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
‘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