Her career catalysed by her inclusion on “Stan”, Dido’s soft-spoken, ruminative pop became a familiar sound in early 00s Britain. On her second album, Life For Rent, she hit on a metaphor that cuts to the country’s quick, and obliquely hints why a stout claymation builder became the best-selling song of this over-stuffed year. “Life For Rent”, the song, takes the difference between renting and owning as its organising metaphor. “If my life is for rent,” Dido sings wistfully, “And I don’t learn to buy, I deserve nothing more than I get, cos nothing I have is truly mine”. Renting is provisionality, fear, the option of people who are just passing through, and whose opinion is too weak to count for much. Buying, on the other hand – now that’s commitment, maturity, the act of an adult.
More than an adult, a citizen. Bob the Builder was not the only such on TV. The screens of England in the 00s were full of property developers and home improvers, and they were us. Popular conservatism in the second half of the 20th century rested on the notion of the “property-owning democracy”, advanced by Anthony Eden and restated by Thatcher: the idea that private home ownership gave you a stake in the market economy. It was one of Thatcherism’s most seductive promises, and by the end of the century home-owners and their obsessions were a central part of British mass culture. But the emphasis had shifted – owning a house was no longer just a stake, it was a bet. One with generous odds and extravagant returns. If in 2000 Bob the Builder had built you a house in his home town of Bobsville – valued, naturally, at the UK average – then in seven years its value would have shot from £80,000 to £180,000. Stupefying inflation, and since real wages (or even fake ones) didn’t rise at remotely the same rate, it amounts to a one-off generational transfer of wealth to older homeowners that our economy and society is still reeling from. As the most popular Bob The Builder meme puts it, “Can We Fix It? No, It’s Fucked.”
Of course, Bob, like most 00s builders, didn’t do that much house-building. While his real-life counterparts busied themselves with conversions, regeneration projects, and the installation of square miles of decking, Bob’s jobs were cartoon economy staples – fixing a farmer’s fence so badgers couldn’t trample his crops, for instance. Bob is a benign figure, a mild-mannered, all-wise Dad to the eager, sometimes fractious machines in his charge. If he’s an avatar of Britain’s property mania, it’s no reflection on him as a character. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, kids’ culture is as sure a national barometer as you’ll find – it’s no accident that the hot new character find of 2000 is a builder.
The levels of his popularity seem startling now. Few current fandoms compare to Bobmania. Perhaps none do. This is the only million-seller of the year, the triumph of the new singles market that had pushed releases into supermarkets and Woolworths, where browsing parents would see them. And the single was just the tip of it. Bob toys sold out. Bob appearances sold out. Parents scrapped and four year olds trampled one another in stage invasions when Bob’s affable globular head wobbled into view. The cartoon became a kids’ TV classic, still in endless repeats (as well as new episodes) when I became a Dad myself. Neil Morrissey, playing Bob, became even richer.
Much of the enthusiasm was deserved. Bob The Builder is a well-crafted TV show with some excellent voice acting – especially from Rob Rackstraw, whose cackling, gulping Spud the Scarecrow is up with Zippy from Rainbow and Kenneth Williams’ Evil Edna as one of British childrens’ programming’s great comic voices. The machines are a colourful and entertaining cast, and well suited to the themes of friendship and effort each episode teases out. They are endlessly mechandisable, of course, but such is post-Teletubby reality, and Bob, unlike other cartoons, was restrained in the number of new characters it added to pump money out of the kids. Not everything is perfect: Wendy, Bob’s business partner, is hardly ever backed up by other good women characters, and rarely gets good stories of her own. For a flavour of Bob at his best, check out the 2003 Christmas special, A Christmas To Remember, where you’ll be treated not only to the standard Bobsville cast, but to an Elton John cameo, Chris Evans playing a rock star, and best of all, Noddy Holder guesting as the roadie, Banger.
The presence of rock stars (and Britpop boosters) hints at why “Can We Fix It?” exists and why it sounds like it does. Unlike the people at Ragdoll Productions, Neil Morrissey fancied himself a music fan, and felt a duty to make a song that might entertain adults as well as their kids. Or at least do their ears no great harm. “Can We Fix It?” is built around the cheery theme tune from the series, introducing the cast in a compact thirty seconds. To make it into a single, they toughen the music up, turning the song into a rudimentary kiddie-rock stomper. The entertaining video has Bob in a club, referencing blokey heroes of the British pop mainstream – Liam Gallagher is in there, who older kids might just about recognise, but also Madness, who they surely wouldn’t. The record keeps cartoon voices to a minimum – a missed opportunity if anything, as the show’s were good. It does its job with gusto and a knowledge of its own limitations. Neil Morrissey is no singer, and “Bob and the gang make a really good sound” is a statement of hope more than faith, but for kids, the record is chunky and satisfying with a call-and-response hook (“YES WE CAN!”) whose effectiveness has since been independently validated. Ten years on, I could play the video on an iphone to my children and they would chortle happily at the antics of Bob and the crew: an experience I’m quite happy to admit tilts my score a little higher.
It’s the sound of Britpop, long since moved out of Camden Town, settled down with a kid or two and considering a loft refurbishment once the shed’s been repaired. A happier ending than most of the ones we got in 1998, you might say. And it finishes off the year 2000, the decadent peak of Number One hitmaking, a year which switched between dazzling variety and baffling mediocrity week over week. Britain’s housing bubble is beginning its long rise; but its pop bubble is at maximum inflation. The foundations both were built on would have had Bob The Builder shaking his head and sucking air through his teeth.