A few years ago when I was teaching my two eldest children to swim we used to play a rescue game. I would thrash about in the shallow end of the pool and pretend to be not waving but drowning and the kids would have to save me.
The lifeguard would briefly glance our way and snigger at my lousy method acting. My son and daughter meanwhile would be engaged in a frantic mime: wetsuits (check), flippers (check), harpoon guns (check – the pool was linked to one of Edinburgh’s most distinguished private schools, we couldn’t be too careful). Then – and this was the point of the game – they would jump into the water without fear and swim quickly across to their melodramatic father.
My son was Fireman Sam and my daughter was the equally heroic Penny.
They both took inspiration from their favourite cartoon because while Sam got his name in the title, Penny was never merely waving off the eponymous blaze-buster from the station with a simper or stuck there making the tea or polishing the pole: she was right by his side as he raced to the latest towering inferno or indeed water-based commotion.
So what, I have to ask, and not for the first time recently, has got into real fire brigades who’re deeming the show to be not “inclusive” enough? Don’t they know it’s a pre-school programme? How vast is their bumptiousness that they believe a pre-school programme should reflect their recruitment campaigns? Have they even seen Hellfighters?
That was the hoary, hairy-ersed John Wayne actioner where he roamed the world putting out oil fires. A “lumbering exercise in machismo” was one brickbat and needless to say his crew contained no women while his wife simpered at home about the terrible dangers of the job. It was the same with Backdraft and Ladder 49 and of course The Towering Inferno itself and just about every other firefighting flick I can remember. Fireman Sam by comparison stands on the toppermost rung of the Simon Snorkel of equal opportunities for women.
Aha. Notice how it’s Simon Snorkel, not Simone. The brigades hardly have a perfect record for inclusivity. Regarding Fireman Sam, the peerless, potato-faced paladin has just been dropped from mascot duty by Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service who’re worried he might discourage women from joining. They’re got research which says that “images” of career options are formed at four or five. Twenty years later when they’re firmed up, potential female candidates could be put off by the ever-cheerful countenance of the Pontypandy flame-douser.
This is nonsense. Frankly, if a woman didn’t remember back to being four of five – when she was the prime age for Fireman Sam – that Penny was involved in every mission and proved herself just as nerveless and brave, then I’m not sure I’d trust her to search all the rooms of a burning building. And if Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service are making this sort of error of judgement, what are they like in a real, bell-clanging emergency?
You might remember Peppa Pig being caught up in a similar controversy earlier this year when a young viewer announced “Mummy Pig is dressed as a fireman”, and the sexism alarm was raised. The child’s mother complained and London Fire Brigade turned its hoses on the show. “Out of date, stereotypical gender-specific wording prevents young girls from becoming firefighters,” they said.
These are uncertain times for sure and certainly for men. As Fireman Sam was losing a gig he never sought, Pierce Brosnan and George Lazenby were calling for the next James Bond to be a female, an ex-woman cricketer was being lined up to replace the sport’s “pale, male and stale” commentators and the BBC announced they will be teaching schools there are 100 genders.
How right-on we’ve become. Actually, right-on is showing my age: I mean woke, don’t I? Everyone is seeing sexism and everyone is seeing it everywhere. It’s as if we’re all trying to outdo each other’s outrage as we battle for a grand prize. Like, say, Miss World or Rear of the Year.
Of course sexism exists and of course it’s wrong, but come on, let’s choose the right targets instead of picking on kids’ TV. As with Fireman Sam, it’s pretty obvious these fearless critics of Peppa Pig never watched all the way through, or failed to understand the complexities of the plot. The offending episode actually featured an entire crew of female firefighters, required to rescue Daddy Pig and his equally idiotic mates from a barbecue conflagration.
Like Peppa Pig, Fireman Sam is big on diversity, inclusivity and the fairer sex. That certainly wasn’t true of all TV in the past but this fatuous “controversy” has got me thinking about the sexism that’s commonly believed to have been wall-to-wall and channel-to-channel.
Yes, it was Whicker’s World and Benny Hill chased women into woods where Playtex’s famed 18-hour girdles could easily be snagged. Anne Aston’s sole function on The Golden Shot was to insert the bolt into the crossbow but on Nationwide did I trust the word of Sue Lawley any less than I did that of Frank Bough? (With the benefit of hindsight, after the latter’s camiknickers and cocaine revelations, more). Did Emma Peel in The Avengers simper? Did Mary Tyler Moore or Samantha in Bewitched? No, they didn’t. There were strong women in Lost In Space while Dr Zachary Smith was a yellow-belly.
And if it hadn’t been for Valerie Singleton’s head-girl steadfastness on Blue Peter then John Noakes mucking about with an advent crown would have set the studio ablaze. That would have been a job for Fireman Sam – and Penny, of course – only they weren’t around at the time.