Mis­ter Rogers: gen­tle giant of chil­dren’s TV

For 33 years a quiet man in a cardi­gan brought a unique thought­ful­ness to US TV. Now, a film about him is break­ing records. Hadley Free­man ex­plains its magic

The Guardian - G2 - - Playlist - One of the show’s reg­u­lars, Of­fi­cer (François)

All chil­dren’s TV shows sound bizarre when de­scribed. There is a street on which hu­mans live along­side Mup­pets, in­clud­ing a bis­cuit-ob­sessed blue mon­ster and a grump in a trash can. There are four brightly coloured aliens who live in a psy­che­delic magic land, com­mu­ni­cate in baby talk and play with a vac­uum cleaner. But none ever sounded as un­likely as the Amer­i­can clas­sic Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood.

Ev­ery episode was struc­tured in ex­actly the same way: a skinny man who looked and sounded like a re­li­gious stud­ies teacher walked into a house. While chang­ing out of his jacket and leather shoes and into some train­ers and a zip-up cardi­gan, he sang a song called Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor?: “It’s a beau­ti­ful day in this neigh­bor­hood/A beau­ti­ful day for a neigh­bor/Would you be mine? Could you be mine?”

Once Fred Rogers – who hosted and wrote the script and mu­sic for more than 900 episodes of the show – fin­ished his song, he con­tin­ued to talk di­rectly to the viewer, whom he al­ways re­ferred to as “friend” or “neigh­bour” in his home­spun way. Ev­ery week, the show had, ser­mon­like, a theme – “Brave & Strong”, say, or “Fam­i­lies” – and Rogers would in­vite his friends to join him in an ac­tiv­ity with an of­ten ten­u­ous re­la­tion to it. On Brave & Strong, for ex­am­ple, he went to the doc­tor to get a flu jab.

Then a toy trol­ley would ar­rive to carry us to the Neigh­bour­hood of Make-Be­lieve, where sim­ple hand puppets, most of which were clearly voiced by Rogers, did more themed ac­tiv­i­ties: learn a dance, for ex­am­ple, or talk about what a feel­ing is. Some­times, if there had been a big scary news event, such as the Chal­lenger dis­as­ter, they would talk about it be­cause all chil­dren know what’s re­ally scary is when adults don’t ex­plain some­thing prop­erly.

Af­ter this, the trol­ley re­turned us to the house, where Mis­ter Rogers was wait­ing with his eyes closed, be­cause that’s how you visit the Neigh­bor­hood of Make-Be­lieve – by imag­in­ing it. He then did an­other ac­tiv­ity – feed his fish, make a snack – while talk­ing to us about what we had learned that day. Then he put his jacket and smart shoes back on while singing It’s Such a Good Feel­ing (“It’s such a good feel­ing/ To know you’re alive/It’s such a happy feel­ing/You’re grow­ing in­side”) and walked out of the door. And that was that.

Margy Whit­mer, the show’s pro­ducer, says in Morgan Neville’s won­der­ful doc­u­men­tary film about Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor?: “We had a direc­tor that once said to me, ‘If you take all the el­e­ments that make good tele­vi­sion and do the ex­act op­po­site, you’d have Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood.’ Yet it worked.”

The show did more than work. It ran for 33 years and while it is lit­tle known out­side North Amer­ica, there it is as sem­i­nal as Se­same Street. Any child who grew up in the US or Canada be­tween 1968 and 2001 will have the trol­ley, the cardi­gans and Rogers him­self em­bed­ded some­where in their soul. One of his cardi­gans is in the Smithsonian In­sti­tu­tion, a “trea­sure of Amer­i­can his­tory”. If Jim Hen­son was the kids’ cool hippy un­cle who taught them the joys of count­ing and cook­ies, Rogers was their god­fa­ther, who pro­vided moral guid­ance.

I say “their god­fa­ther”, but, of course, I mean “my god­fa­ther”. From 1982 to 1986, my af­ter­noon rou­tine never var­ied: I would come home from nurs­ery school and watch the un­beat­able dou­ble-bill of Se­same Street and Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood. In my mind, the two shows were in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked, but in many ways Se­same Street, with its fast pac­ing and flashy colours, rep­re­sented what Rogers was try­ing to de­fend chil­dren against.

The rea­son Rogers, an or­dained min­is­ter, orig­i­nally went into TV in­stead of the church was that he was out­raged by the chil­dren’s TV shows he saw in the 60s: all the jazzy an­i­ma­tion and pie-throw­ing, what he de­scribed as “bom­bard­ment”. This con­stant stim­u­la­tion wasn’t just Clem­mons dis­re­spect­ful to view­ers, he be­lieved – it threat­ened the most im­por­tant things in the world: gen­tle­ness, imag­i­na­tion and con­tem­pla­tion. He thought TV could pro­vide all that. But in truth, only his show did, and none have done so since.

Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor? was re­leased in US cin­e­mas in June and is al­ready the high­est-gross­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal doc­u­men­tary of all time, a tes­ta­ment to the love Amer­i­cans still feel for Rogers, 15 years af­ter he died at the age of 74. “I hon­estly had no ex­pec­ta­tions of how this movie would do, but I knew this was a story I had to tell,” says Neville, who also di­rected the 2013 Os­car-win­ning doc­u­men­tary 20 Feet from Star­dom.

Rogers knew his neigh­bour­hood was hokey. That was the point. In 1969, he tes­ti­fied be­fore a US se­nate sub­com­mit­tee to ar­gue against Pres­i­dent Nixon’s pro­posed cuts to pub­licly funded TV. Re­al­is­ing that his show would never sur­vive in the com­mer­cial mar­ket­place, he made a pas­sion­ate plea for its preser­va­tion: “We deal with such things as the in­ner drama of child­hood. We don’t have to bop some­body over the head to make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as get­ting a hair­cut, or the feel­ings about broth­ers and sis­ters, and the kind of anger that arises in sim­ple fam­ily sit­u­a­tions … I feel that if we in pub­lic tele­vi­sion can only make it clear

Rogers with

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