Prepare to fall in love with Mis­ter Rogers

Amer­ica adored Fred Rogers for his chil­dren’s show. Can a doc­u­men­tary per­suade us to fol­low suit? By Sam Leith

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FILM -

‘Did you have any aware­ness of who Fred Rogers was?” Mor­gan Neville asks me when we meet. No! I say. “That’s what I’ve been hear­ing,” he chuck­les. “No­body here knows who he was. But he was the most fa­mous chil­dren’s en­ter­tainer in the his­tory of Amer­ica.” Neville, an Os­car-win­ning Amer­i­can doc­u­men­tar­ian, has made Rogers the sub­ject of his new film, Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor?, and for Bri­tish au­di­ences the first hur­dle is: who he?

Chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion is now global: Paw Pa­trol and Dora the Ex­plorer are watched by tots from Colch­ester to Caracas. But in the pre-in­ter­net age, even while soap op­eras, crime shows and sit­coms criss-crossed the At­lantic, chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming sel­dom trav­elled. If you try to en­gage an Amer­i­can in a con­ver­sa­tion about Ge­orge, Zippy and Bun­gle, Johnny Ball, Finger­bobs or Bag­puss, they will have no idea what you’re talk­ing about.

The same ap­plies the other way around. I asked friends of all ages if the name “Mis­ter Rogers” meant any­thing to them. With the ex­cep­tion of a col­league who had spent four years of his child­hood in the US, I drew a com­plete blank. Yet Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, was a fig­ure of ti­tanic in­flu­ence on sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can chil­dren.

Be­tween 1966 and 2001, he had a week­day af­ter­noon TV pro­gramme, Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood, in which he wore zip-up cardi­gans and sang songs and fed an aquar­ium full of en­tirely un­re­mark­able fish and fooled around with a bunch of hand pup­pets. No jump-cuts, no cus­tard pies, no stunts. Just a grown-up speak­ing to chil­dren in a kindly way. He did this for 912 episodes. And it made him a sort of sec­u­lar saint. (Though, as an or­dained Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter, per­haps less of the sec­u­lar.)

Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood – there’s no get­ting around it – was as square as square could be. It made (to of­fer a transat­lantic anal­ogy) Playschool look like Tiswas. It made Tiswas look like Mad Max: Fury Road. In one episode, they of­fered to give the chil­dren a sense of how long a minute was. They set an egg timer, and just sat there in si­lence, on air, for a whole minute. Rogers had his pup­pets, his sec­tion called the “Neigh­bor­hood of Make-Be­lieve”, and his clos­ing song about it be­ing a good feel­ing to be alive. And that was about it.

Neville’s film, its ti­tle taken from a lyric of the theme tune, tells Rogers’ story from his not-al­wayshappy child­hood to his even­tual en­throne­ment as the United

States’ favourite grand­fa­ther.

The idea was seeded when the di­rec­tor found him­self watch­ing old YouTube footage of Rogers, a fig­ure he re­mem­bered from his own child­hood, giv­ing college com­mence­ment ad­dresses and he won­dered: “Where’s this voice in our cul­ture to­day? Where’s this voice ad­vo­cat­ing for ci­vil­ity and em­pa­thy and these kinds of things which are so rare. It was not a nos­tal­gic in­stinct at all: it was how do I get this voice into 2018?”

It turned out there was an ap­petite for this voice – and how. Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor? is the high­est gross­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal doc­u­men­tary of all time (a biopic, star­ring Tom Hanks as Rogers, is also in the pipe­line, set for re­lease in 2019). “It’s a shock to ev­ery­body,” says Neville. “My­self in­cluded.” He thinks it suc­ceeded “in part be­cause it’s a film about some­thing that peo­ple don’t make a lot of films about. We live in such an ironic age that even our su­per­heroes are sar­cas­tic. I was in­se­cure about putting such a sin­cere mes­sage out there. It’s so easy to think of things like nice­ness and kind­ness as trite, quaint, out-of-date ideas.”

Early in the doc­u­men­tary, some­one re­marks that Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood was more or less a com­pen­dium of things that aren’t sup­posed to work in tele­vi­sion: rick­ety sets, un­starry star, lots of not much hap­pen­ing – and yet it was a huge suc­cess. Same goes, a lit­tle, for Neville’s film.

When you con­sider the tor­mented love sto­ries, the agony and ec­stasy, the dark se­crets, the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, the tantrums and tiaras avail­able to the bi­o­graph­i­cal doc­u­men­tar­ian, when you con­sider the cast of pos­si­ble sub­jects in pol­i­tics, mu­sic, sport, show­biz… isn’t it a bit weird that the thing that has re­ally worked is a doc­u­men­tary con­sist­ing of archive footage and talk­ing heads about an old geezer in knitwear who never said boo to a goose in his long life?

Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor? is, in a way, some­thing revo­lu­tion­ary. It’s not a film that trades in the dark side of star­dom. Its sub­ject was a man who, as Neville tells me, loved dirty jokes but would never tell one him­self. There’s no third act in which we plunge down some Bill Cosby or Rolf Har­ris or Jimmy Sav­ile rab­bit-hole to view an avun­cu­lar icon in a sin­is­ter new light. Rather, it’s a film about un­com­pli­cated and de­ter­mined kind­ness – what Neville calls “rad­i­cal kind­ness” – and as you watch it you will find tears spring­ing un­bid­den to your eyes.

Mis­ter Rogers was just… a nice guy. A re­ally nice one, with an un­pushy Chris­tian call­ing and an un­sin­is­ter love of chil­dren, who be­lieved that he could use tele­vi­sion to help chil­dren nav­i­gate the emo­tion­ally tur­bu­lent ter­ri­tory of their early years by telling them that ev­ery sin­gle one of them was unique, and fine ex­actly how they were, both loved and de­serv­ing of love.

“We talk about things like emo­tional ma­tu­rity, and slow

is a film about un­com­pli­cated and rad­i­cal kind­ness

AS SQUARE AS SQUARE CAN BEThe en­ter­tainer Fred Rogers in 1992

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.