Richard Osman – a man of many talents, but not often celebrated for his grooviness – is mulling over what it takes to be accepted as a young person in 21st-century Britain.
“It’s cool to be good looking, it’s cool to be good at sport, it’s cool to be funny. But it’s not always fun to be clever. So you have to hide it away,” he says. “But on this show we make clever kids the heroes. We’re saying it’s OK to learn stuff and know answers to things. We’re doing a great service for these kids.”
He’s talking about Child Genius, which pits boys and girls aged eight to 12 against each other in an intelligence contest, and which returns for a new series this week with Osman at the helm.
Like many shows of its type, it makes much of the fact that the questions are savagely difficult – and it’s pretty justified in doing so. (You might be a grown-up, but can you spell “immarcescible”? And do you know what it means?). But the toughest question is one that remains unspoken during the week-long elimination contest.
Is it fair to expose these 20 young people to the stress of a televised competition like this? Are they fully aware of the risk of humiliation if they perform badly under the spotlight? Osman’s answer to this ethical concern leans heavily on a career spent mostly behind the screen at production company Endemol Shine, creating and pitching TV programmes to broadcasters. (His on-screen work, here and on Pointless, is a small part of his professional life.)
“Obviously I work in an environment where people put themselves forward for shows all the time and make fools of themselves. It’s different if they’re kids – and I get that. But I think, and I certainly hope, that the way that we present the show, the way they’re looked after on the day, the way that we run it…”
I interrupt. I’m sure I’ve heard Jerry Springer talk in a similar manner about the “after care” provided to guests on his bear pit of a show.
“Absolutely. But do you know what? I don’t make The Jerry Springer Show and I do make this. I want everybody leaving this show feeling it’s a positive experience. Listen, I don’t mind people going through a bit of trauma. I don’t mind people going through difficulty. I don’t mind people crying. Because that happens in life…”
And it’s good telly? “Forget about good telly. It happens in life and it’s important. So long as you’re providing support. The first thing I say to the children is: ‘Look, 19 of you are not going to win this. Only one of you is.’ But you know what? By and large, you don’t win stuff in life. What gets you through is being proud of yourself and doing your best. You don’t build resilience by stepping away from being competitive or by not putting yourself in a stressful situation.”
To be fair to Osman and the show, Child Genius is put together in a kinder manner than, say, one of Simon Cowell’s shows – and it’s certainly nothing like Springer’s.
The aim is not to embarrass or shame – but as Osman’s comment about crying illustrates, the show does want to present a dramatic story to viewers. Osman says candidly: “I don’t think a show like that would be commissioned on British TV and I don’t think British viewers would watch it.”
There is, however, another question. Child Genius isn’t just about the kids. It’s about the parents. Some of the mums and dads cheerfully encourage their offspring. Others are off-the-scale pushy. Is it the job of a parent to produce the happiest child or the cleverest? Is there a conflict between those two ambitions? “Yes of course there is,” says father-of-two Osman, “we all have different views about what’s going to make our children happy.”
Osman’s own upbringing is not what you might expect. He grew up with his brother in a single-parent household – his dad walked out when he was very young – went to the local comprehensive and won a place at Cambridge, the first boy from Warden Park school, in Cuckfield, West Sussex, to have got there.
His mum, Brenda, a teacher, couldn’t afford foreign holidays or a car but she “understood all the things that are important about how to bring up kids. Just allowing them to be themselves and responding to what they enjoy,” Osman recalls. “I was very lucky to be born to the mother I was.”
What’s more, he says with real pride, “she educated a generation of Sussex children, all of whom hold her in great esteem.”
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Did Brenda hothouse Osman, in the way some of the parents on Child Genius do? “God no, the opposite. Because she’s a teacher she knows you’ve got to let kids do what they want to do. Which is what I’ve always believed.”
Left to his own devices, Osman decided to watch lots of TV. And now, he reasons, that knowledge was super-useful… given that he works in TV. That’s fine, for the tiny percentage of people who’ll end up in broadcasting. But surely it’s not good advice in general? “You don’t think?” he responds. (He’s not joking.)
The important thing, he believes, is to encourage whatever it is that your child is interested in. “If your kid is really good at fixing his bike, then it’s probable that at some point in his life he’ll want to do that sort of thing for a living.”
So I shouldn’t worry that my own 11-year-old spends so many hours on his Xbox? “You know what? Well, as long as he knows who’s making the games, who did the music for them, how you storyboard a game, stuff like that… That whole generation is going to work in video games and video content. And if you played those games for a very long time in your childhood, you’re going to be better than people who didn’t.”
So that’s Richard Osman’s recipe for success: lots of telly and lots of computer games. Genius!