Thursday, 24 March 2011
No longer a menace
When I was little one of my favourite TV shows was Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, the adventures of a naughty schoolboy and his dog. This Dennis should not be confused with the American version – he’s not nearly as cutesy! No, the British Dennis is much naughtier, much more of a delinquent – or, rather, he was.
Dennis, with his spiky, unkempt hair and red and black striped sweater, first appeared in March 1951 in a children’s comic called The Beano. He has remained a steady feature ever since, growing in popularity, even as he moved down the generations. He was loved precisely because he was a bad boy, because he got into all sort of naughty scrapes. In so many ways he was the perfect outlet for the childish imagination, crossing all sorts of boundaries. Sadly Dennis is no longer such a menace – no, he has been sanitised, giving way to the onward march of political correctness.
I was amused by William Langley’s article in Sunday Telegraph (Why he’s no longer such a naughty boy) describing how Dennis’ standards – my God! -are improving! A timely piece now that the Menace is sixty years old, mature and increasingly rather tame. The whole thing is really quite risible and ultimately condescending, a possible intimation of an encroaching death. Children know when they are being got at – a clean and didactic Menace is the last thing they want!
There is so much irony here, things that unconsciously reveal adult concerns about children. As Langley says, an airbrushed and bubble-wrapped childhood is increasingly being demanded by TV and much of the publishing industry. So Dennis is no longer allowed to carry his catapult and peashooter; Gnasher is no longer allowed to bite people and Walter the Softie, the Menace’s pansy-like alter ego, the object of his repeated persecutions, has been given a girlfriend, Matilda, to counter any accusations that he might be gay! Remember, this is for a target audience whose average age must hover around eight years old.
In the early comics the strip apparently ended up with him being whacked by the parental slipper for his misdeeds. This was long gone, of course, by the time the TV series premièred in the mid-1980s. Langley says that the punishments sent two clear messages to the millions of children who followed the comic strip: that misbehaviour carried consequences and that corporal punishment was futile. Dennis simply became more ingenious in the pursuit of naughtiness!
It’s all gone, punishment, delinquency, all the endearing naughtiness has gone, all of the trademark things that made Dennis Dennis. Oh, no, we can’t have children being shown a bad example. And this for me is where the condescension comes in, the assumption that children are another species, that they can’t distinguish between right and wrong, that if shown a negative example they will simply follow on mindlessly; that they cannot see Dennis simply as an object of harmless entertainment.
The irony is that as Dennis and Walter merge into an anodyne oneness, safe, washed-out, harmless, real delinquency, real harm in the real world, has become increasingly malign. It’s a complete inversion of reality: speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil, and evil will go away. It does not work like that. The menace, sad to say, is no longer Dennis.