Blog, I’d wanted to see this at the cinema last year but, as usual, just never got around to it. As a Brit of a certain age, I’d grown up with kiddie TV the likes of: Watch with Mother, Mary, Mungo and Midge, Play School, Jackanory, Blue Peter, The Magic Roundabout, Trumpton, The White Horses…..’On white horses let me ride away……la la la ‘, one of the first songs from early childhood that I still clearly remember (along with Sugar, Sugar by The Archies.) Unbeknownst to the 60s/70s me, across the Pond (circa 1968) the Heavens were engaged in engineering a Second Coming and, floating down from a cloud arrayed with God’s Glory (I imagine), Mister Rogers came to rest on American Kids’ TV.
I’d become acquainted with Mister Rogers, aka Fred McFeely Rogers (I love the McFeely bit) before discovering that a film was to be made about him. During one of my infrequent journeys to Nostalgia Land, I’d binge watched Bagpuss and Camberwick Green (Brian Cant, the voice of my childhood) on YouTube. One evening YouTube recommended Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Not even knowing if this was a kids’ show, I’d clicked to find a slight, grey haired bloke in a knitted cardi, playing make believe with assorted puppets. Mister Rogers spoke in a reticent, quiet, calm, and methodical manner. You might say boring. You might say old fashioned. But this was a show for pre-school kids, and I imagine most of those kids would have willingly sunk into the security blanket that came in the shape of Mister Rogers.
Truly intrigued by this TV oddity, I’d typed Mister Rogers into Google and another name also came up – Tom Junod. Tom Junod is an American journalist who, in 1998, wrote a really good article about Fred Rogers for Esquire magazine entitled Can you say….Hero? His encounter with Fred Rogers changed Junod’s life, in the way the born again are moved by the story of Christ.
In 1951 Fred Rogers graduated from college with a BA in Music Composition. In 1962 he graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with a Bachelor of Divinity degree and then became an ordained minister. The Divine degree was so fitting considering many of Rogers’ viewers thought he was a saint. The Seminary charged Rogers with the ministry of spreading the word of God via the medium of television; I suppose to ‘get around’ the fact that Rogers didn’t want to spread the word via a job as a vicar. Rogers had already decided that the world of television was his calling when he’d been affronted, some years earlier, by the slapstick, pie in the face hoo-hah that he felt wrongly passed for children’s entertainment. Why not preach from the pulpit available in every living room corner he must have thought. The fact that Rogers was the Rev Rogers was never mentioned on his TV show and neither did he mention God. This was a good move. No quicker way to alienate viewers than continually playing the God card.
Although Fred never came over all evangelical, he did infuse his TV show with a Christian ethos. He taught children to serve others; to be good neighbours within Rogers’ neighbourhood. Rogers saw the space between him (via the camera) and the children watching him at home as ‘holy ground.’ Across that space, he talked to little kids about divorce, racism, war, fear, anger. He told his toddlers that he liked them just the way they were, that each and every one of them was special. He sent comforting unconditional love through their telly screens, sitting there in his knitted sweater (one of several knitted in a rainbow of colours by his mother) and his comfy indoor shoes. Fred Rogers encouraged his little tiddlywinks to talk about their feelings and not suppress them. He taught that every child was unique and to embrace what made them different.
Fred Rogers wrote all the songs for his TV show. Zingers like, ‘It’s you I like,’ ‘What do you do with the mad that you feel?’ ‘ You are special’ I’m taking care of you’, ‘It’s good to talk.’ He sang the songs too. He was by no means a good singer, but he sang in the way most parents would sing to their kids at home; quietly, no big production numbers.
After scouring a few Mister Rogers’ episodes, YouTube then informed me that Tom Hanks was to star as Mister Rogers in an upcoming film, based in part on Tom Junod’s Esquire article. The film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is shot like an episode from the TV show (just as Junod’s article was written in the style of a kid’s story.) The film opens as the show did, with a miniature town and a miniature trolley car trundling along its roads. Tom Hanks walks into his house and sings the show’s signature song:
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,
a beautiful day for a neighbour,
would you be mine?………..da da da.
He sits down beside a large board with several small doors on it. Opening each door reveals first a photograph of a smiling lady, then a puppet, then a postman and then Tom opens his last door, revealing his new friend Lloyd Vogel (aka Tom Junod.) And there’s a distressed Vogel, caught by the camera, sporting a cut up nose. An unexpectedly jarring note, in amongst all the make believe. This is Mister Rogers for adults.
And so the film is about Tom Junod as he, in the form of Matthew Rhys, walks around like a nineties version of Heathcliffe – a tightly wound coil of lowering, dark haired, sombre anger. In the midst of various emotional crises – father to a new baby (in reality Junod was childless when he first met Rogers); harbouring a hatred of his father; missing a Mother who died when he was young – he is charged with interviewing Fred Rogers for a series on Heroes for Esquire magazine. Prior to this Junod had (in 1997) written an article which skirted around Kevin Spacey’s homosexuality. It was called Kevin Spacey has a Secret and resulted in Spacey calling for a boycott of both Junod and Esquire magazine. And prior to that Junod published a piece about a twin who killed his brother, receiving a call from the mother asking, ‘how could you do this?’ By the time he met Rogers Junod had begun to dislike himself and had lost confidence as a journalist. This self-flagellation was somewhat uncalled for considering what came to light about Spacey some 20 years later. But back then Junod was ripe for salvation and St Fred was about to save his soul.
In the film Junod/Vogel is a) angry at the hero commission and b) cynical that Mister Rogers can be all that he appears. Of course, Fred Rogers brings him round as he persistently preaches (by stealth) forgiveness and unconditional love. It’s a good movie. Such a welcome change from relentless CGI and gratuitous violence. One highlight is the restaurant scene where Rogers asks Vogel to take a minute’s silence to remember all those who had loved him into being, and then includes us in that daring screen silence by looking directly at the camera. It made me want to know more about Rogers because Rogers is a curious case indeed.
Reading about Rogers’ daily routine is to see that he lived a life built around God but, rather than closet himself away in a monastery, or in the church, he chose to perform his Christian duties on a TV sound stage. He got up at 5.30 am every day then prayed for friends and family before studying, replying to fans’ letters, going for a morning swim, and then weighing himself. Fred weighed himself every day to check that he maintained his weight of 143 pounds. That’s just over 10 stone in Brit speak. The 143 was significant in that it was the number of letters for each word in the phrase ‘I love you.’ Imagine the grim diet plan he must have followed to stay at 10 stone for life, just so he could spell I love you in his own weirdly wonderful way.
Fred Rogers never drank or smoked. He was a vegetarian, stating that he wouldn’t ‘eat anything that had a mother.’ He went to bed early and never lazed about in bed the following morning. He never watched television. Despite this life of semi-monastic simplicity, rigid non-indulgence, and continual prayer, he died in 2003 of stomach cancer aged 74. God is apt to do his followers no favours.
Mr Rogers was strong in Faith…..and yet. When meeting a boy with cerebral palsy, Fred asked the boy to pray for him, instead of saying that he would pray for the boy. When Junod asked Fred why he did that, Fred replied that he figured the boy, who had been faced with so many challenges, must be close to God and Fred wanted the boy’s intercession. I looked up intercession. Turns out the devout Fred Rogers wanted a child to represent and plead his case to God. Oh Mercy! (as Fred, who abhorred profanity, would so often say.)
On Rogers’ death bed he asked his wife if she thought he would be one of the sheep, referring to this bible passage:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
i.e. the sheep go to Heaven whilst the rubbish little goats can rot in Hell. What the poor goat did to get such a bad name is lost in the mists of biblical time.
I bothered to read a Christian website re: the sheep reference (and vowed in the process never to do so again.) The great paradox inherent in Christianity is that, despite Fred’s claims that God is all about love and neighbourliness, God is mostly about guilt, fear and division. Nearing the end of his life, Fred suddenly seems to have become unsure of his God’s unconditional love (God’s love does in fact come with quite a few conditions attached.) Did he feel guilt that he’d pursued a career in television, something that could be seen as self-aggrandising, rather than following a more regular ministry? For what did he fear retribution? Because if anybody was guaranteed to get past the celestial bouncers at the Pearly Gates, that person would be Fred McFeely Rogers.
Poor Fred, spending his last days worrying his skinny 143 lb frame with ancient texts babbling on about farmyard animals. As if stomach cancer wasn’t enough. I hope you met your God Mister Rogers and I hope he knows he was lucky to get you.