Turn on CBeebies and you see the BBC’s modern quandaries writ small. Most would agree that the channel for children under seven has been a huge success since its launch in the UK in 2002, cherished by parents as an advertising-free zone and, beyond that, as a place where the original Reithian mission to “educate, inform and entertain” seems alive and well. Yet the popularity that comes from offering what the market cannot has also created a powerful commercial proposition – one that is hard to resist at a time when the licence fee is frozen and the broadcaster must be ever more creative in seeking new sources of revenue.
Enter BBC Worldwide, Auntie’s commercial arm, which already licenses foreign rights, magazines and toy spin-offs for the channel. Now, a deal with Merlin Entertainments has brought a theme park version, CBeebies Land, to the Alton Towers Resort in Staffordshire in the English Midlands.
So can the formula be reproduced in this brash new setting? Merlin stresses that the goal remains to “inspire little learners” but it is hard not to worry that something will be lost in translation.
Such questions do not seem to be troubling my children – Dylan, five, and Elodie, two – as we arrive for a preview on the eve of last weekend’s official opening. Purple-clad helpers lead us to a central arena where – after a traumatic encounter between a costumed Upsy Daisy from In the Night Garden and Elodie, who shakes her head and backs off in terror (“Too big! Too big!”) – we settle down to watch a show based on the science series Nina and the Neurons.
One quirk of the preview is that many CBeebies presenters are in attendance – including Katrina Bryan, aka Nina, who draws some puzzled looks from children while her image beams simultaneously from a big screen. Next is a boat ride through the surreal world of In the Night Garden, home of Makka Pakka, the Ninky Nonk and the Pontipines. Elodie is entering into the spirit now, squealing with delight as a smaller, mechanical version of her earlier nemesis comes into view. “Look,” she yells, “it’s Upsy Daisy – and she’s real!”
There are lowlights too – my own was the Justin’s House Pie-O-Matic Factory, a cacophonous bedlam of ricocheting foam projectiles and kiddie air cannons that will have parents clamouring to leave (and children wanting to stay) as soon as they enter. But, broadly speaking, CBeebies Land seems to strike the same balance between education and fun as its TV equivalent. Even the café was more pleasant than I expected, serving up healthyish sandwich lunches in a bright, airy room with children’s art on the walls and posters asking us things such as: “Did you know . . . that peas come from pods?”
These impressions are confirmed on walking around the rest of Alton Towers, a vast accretion of attractions spread out around a neo-gothic pile. Across the park is another area for younger children, Cloud Cuckoo Land, but here it is thrills that dominate and the commercial imperative seems to loom larger. Step out of Ice Age: The 4D Experience, for example, and you have to exit through the shop.
When the park closes at 5pm, we make our way to the Alton Towers Hotel, an eccentric affair dominated by a giant model of a crash-landed pirate ship-cum-balloon. We are put up in one of the “Moon Voyage” rooms, which come at a premium and are lavishly bedecked with steampunk paraphernalia, including numerous pressure gauges and copper pipework leading to the TV. It wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste but, then, you can hardly criticise a theme park hotel for over-exuberance.
A short ride on the monorail the next morning and we are back in CBeebies Land to pick off the attractions we missed – this time accompanied by the general public. Suddenly the purpose of the queueing pens that we bypassed so exhilaratingly yesterday is all too clear, with screens flashing up opening-day waits of nearly an hour for the Pie-O-Matic Factory and the Night Garden ride. We start with the smaller line for the Tree Top Adventure, a railway jaunt above the park on a two-person CBeebies “bug”. Thought has gone into keeping kids entertained, at least, with activity boards dotted at intervals along the queue.
By now the rain is falling, which somehow seems appropriate for what turns out to be my favourite part of the visit: an interactive theatre and puppet show based on Mr Bloom’s Nursery. Ben Faulks, the creator and star of the gardening programme, is just ahead of us, keeping a low profile in hooded top and glasses rather than his TV get-up of tweed hat, knitted vest and wellies – something that we take as evidence of a close interest in how his concept is being interpreted. If he was worried, then he needn’t have been: as the supporting cast of “tiddlers” are guided through various ecologically-minded activities, it feels almost as if we were on the set itself.
We exit beneath a large “see you soon” sign, generating expectation among the under-sixes and an obscure sense of melancholy in me. My son is just shy of the age catered for by CBBC, the Beeb’s offering to older children; my daughter, always eager to follow his lead, is likely to tire of Ninky Nonks and Pontipines earlier than scheduled. Both are keen to return and, who knows, it may happen. But the time will come for all of us to leave CBeebies Land in the end.
The Kite family were guests of Alton Towers (altontowers.com). Entry to CBeebies Land is included in Alton Towers tickets, which start from £36 for adults and £30.60 for children; under-fours are free. Family rooms for four at the Alton Towers Hotel cost from £135