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The TV is full of fairy tales. Though these days they are disguised as Reality TV shows. If I watch X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing both are bulging with moral advice, showing the power of commitment and being true to yourself, to ensure success.

The best book about the psychology of fairy tales and their impact on our growing children – and the child inside each one of us – is Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘The Uses of Enchantment’. Bettelheim analyses the use of impossible challenges, faith and courage to implant unconscious lessons in our children about how to solve life’s biggest problems.

Some time after reading the book, I was musing on the choice of children engaged in imaginative play to portray the ITV brand in Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s charming work for television (ITV – the Brighter Side) and how closely it followed a fairy tale pattern. You can see the commercial here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCLZR6BNBsM

We might be watching the Famous Five or Narnia. The fact that we are in a magical world is conveyed by the appearance of non-indigenous creatures, the pelican and the penguins. It is a beach, but not truly a British beach – it is a beach in the realm of the imagination. There is another super Fairy Tale device in the film: James, the fisherman – who the children stumble upon – is the bridge between nature and the human – like the woodcutter of Fairy Tales, or Beorn in the Hobbit, characters who are elemental forces, capable of rescuing lost children if needs be. James’s home is humble, made out of beach bric-a-brac and artifacts of nature, he has caught his own food, which he would no doubt share with the children, and he is ‘grizzled’ like an elemental.

This kind of Fairy Tale analogy also emerges in sports broadcasting. Consider this:

They’ve done it. They’ve beaten the champions. It’s a Fairy Tale come true!”

John Motson on an unexpected win in the FA Cup.

In John’s commentary we find reference to Jack and the Beanstalk – a story of giant killing – and reclaiming what is rightfully ours. Is there a definite echo of Fairy Tales in successful television shows?

While I was thinking this through, I stumbled upon something that had been milling about for some time in my mind – the enormous successes of the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. That ‘something’ was – once again – the role of Fairy Tales in delighting children and at the same time, instructing them in strategies and tactics for the task of overcoming obstacles in their lives.

The biggest audience shows on mainstream TV all have a serial structure. The events unfold over weeks/months and the subtext of the series is closely aligned with modern Fairy Stories. In the case of X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent it’s a Rag to Riches fable (Cinderella). In Strictly Come Dancing, it’s less clearly fable-based, closest to Cinderella in the journey from scullery maid to princess, but essentially a moral teaching of the ‘you can do it if you really try!’ variety.

Here is a table showing some of the interpretations of Fairy Tales in Modern Television:

Programme Fairy Story Moral Lesson Channel
Blind Date Happy Ever After ITV
Beat the Star/Gladiators David & Goliath The little guy can win if he doesn’t give in ITV
Lost Snow White/Hansel & Gretel Help! Someone will find you Sky
The X Factor Cinderella Rags to Riches ITV
Britain’s Got Talent Cinderella(Susan Boyle!) Rags to Riches ITV
I’m a Celebrity Sleeping Beauty

Rendered Helpless

Rescued by Fairy Godmother (viewers)

ITV
Strictly Come Dancing Sleeping Beauty Transformation is possible – something within can be awakened. BBC

 

What is wonderful about Fairy Tales and their eternal messages are that they do not depend upon intellect for their impact. They are metaphors for life’s biggest journey – the journey into adulthood, effectiveness and beyond. They are packed with hints and tips to help you on the way. In this way, like pantomime, they are stories with something for everyone.

In the X Factor you will find the following similarities to Fairy Tales.

1.  First, there are major and minor characters: the major characters struggle with epic issues, the minor characters provide distraction, comedy, glamour. I would argue that Simon (wicked King) and Sharon (Wise Woman) are main figures with Cheryl (Princess) and Louis (Comedy Uncle) adding flavour to the Court of King Simon.

2.  Second the Contestants: here are our children. Will they survive their early trials? Can they grow and develop to fulfil their potential? Will they graduate the ‘University’ of the Judges’ Houses. Who will love them/hate them along the way? How do they deal with success and misfortune? Each of them is fortunate or unfortunate enough to be connected to a Court Character (their Mentor).

The X Factor studio is, of course, Oz – or the magical land, which makes sense of the dazzling array of lights & special effects – and we must return from time to time to the contestant’s ‘real’ origins, and notice how much bigger and more fantastic Oz is than their humble homes.

This prediliction for TV shows modelled unconciously upon Fairy Stories helps make sense of the enormous audience appeal for all ages of these leading shows. The recent fall from grace of X Factor in terms of viewing figures also points out that you cannot simply repeat a metaphor again and again and expect to hold our attention. For ten series we were willing to engage with the story year after year. But apparently no longer. Simon needs to find a new tale. I suspect that simply changing a few details in the existing format won’t be enough.

Since I wrote this analysis in 2012, there has been an explosion in ‘Zero to Hero’ shows. We now have the Great British Bake-off, The Apprentice, The Sewing Bee, Masterchef, from Burger Bar to Gourmet Star. The list continues to grow. Essentially these shows are all celebrations of ‘Hero/ine’ projects, in which a lowly mortal – like us – is transformed into a giant of cookery, singing, dancing, business, or just about anything the programme makers come up with.

 

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As a psychologist, psychotherapist and research practitioner of 40 years, I've had the benefit of the experiences of more than 100,000 people around the world. They've talked about their daily lives, hopes, fears, ambitions and needs. These experiences have helped me to contribute to innovations from Beds in Business and the Fast Track for airlines to television drama and online communities. Specialties:Large groups, facilitation, application of psychological theories to commercial issues