17 MAY 2003, Page 72

Back to childhood

Charles Spencer

The other day I was sitting with my tenyear-old son Edward while he had his bath when he raised a profound question. 'Dad,' he said thoughtfully, for he is a thoughtful child. 'who do you think is the best soul singer?'

It is moments like this that makes a father's heart swell with happiness and pride. I don't think I could have been more pleased if he'd come home from school and told me he'd scored a half century in the Under Eleven match against Milbourne Lodge.

`Aretha Franklin.' I said huskily, for, reader, I was close to tears. 'Mmm,' said Ed, 'she's good but I think Otis Redding's better.' As both those great singers once proclaimed: RESPECT. And to think that it is only five years since 'The wheels on the bus go round, round, round' was his idea of a great song.

By and large, though, I'm not making much progress with Ed's musical education. He fell gratefully on Platinum Soul Legends, but the other Christmas CDs I gave him are gathering dust. The Best of Bowie, the Rolling Stones' Forty Licks and the Beatles' greatest hits all leave him cold. In fact Edward is the only person I know who claims actively to dislike the Beatles. 'They're so childish,' he says with withering contempt.

Painful though it may be, all this is just as it should be. The greatest joy of pop is discovering it for yourself, rather than having it forced down your ears by your elders and betters. The reason, surely, why so many white male teenagers adore gangsta rap is that they know that their parents absolutely loathe it. Their enthusiasm has little to do with the non-existent quality of the music, and everything to do with causing maximum family distress.

This month I've been transported back to my own childhood by a smashing disc on EMI Gold called Hello Children Everywhere! (Volume 2). For those enduring middle age it is the aural equivalent of Proust's madeleine, evoking memories so powerful that I found myself driving along the M25 with tears streaming from my eyes.

The CD is, of course, named after Uncle Mac's opening greeting on Children's Favourites, which began its long run on BBC Radio in 1954. I can't actually remember Uncle Mac — though I must have heard him but his ridiculously posh, twinklingly indulgent tones as he encourages the children to play 'The Farmer's in his Den' at his 'gramophone studio party' are irresistible. 'Georgina in a blue frock has been chosen as the farmer's wife,' he tells us through a mouthful of plums, before offering an extraordinary repertoire of ripe chortles as he delivers the frankly baffling news that poor Ronny has been selected to play 'the fat marrow-bone'. I wonder if Ronny ever got over this childhood trauma. If Uncle Mac were on air these days, he would almost certainly he regarded as a dangerous lunatic with latent paedophile tendencies.

Hello Children Everywhere! doesn't confine itself to the 1950s, and contains, it has to be admitted, some frightful rubbish. Even as a child I loathed Pinky and Perky, represented here by their lamentable version of the hokey cokey to which I suspect we will all be forced to dance in hell. And in my view the St Winifred's School Choir should all have been taken into care and subjected to pin-down treatment for the unforgivable crime that is 'There's No One Like Grandma'.

But there is much more that is irresistible. We are treated, for instance, to a matchless rendition of 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport', with Rolf Harris going ape on his wobble hoard, though even after 40 years, I've still no idea just why it was so important that the dying Aussie stockman's kangaroo should be tied down. And I can't believe that Rolf feels particularly comfortable now with his instruction that Lou should let the Abos go loose, on the grounds that they're of no further use.

What a pleasure it is, too, to hear Flanders and Swann's delightful 'I'm A Gnu', as fresh, witty and oddly melancholic now as it was in 1960; Morecambe and Wise's delightfully daft 'Boom, 0o, YataTa-Ta' and Benny Hill's splendidly lubricious 'Ernie', about the doomed and randy milkman. 'He said do you want pasteurised because pasteurised is best? She said Ernie I'll be happy if it comes up to my chest' is, I'm only half ashamed to admit, one of my favourite lyrics in the whole of pop music; but almost every neatly turned line in this cod cowboy epic is a masterpiece of leering suggestion. If Oasis want to revive their deservedly flagging career, they should release a cover version in time for Christmas.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.