It has been roughly one billion years since the schools closed. Your strict rules about screen-time limits have long since melted away to nothing, and now your children have watched everything. They’ve completed CBeebies. They’ve massacred Netflix. They dipped their toes into Disney+, but you pulled the plug when you realised how retrospectively awful it all is. If it wasn’t for YouTube, and its limitless fan-made videos of Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons reacting to different Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons, you’d be at a total loss.
But help is now at hand. BFI Player, a streaming service that we should all be making much more noise about, has just launched a free Fives and Under collection, throwing open its freshly digitised archives to offer your young ones something fun and intelligent to watch.
At least this is the theory. The collection, apparently road-tested on the curators’ own children, is stunningly varied. On one hand, you have a silent 10-minute retelling of Alice in Wonderland from 1903; on the other, there’s Molar Mischief, a two-minute toothpaste commercial from 1946, in which a stop-motion policeman crawls around in someone’s mouth intimidating germs.
Again, in theory, there is something for everyone here. But had BFI Player considered the aggressively microscopic attention spans of my own two children, aged five and two? There was only one way to find out. If they liked it, great. If they didn’t like it, it’d still count as a day’s worth of home-schooling. Here’s what I chose for them.
1. X Rays (1897)
A one-minute silent film in which a couple are filmed with an X-ray camera and promptly turn into skeletons.
A word of advice: if you’re going to show the BFI Player to your children who have grown up in an age of video calls that can magically turn your face into a sentient pizza slice, maybe don’t start with a film that hinges on what is now a relatively pedestrian special effect. “But this is 120 years old!” I told my kids. “How do you think the people changed into skeletons?” This was met with silence, shrugs and an unusually heartfelt plea to watch something that had Sonic the Hedgehog in it.
2. Bunty the Bouncing Bassoon (1963)
A colourful, six-minute George Moreno animation about Bunty, a bassoon that bounces.
Next, I tried something more overtly colourful. And Bunty the Bouncing Bassoon is truly beautiful; a slice of gorgeous mid-century animation that unfortunately doesn’t have much of a story. There is a bassoon. He bounces. Some people sing about how he bounces. Then he stands in a cinema and presents the audience with the lyrics of the song about how he bounces. It’s a bit like watching the opening credits for a cartoon, except the credits happen to last for six full minutes. My five-year-old remained engaged for the bulk of the duration. My two-year-old, on the other hand, was a harder sell. “It’s horrible,” he told me two minutes in. “Are you sure?” I asked. “HORRIBLE,” he screamed.
3. How the Whale Got His Throat (1981)
A 10-minute cartoon adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So story, commissioned for French television but made in South Shields
Now this was much more like it. The bright colours and Sheila Graber’s sing-song narration grabbed my kids’ attention from the outset, and they both made it all the way to the end. My two-year-old enjoyed pointing out all the fish, and my five-year-old kept asking questions about the plot all the way through. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s a charming little film. There are more of Graber’s Just So Stories on BFI Player. Something tells me we’ll watch them all.
4. Falling in the Water (1973)
A Charley Says public information film about the dangers of playing on riverbanks.
Now, there is a chance that my own nostalgic excitement at seeing a perfectly preserved piece of my own childhood played a part in my children’s enjoyment of this. But still, this had them hooked. I’m not sure whether or not the public information message of the film sank in – especially with my two-year-old, who very stubbornly refuses to learn the concept of fear – but they did spend the rest of the day mimicking Charley the cat’s strangled yowl of a meow. So that was fun.
5. That Noise (1961)
Roobarb director Bob Godfrey animates performance artist Bruce Lacey as he pulls faces and sings a song about an irritating noise that only he can hear.
This is a film about someone essentially having a nervous breakdown, and my children reacted accordingly. They were nowhere near the screen by the time it ended, and it took an exhausting amount of persuasion to get them back onside. It’s a shame because, had they stuck it out, they would have seen the bit where Lacey looks as if he’s about the say the word “shit” and then doesn’t.
6. A Colour Box (1935)
New Zealand-born artist Len Lye paints abstract shapes directly on to a strip of film for four minutes, and weirdly this is an advert for the Post Office
We end our experiment with the weirdest film of the lot. A Colour Box is beautiful, but it is just mindless squiggles on a screen that – hilariously – ends with a message about how to affordably mail parcels. By this point my kids have entirely removed themselves from the screen, with my five-year-old trying to present a Super Mario walkthrough video to me with the same care and attention that I had when presenting him with a 120-year-old experimental film. So in that sense it was probably a success. And we will return to the BFI Player, if only to watch more public safety films from the 1970s.