby brain science. Though I’m always too busy in the kitchen to watch closely the adventures of Iggle Piggle and his friends at 6.25 in the evening, both my 2,5 year old toddler and 5-month old baby’s reactions to the programme seem to confirm those findings.
Incidentally, the people behind the multiple BAFTA-winning programme – writer and composer Andrew Davenport, and producer Anne Wood (of Ragdoll Productions) – are also the people behind another all-time international hit, Teletubbies, as well as my son’s other favourite, Twirlywoos.
In 2010 the independent events company Minor Entertainment launched a live version of In the Night Garden, which has been seen by almost 700,000 people in the UK to date. The show tours major cities with its own custom-made child-friendly inflatable tent which usually pitches on a green patch somewhere, in keeping with the Night Garden’s own scenography.
We caught it in Greenwich Park at the start of its London leg. As an overall family experience, In the Night Garden Live ticks all the boxes: it is safe, spacious, friendly, carefully thought out and, most importantly, reasonably exciting for the kids. The producers seem very keen to reassure the parents that what is to be had is value for money. Standard tickets range from £15 to £25 per person (babies under 6 months go for £1 when accompanying an older child) and the Premium tickets (closer to the stage) can be up to £10 more expensive. The tickets include a free programme/activity book which we are told is worth £7 otherwise. And there is of course plenty of accompanying merchandise to be had on sale in the foyer. At nearly 60 minutes long, the live show is more than twice the length of the TV programme, but at least the children get to see all of their favourite characters life-size – and not without customary shrieks of delight!
To be accurate there are in fact two shows on offer – each featuring one of the two trademark Night Garden vehicles – the Ninky Nonk train and the Pinky Ponk flying machine, though the difference between the two shows’ content may not in fact be that crucial. Even on the TV – from what I could gather from a distance – the overall content of each evening’s episode features only minor narrative variations. An episode might revolve around Iggle Piggle losing his blanket, or a search for his best friend Upsy Daisy, but there is always a reassuringly repetitive format to each installment and a series of encounters with the regular characters. This however, is what the toddlers seem to want. It’s not for nothing that Andrew Davenport has been known as ‘the J.K. Rowling for under fives’.
The live show has been directed by the Royal Ballet choreographer Will Tuckett and this is evident in the grace and attention to detail with which the puppeteers – in green costumes and green bowler hats – inhabit the space. In addition to the anticipated sing-along opportunities, there are some nice touches to the stage presentation too which also justify the use of the theatrical medium: the white flowers from the TV show’s credit sequence make a memorable appearance in the performance’s upbeat finale.
One must admit, however, that an hour might be a bit too long for some of the shorter attention spans in the auditorium – there was a noticeable wave of fidgeting about 40 minutes in. Perhaps after six years on the road – and the highest grossing year so far in 2015 – the event could do with just a little bit of revitalizing? Or maybe a diversification of the repertoire might be a welcome move?
In the Night Garden is a decent family show that’s also probably working well for its creators; and it is clear that none of us really want it to turn into a soulless cash cow. But as far as the CBeebies legacy goes, I know a two year old who would absolutely love to see Bing Live or Duggee Live, for example, and given the rising fears about the potential demise of the entire channel, it’s in all of our interests to keep these characters alive.
In the Night Garden is now on in Blackheath, followed by Richmond, Birmingham and Manchester. Click here for more details.