Sep 11

The surprise birthday party

We all fall back on certain staples of children’s writing if we think we can do something with them. Series 2 of Fluffy Gardens featured a sports day episode, for example. How many other shows have done that? Roughly around all of them. Every show ever. Using a familiar plot element as a catalyst is not a bad thing in itself. We can often find we have an interesting spin or something to add.

But there is one common story that manages to rub me up the wrong way every time: the surprise birthday party. I gave that away in the post title, didn’t I? Note to self: don’t ruin surprises.

The surprise birthday party story sees most of the episode being taken up with the main characters pretending they’ve forgotten one character’s birthday. Could there be anything more horrific? Well possibly if you were willing to do episodes about car crashes or a burns ward. But in a child’s life, I can think of few things worse.

For a start, it involves a secret. Secrets can haunt parents who, to keep them safe, need their children to be open and honest with them at all times. I must admit it’s a personal thing but I am not a big fan of secrets in children’s media generally.

It involves a very deliberate lie.

It involves a conspiracy in that lie, creating a sense of exclusion. One person is kept out of the secret.

It involves a character feeling awful for most of the episode as a result of that lie. On the very day that they should be feeling wonderful.

And then it eventually throws in a nice happy ending justifying the horror. It’s like sticking a shot of a puppy onto the end of Saw and calling it a feel-good film.

Back when I was writing series 2 of Fluffy Gardens, I wrote some stories that were, in many ways, reactions to stories I had seen as a child with messages I found to be way off what we should be telling children. And I did eventually write a birthday party episode in which characters were planning a party and one of the characters suggested a surprise party. The reaction was pure horror from the other characters. I quite enjoyed that moment.

Ultimately, I chose not to make the episode (in spite of everyone telling me otherwise) because I felt it didn’t do justice to Mrs. Toasty the Sheep, who cracked under the stress of planning the party. So I never got to express my horror at the surprise birthday party.

Hence this post.

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