TV tells the royals' stories

Sesame Street's new longer, slower segments have the same nurturing, educating style

What most of us know about Edward VIII is that he abdicated the throne of England in the mid-1930s to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson.

It might have seemed like a romantic gesture at the time. But with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, it looks more like an act of weakness and selfishness than romance. At least that's history as Masterpiece Theatre presents it in Bertie and Elizabeth (PBS, Feb. 4, 9-11 p.m.)

And it is very persuasive.

George, Duke of York, Edward's younger brother, married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon after a loving courtship. The gentle "Bertie" suffered from a stammer except when he was with his wife, whose encouragement helped him take on the responsibilities of the constitutional monarch England needed through World War II.

Much is made of the flirtation of Edward (now Duke of Windsor) with the Third Reich, of his obsession with Mrs. Simpson, and of his playboy attitude with its "abdication" of responsibility.

Whether that image of Edward is entirely fair or not, the story's depiction of dysfunctional families rings true enough.

What this well-made TV movie demonstrates is how much Britain needed the monarchy in the 20th century. The movie is an homage to the self-denying royal couple, who helped inspire the nation during "its finest hour." Hitler was well aware of Bertie and Elizabeth's morale-boosting dignity and warmth: He had Buckingham Palace bombed, narrowly missing the royal couple.

"Bertie and Elizabeth" and a documentary called The Queen's Story (PBS, Feb. 6, check local listings) are presented in commemoration of Great Britain's Jubilee celebrating Queen Elizabeth II's accession to the throne 50 years ago.

The documentary focuses on Elizabeth's career. It is not as critical of Edward as "Bertie and Elizabeth," but it suggests that Elizabeth II may be the last British monarch. Her apparent coldness after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was hard on her people. And Prince Charles is no Prince Charming. Elected officials, after all, can be shucked off. But kings and queens are fixtures for life. And many Britons, the film explains, are tired of paying for the luxuries of spoiled aristocrats.

* * *

On a happier note, Sesame Street (PBS, check local listings), that bastion of wholesome television for little ones, is changing its format. Come Feb. 4, the most entertaining and experimental of all the children's shows will undergo its most radical changes ever.

In its 33rd season, the show is now tailored to children 2 to 4 years old. But even my year-old granddaughter, who saw the preview tape with me, was fully engaged - just as I was.

"We want to hold on to writing at those two levels, but never at the expense of the child," says Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research for 'Sesame Street.' "All aspects of child development are part of the whole child curriculum on Sesame Street; the cognitive-thinking and reasoning skills, reading and math; the social-emotional child ... and the physical child - eating right, exercising. We do our own research. We go into the day-care centers, have focus groups with moms to keep our show current."

Today's kids do have different needs from little ones 30 years ago.

"A lot of kids are in day care by 7:30," Ms. Truglio says. "Children today are entering a world that is media saturated. But with the VCR, they have been exposed to longer stories - they are watching more movies.

"There are plenty of shows that are narrative-based on TV for children. Our show was holding on to a variety show format because that was what was popular in the 1970s. Every segment taught a particular goal."

In the new format, each segment is 10 minutes long. (New segments and established ones will occupy the same time slots each day.)

The frenetic pace of yesteryear is gone. An interactive segment helps children learn to follow a sequence and solve problems. Best of all, the story about what happens on the actual street where all the gang gathers will now be an uninterrupted segment.

"Sesame Street" has always taken a tender-hearted approach to childhood, which is its long-lasting appeal. In the new episode I saw, Elmo and Maria go out to lunch together when a fire breaks out in the store's kitchen. The firemen arrive, and little Elmo is traumatized and won't return to the store. So Maria takes him to the fire station to meet the firemen (real New York firefighters). They explain what all their gear is used for and that they are not scary at all, but grown-ups who are there to help.

This is a sweet, reassuring segment in response to Sept. 11. "Sesame Street" is still finding creative, nonthreatening ways to handle children's fears.

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