Premiering tonight on BBC America is a very entertaining and informative documentary series starring James May (Top Gear). James May’s Toy Stories is a diverting and amusing program that makes a good point: that the toys of the fortysomething May’s childhood years engaged the imagination and developed the mind in ways that video games cannot.
May does not argue that video games are intrinsically inferior, much less claim that they’re harmful, but instead he makes a liberal-minded point: that parents of today can recover something good that has been lost, by simply encouraging their children to seek out more physically active and open-ended forms of recreation.
Activities such as Lego-building, designing tracks for toy trains and collecting train cars and scenery, and playing with modeling clay can be both diverting and educational while giving children a real-world way of exercising their creativity and learning serious lessons about physics that video games just can’t impart. After all, trying to get those last two bits of train track to fit together or build a toy bridge out of Legos can afford memorably vivid experience with the charming intractability of the laws of physics and chains of consequence.
And given that many if not most parents grew up playing with such toys, these diversions provide parents and their kids an excellent reason to spend time together.
As with Top Gear, each episode of James May’s Toy Stories involves the host undertaking some sort of insane challenge, and in this series the challenges actually constitute pretty much all of each episode. Fortunately, May intersperses the “action” scenes with copious amounts of interesting facts about the various toys in question, making the show very educational about both the toys themselves and the real-world things they represent or encourage children to think about, such as trains, buildings, planes, bridges, automobiles, houses, and gardens—the things that make up much of our lives.
The toys May considers in the show’s six episodes (one toy per ep) are Legos, Scalextric (known as slot cars in the United States), Plasticine (called Play-Doh here in the States), Meccano (the UK version of Erector Sets), model trains, and model planes. The challenges are hilariously ambitious. In the Lego episode (premiering tonight), May builds an entire full-sized house out of Legos and lives in it for a day. In later episodes he builds a full-sized bridge out of Meccano pieces and dares to walk on it across a body of water, builds the worlds largest model airplane, and enters into London’s prestigious Chelsea Flower Show an elaborate, full-sized garden made entirely of Play-Doh.
The show premieres tonight at 10 EDT, and I recommend it highly.
—S. T. Karnick