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Jul 15

BOB THE BUILDER – “Can We Fix It?”

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#886, 23rd December 2000

bobcanwe 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.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Tom on 17 Jul 2015 #

    I’m off camping in Dorset for a week as of tomorrow, so we’ll get to 2001 when I’m back.

  2. 2
    Mark M on 17 Jul 2015 #

    Always wondered whether this was used as the basis for a chant celebrating – or equally likely berating – Belgian footballer Gilles De Bilde, who played for Sheffield Wednesday (and very briefly Aston Villa) around this time.

  3. 3
    thefatgit on 17 Jul 2015 #

    I can’t claim total ignorance of BtB, but until this week, I have never knowingly seen a single episode. If I was to hazard a guess, I would have suggested it to be of the same stamp as Fireman Sam or Postman Pat, both with their backward nods to Camberwick Green, Trumpton & Chigley, all of which I loved as a kid.

    But I was surprised by its ability to transcend these programmes with the anthropomorphised equipment, under Bob’s benevolent guidance, and an element of post-acid hypercolour in its presentation. If Camberwick Green was shown next to BtB, the effect would be more than jarring. The machines offer the conflict and Bob offers the resolution. From what I’ve experienced, it seems Wendy is merely a token female presence, in a similar way to Ken’s presence in Barbie’s world.

    Bob could have been the Working Class poster boy, kicking against stuffy officialdom, but in reality (based on viewing a few episodes), he’s the embodiment of social mobility of the New Middle Class. A self-employed enabler.

    But the Establishment eventually set about the task of putting builders back “in their place”, with the onset of daytime consumer programmes about cowboys, usually fronted by Establishment-approved everyblokes like Dom Littlewood and Matt Allwright…but I’m digressing.

    Funny thing is, these kids shows are never not political. And you can’t help but frame BtB within this post-Thatcherite socially fluid world. Bob is what Cameron would eventually call a “striver”, set against the most disadvantaged, socially immobile “skivers”. But this is a world that does not yet fully embrace “chav” into its ever-changing lexicon for those who have been denied the opportunity of home-ownership, within Stakeholder Britain. BtB does not show that world. Bob is wise. Bob is able. Bob is respected and admired by all around him. Even the West Midland accent is downplayed. All of his diggers and plant are compliant and efficient. Any antagonism is merely a by-product of wanting to do a great job for Bob, rather than anything that might reflect real-world conflict in the workplace.

    The song? It serves its purpose, with flashes of post-britpop laddish charm, sufficiently watered down with a compelling call/response hook. This one won’t give you anything more than what it quotes for and will be done and dusted, long before your Costco teabags have run out. (5)

  4. 4
    Izzy on 17 Jul 2015 #

    I’m glad to see Spud getting some recognition here. That guy cracks me up.

  5. 5
    Mark G on 17 Jul 2015 #

    One of those odd downloads I got off old Napster, which was new about then, was the German version of this.

    “Big Mister Bob.. Kannt er fix es?
    Big Mister Bob., Klaar es kann!!”

    Which vaguely translates as Big Mr bob, can he fix it? Big Mr bob, clearly yes otherwise what’s the point of making this show and discussing him..”

  6. 6
    Tom on 17 Jul 2015 #

    Aw, he’s not that big. :(

  7. 7
    Chelovek na lune on 17 Jul 2015 #

    Hmm, I only ever recall watching the show on Slovene TV, where the hero (and name of the series) was “Mojster Miha” (meaning “Master Builder”, more or less) – I remember that version of the theme tune, a little. And seemingly, closer to home, in the Gaelic version, he was “Calum Clachair”.

    But what of this? It gets the job done, I suppose. Less annoying than a kid-themed cooking based programme song would have been. Or Mr Blobby.

    The nod towards something like “genuine working-class culture” in the video is pretty noteworthy for the BBC, too, I think.

    Overall, though? Am I bovvered? No. (4)

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 17 Jul 2015 #

    My nephew turned 3 when this came out and he was pretty obsessed with Bob for a while. It’s tempting to suggest that the show and song are pushing a rather mundane worldview, preparing kids for the work place, compared to the more fantastical childrens TV shows of earlier years but kids and kids’ culture have always been fascinated with adult occupations – whether firemen, train drivers, etc. The song is pleasant enough and avoids being too knowing or babyish – and as someone posted in a previous thread it’s a Number 1 for Morrisey.

  9. 9
    23 Daves on 18 Jul 2015 #

    I managed to dodge Bob The Builder for the most part – I don’t think I’ve ever sat through an entire episode. But I saw the man on Top of the Pops in a recorded introduction in a Liam Gallagher duffle coat twitching and stating over-excitedly “It’s grrreat to be number one!!!” before they cut to the video. Neil Morrissey obviously didn’t want to shatter childhood illusions by actually miming in the studio with a hardhat on, or wearing a big Mike Batt styled costume. Either would have been interesting.

    Another friend who was ignorant of Bob, had spent a long time away from Britain and was also a wee bit tone-deaf overheard the chorus coming out of an office transistor radio and thought to himself “Blur’s new single is a bit disappointing. What are they trying to prove here?” before quickly realising his error.

    So although he was a phenomenon with parents and kids, if you were single, in your mid-twenties and had a day job he was actually surprisingly avoidable. Barring headlines about the Bob the Builder phenomenon, he rarely troubled our worlds apart from this number one.

    You can tell this was designed to be considerably less irritating to adults than the Teletubbies effort, and it does a good job of bridging the gap, but I find it impossible to listen to without noticing how strangely plastic it sounds – lots of hyperactive and disparate elements all crashing into each other, to the extent that it always sounds more like a treble-heavy kinder-EMF than an infant Blur to me. It’s so desperate to please that it tries to be everything and anything, even swapping Bob costumes at numerous points in the video to labour the point. That’s its job, and fair enough, but it’s hard for me to find much to add apart from that.

    Incidentally, I had a job working in a builder’s office for a bit, and they used to get a trade magazine in who praised Bob the Builder to the hills in a comment piece. “Workers in the construction industry have a very negative image, and this is just what we need!” they said (or words to that effect). So for ages I had this impression that he was a bit of propaganda on behalf of the beleaguered builders everywhere who were seen as either wolf-whistling at passing ladies or operating in a shoddy, half-hearted manner.

  10. 10
    mapman132 on 18 Jul 2015 #

    I’ve never seen Bob The Builder but it did appear in America, at least I think it did. The “Can we fix it?” refrain had entered my brain prior to this week somehow. These days I’ve become much more familiar with children’s programming thanks to my nephew, niece, and godchildren. My godson is a fan of Handy Manny who is similar to BtB perhaps?

    As for the song, it’s about as “five” as it gets for me: Not something I’m dying to hear again, but something I find impossible to actively dislike. A strangely fitting ending for the year of 42 number ones.

  11. 11
    Ed on 18 Jul 2015 #

    @10 Yes, Bob did make it to the U.S., and inspired Handy Manny as an American response / rip-off, complete with the catchphrase: “we fix it!” The Byrds to Bob’s Beatles, if you will.

    Bob’s modern reboot came in for some stick last year:
    http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/oct/13/bob-the-builder-buffed-up-or-overly-renovated

    My kids are too old now for me to have ever seen it, though.

  12. 12
    ace inhibitor on 18 Jul 2015 #

    still current enough in Feb 2003 to be the basis of the most heard chant on our section of the Stop the War demonstration in London (BUSH THE BOMBER / CAN WE STOP HIM etc although as it turned out no we couldn’t)

  13. 13
    StringBeanJohn82 on 20 Jul 2015 #

    “…the triumph of the new singles market that had pushed releases into supermarkets and Woolworths, where browsing parents would see them…”

    I understand the point about supermarkets, but surely Woolworths have always sold singles? That’s where I bought all of mine. Thank God for Woolies in crap towns like mine as I’d have had to travel a long way (OK 12 miles) to the nearest HMV or record store

  14. 14
    AMZ1981 on 20 Jul 2015 #

    This actually entered at number two behind Stan and moved up a place the following week; the first climber since Millenium Prayer just over a year before. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the most significant thing about this record in chart terms, namely that it did what nobody else had done so far and keep Westlife at bay. It could be added that Brian McFadden, when asked about the song in question (What Makes A Man) said, `It’s a weak song and we didn’t do much promotion. Bob deserved it`.

    I’ve never watched Bob The Builder or listened to the song outside of the top forty rundown and I don’t intend to start now. At the time there was some surprise that it took off as well as it did (for context the Tweenies had scored a number five hit a month before and would actually manage a string of chart hits). It obviously comes in a long line of children’s novelty hits but with a hook that allowed it to cross over in a way Mr Blobby or the Teletubbies couldn’t.

    The most interesting part of the Bob The Builder chart story is still to come – namely that he didn’t stop here.

  15. 16
    pink champale on 21 Jul 2015 #

    Surprised by the positivity towards the TV show. It always seemed to me one of the blandest and most prosaic kids’ shows around, not having the magic of stuff like In the Night Garden, or the wit of Charlie and Lola, Ben and Holly (which genuinely did used to make me laugh out loud and which I miss now they’re too old) etc.
    Plus also Spud drove me mad. A) his really annoying voice, but in particular B) I could never work out what he was meant to be – some sort of wierd living scarecrow/turnip hybrid that didn’t seemed to belong in a totally different show to BTBs people plus talking diggers world.

  16. 17
    Erithian on 21 Jul 2015 #

    I may have mentioned this before, but one of my favourite things ever on Ceefax was a reader’s comment about the battle mentioned at #14: “Imagine all the Westlife fans seething that their heroes have been kept from number one by a manufactured puppet. Oh, the irony.”

  17. 18
    Ed on 21 Jul 2015 #

    @16 Count me in for the anti-Bob contingent. As you say, it was bland and unimaginative, and Spud was intensely irritating.

    I can’t bring myself to hate it, though, because my kids loved it when they were at the appropriate age. They had favourite characters, they were engrossed in the rudimentary plots, and they even seemed to absorb the trite little morals at the end. So I saw many more episodes than I would have chosen for myself, and we ended up with quite a bit of the merchandise, although not this single.

    I know there are divided opinions on this. Some people see egalitarianism in the idea of a programme for children that is aimed exclusively at that audience, and is not shaped in any way for adults’ enjoyment.

    Myself, – and I accept this may be mostly a function of my age* – I see a golden age of British kids’ TV, between perhaps the mid-60s and the late 80s, when shows could be rich and strange enough both to entrance children and to entertain adults too. Bob the Builder, from his Ronseal name onwards, may not have begun that shift towards the simplistic and mundane, but he certainly was part of it.

    *Actually, I don’t think it’s just my age that makes me think British children’s telly was better when I was a lad. Modern American series such as Adventure Time and Over the Garden Wall are every bit as imaginative and complex as the best British programmes I remember from my own childhood.

  18. 19
    Tommy Mack on 21 Jul 2015 #

    #18 is Adventure Time aimed at kids of any age? It seems to me like a cartoon made by 20-something hipsters for themselves. I generally enjoy it though it does seem terribly pleased with itself and Finn is quite an annoying protagonist.

  19. 20
    Phil on 21 Jul 2015 #

    Both my kids (15 and 20) are familiar with, nay blasé about, Adventure Time. I literally have no idea how they got there. Something’s working.

  20. 21
    Erithian on 22 Jul 2015 #

    The spinoff A Christmas to Remember, which Tom mentions, is very charming – as a dad of twins I got something in my eye watching the flashback to Bob and his twin brother as kids at Christmas, Bob fixing his brother’s broken toy! It was written by Jimmy Hibbert, who has a wide-ranging CV as voice artist and writer on the likes of Chuggington, Count Duckula and Danger Mouse. He was also a founder member of Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, along with Mancunian renaissance man C P Lee. The Albertos spoofed musical genres (I treasure their doo-wop version of Anarchy in the UK) and troubled the charts with Heads Down No Nonsense Mindless Boogie. Quite the career path.

    Oh, and as for a golden age of kids’ TV, is anyone else here familiar with Horrible Histories? The songs in particular – take a look on YouTube for “I Sat On The Bus” – Dominique Moore as Rosa Parks in the style of Aretha Franklin. And more where that came from – Charles Dickens as Morrissey, the Magna Carta rap battle between King John and the barons – glorious stuff.

  21. 22
    Shiny Dave on 22 Jul 2015 #

    21) There’s some terrific Horrible Histories songs, yes.

    As for this? It is distinctly “plastic” sounding – somehow that fits the art style! – but I think that has more impact on my opinion of Bob’s other bunny. (Neil Morrissey has more bunnies than Morrissey and Prince combined, which is frankly staggering.) This is knockabout fun serving a killer hook, and while I generally like slicker production with that formula, this is doing what it sets out to do with confidence and efficiency. Can’t give it less than 6.

    On the original post – another cracker too! – I’d add that Dido was a pretty limited singer herself. To the point that when I had a lesson with a notable vocal coach (who had spent some time working on the Cowell shows, to tie us into another impending Popular thread) and she noted that my voice was less limited than I was giving myself credit for, it was actually Dido who was the example my own vocal versatility was compared favourably to. (She did stretch herself on a few occasions, though – notably the distinctly rangy melody of “Don’t Leave Home.”)

  22. 23
    Phil on 22 Jul 2015 #

    Dickens as Morrissey was wonderful, not least because it’s true. (At one point in Miriam Margolyes’ one-woman show Dickens’ Women, she concluded the tale of some awful entanglement with “He never got over it”, then broke frame and said “He never got over anything.”) Some excellent writing (and acting) went into HH.

  23. 24
    MikeMCSG on 1 Sep 2015 #

    Was Spud not voiced by the same guy as Zippy then ? I just assumed he was.

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