August 11, 2021

The Descent into Hell: "The Children's Story. . . but not just for children" (1982)

The teacher was afraid," the story begins. "And the children were afraid. All except Johnny. He watched the classroom door with hate. He felt the hatred deep within his stomach. It gave him strength. 

"It was two minutes to nine." 

This, in its entirety, is the first page of James Clavell's "The Children's Story," first published in Ladies' Home Journal in October, 1963, and made into a half-hour drama, written and directed by Clavell himself and telecast on February 18, 1982 (in most markets) on the syndicated Mobil Showcase Network. It remains, to this day, one of the most subversive television shows ever aired, a deceptively simple story that tackles indoctrination, brainwashing, and what could be called a unique form of child abuse. It's perhaps the most disturbing program I've ever seen.

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Mobil Showcase was a kind of commercial companion to PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, which Mobil had underwritten for years. Its first presentation was a sensation: the 12-part British miniseries Edward the King, hosted by newsman Robert McNeil, which ran on Wednesday nights in 1975 on an ad-hoc lineup of nearly 50 stations around the country, including 27 network affiliates. It was a huge success, not only for the stations airing it but for Mobil, which had the opportunity to air its commercials during the program, rather than being limited to brief mentions at the beginning and end of Masterpiece Theatre. (After all, the goodwill from underwriting programs on public broadcasting only goes so far.)

 returned in early 1977 with another success, the ten-part BBC documentary series Ten Who Dared, narrated by Anthony Quinn (David Attenborough had been the voice of the British airing), featuring great explorers who had trekked around the world to previously unexplored areas. Today they might be convicted of cultural appropriation by the students of "The Children's Story," but in 1977 the series outdrew several network shows (including The Waltons) during its run. In 1979, the series struck gold yet again with Edward & Mrs. Simpson, the story of the ill-fated romance between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

In early 1983, Mobil Showcase returned with Charles Dickens' sprawling story, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, in a triumphant nine-hour saga spread over four consecutive nights.* Nickleby, which had been the smash hit of Broadway the year before, had been turned down by all three networks; Mobil reportedly bought it for $1.1 million and spent another $3 million to distribute it over its ad hoc network, which was down one station after CBS pressured its Flint, Michigan, affiliate, not to carry it. In 1984, it was an acclaimed production of King Lear, featuring Laurence Olivier in the title role (Olivier would win a Best Actor Emmy for this, his last Shakespearian performance), and an all-star supporting cast including Colin Blakely, John Hurt, Diana Rigg and Leo McKern. 

*Mobil limited commercials to 21 minutes for the entire nine hours, promising "no hard-sell or advocacy advertising this time."

I hadn't really thought about this until now, but it's quite possible that Mobil Showcase was the premier prestige dramatic show on commercial television during its run. It reminds me of what the Hallmark Hall of Fame used to be.

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The story opens in "A Neighborhood Schoolroom." It takes place at an indeterminate time in the very near future; we're only told that "THEY have just conquered us."  

Old Miss Warden (Mildred Natwick) sits at her desk, playing nervously with her fingers; her students, each of them about seven years old, can feel the tension in the air. In front of her is an official document, which she reads to them: "All current teachers will turn over their classes to new teachers." She is afraid, they are all afraid, except for Johnny, who defiantly repeats the words his father told him: "We're scared too much. We're dead even though we're alive. We are not to ever be afraid." 

The clock turns over to 9:00, the door opens and the New Teacher (Michaela Ross) enters. She is young, attractive, dressed in olive green. With a smile, she greets the children, and she gently tells Miss Warden that "You're to go to the principal's office," As the old woman tearfully looks back at her students before the door closes, some of them are crying. The New Teacher greets each one of them by name, and they are surprised; their old teacher sometimes forgot their names. But then, the New Teacher tells them, you sit in the same desks every day; she just memorized the list. "I had to work three whole days just to remember all your names." It's very lazy for a teacher to not know who's here and who isn't, she continues. 

Without formality, without even being aware of it, their education has begun.

"How do you start school?" she asks the children. "What do you do to begin?" A student tells her they say the Pledge of Allegiance. What does it mean? she asks them. None of them know; neither their teachers nor their parents ever explained it to them. "I don't think that was very good not to explain. You can always ask me anything—that's what a real teacher should do." She then tells them that allegiance means to pledge loyalty to "a king or president or leader or to your government." But you can’t pledge allegiance to a flag—"that's like saying the flag is more important than a person.” 

The flag is very pretty, though, she says. “I wish I could have a piece of it.” Removing it from the pole, she tells the students that if the flag is that important, “we should all have a piece of it.” She finds a pair of scissors in Miss Worden’s desk, and allows a thrilled Leslie to cut the first piece, since it’s her birthday. (And they’re so thrilled that she knows things like birthdays.) They all line up excitedly around the teacher’s desk to get a piece of the flag. But what to do with the bare flagpole? One student, giggling, suggests they throw it out the window—is he serious, or just wondering how far they can go, how outrageous is too outrageous. But the New Teacher tells them that “if that’s what you want to do, you can do it.” The students gleefully follow through. The time is 9:12.

*Clavell would make the point that an actual flag was not used in the filming of this scene.

The New Teacher then plays a kind of Ask Me Anything, and one student asks why Miss Warden was crying. She was probably tired and needed a rest, the Teacher replies. “She’s going to have a long rest. We think the teachers should be young. I’m 23.” Another asks her “Is the war over?” “Yes. Isn’t that wonderful?” she replies. “Now all of your daddies will be home soon.” “Did we win or did we lose?” “We—that’s you and I and all of us—we won. We’re all one world now.” 

Johnny, who’s been silent through most of this, finally speaks up. “Where’s my dad?” he cries. “What have you done to my dad?” The children look expectantly toward the New Teacher. Will she be able to answer? She walks toward Johnny, sits on the edge of a desk next to him, rests her hand on his arm gently, explains that his dad had to go back to school. “He had some strange thoughts, and he wanted other grown-ups to believe them. It’s not right for others to believe wrong thoughts. Is it?” She tells them, for example, that whenever their parents don’t have time to talk to them, that’s a wrong thought. And that’s what they do all the time. "Perhaps my mom should go back to school," one student says. "Perhaps she should," another agrees. "There’s a good boy," the New Teacher says.

And now there’s another surprise: all the students will be staying at the school overnight. "We have a lovely room and bed and there’s lots of food and we’ll all tell stories and have such a lovely time." And they can stay up until 8:30—what an adventure! "But first we have to say our prayers," one little girl reminds her. 

"Let's all pray for candy."
What shall we pray for? the New Teacher asks. “I know. Let’s pray for candy.” And so they all pray, the Teacher as well as the students, with their eyes closed and their hands together. But when they open their eyes, there is no candy. How can that be? After all, if we pray to God, He’ll answer our prayers. Isn’t that true? “I prayed for a puppy,” one boy says, “but never got one.” Maybe we need to try harder, the Teacher says. “Perhaps we’re using the wrong name. Instead of God, let’s say Our Leader. Let’s pray to Our Leader for candy.” As the children kneel, with their eyes closed tightly, she removes some candy (Hershey’s Kisses, I’d say) from her satchel. The children are amazed when they open their eyes and see it in her hand. “I’m going to pray to Our Leader every time,” one says. Only Johnny sees her. “You put them there. I saw you!” he shouts.

Surprisingly, the New Teacher agrees with Johnny.” She tells the children that she did it to show them that it doesn’t matter who you pray to. “To God or anyone. Even Our Leader. No one will ever give you anything. Only another human being.” God didn’t give you the puppy you wanted, “but if you work hard, I will.” The children are excited. “Only I or someone like me can give you things.” 

And because Johnny was especially clever, she says that he should be made monitor for the whole week. He beams with pride as the children applaud. “Teacher’s right, you know,” he says to the boy sitting next to him, who replies “I’m going to work hard to not have wrong thoughts.” “Me too,” Johnny says. “Not like dad.”

The New Teacher looks out the window, surrounded by some of her students. "It’s a fine, fine land. A land to breath in," she says, more to herself than to her students, as she puts her arms around them. "And you know, all over our new world, everyone’s being taught, just like I’m teaching you. Each according to his age group, each according to his need.”

The time is 9:23. 

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By the time "The Children's Story" was adapted for TV, James Clavell was a household name. He'd authored four best-selling novels (King Rat, Tai-Pan, Shōgun and Noble House), written screenplays for several movies (including The Great Escape and The Fly), and directed several others (including the Sidney Poitier smash To Sir, With Love, which he also wrote.) The 1980 television version of Shōgun, running for 12 hours over five nights, was one of the biggest hits in TV history, the biggest that NBC had ever had. With those credentials, anything by Clavell was sure to attract attention.

Compared to the books that made him famous, "The Children's Story" represents something of a change of pace. As opposed to epic sagas set in faraway exotic locales, this story is brief (only about 4,300 words, or 85 pages), takes place in an intimate, almost claustrophic setting, and deals overtly with contemporary politics. 

The story's genesis was a conversation Clavell had with his six-year-old daughter Michaela, who'd proudly told him that she had learned the Pledge of Allegiance in school. What most struck him was that, while she'd memorized it completely, she had "no idea what many of the words meant." Clavell, talking with "people of every age" about the Pledge, found that "[i]n every case . . . not one teacher, ever—or anyone—had ever explained the words to any one of them. Everyone just had to learn it to say it." It was then, he wrote, that "I realized how completely vulnerable my child's mind was—any mind for that matter—under controlled circumstances.

The subtitle of "The Children's Story," both in print and on TV: "But not just for children."

Oh, and that young actress playing the New Teacher? Her professional name was Michaela Ross; her real name is Michaela Clavell. The same Michaela who started the whole thing in the first place.

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"And fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul," Jesus tells His disciples according to the evangelist Matthew, “but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Indeed, in the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for heretics to be burned at the stake. We can question the extremity of such action, but what cannot be questioned is the seriousness with which people regarded the state of the soul, the inner workings of man. 

For Christians of the era, to mislead people about the spiritual truth was, in a sense, a form of brainwashing, an indoctrination into falsehoods that threatened not the physical lives of those individuals, but their spiritual lives. Should one die while under the control of such false beliefs, their soul could very well wind up in hell, a fate far more disastrous than anything that could happen to them through torture or killing.

As such, to manipulate the young, while in their most vulnerable intellectual stage of life, comes in for particularly severe judgment. I referred to this earlier as a unique form of child abuse; Christ Himself warns of the consequences: “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Lesson: what you believe in, what you are taught, matters.

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If "The Children's Story" was a departure from Clavell's typical fare, it was also different from other Mobil Showcase presentations. Not only was it a stand-alone, single-night production (rather than the multi-part miniseries that had been the series' trademark), its running time was only 30 minutes. In addition, unlike previous programs in the series, it was presented without commercial interruption, "because of the unusual nature and importance of the program." It was appropriate, given that the story unfolds in real time.
     The edition in my library
When Mobil Showcase host Peter Ustinov appeared on camera to introduce the program, which he hoped viewers would find "as chilling and as thought-provoking as we do," he did so not from an elaborate set or a comfortable chair, but from a library, surrounded by some of the most dangerous elements known to mankind: books. His singularly disturbing introduction, running barely a minute, concludes with a question as prescient today as it was 40 years ago. "We take so much for granted in this wonderful world of ours," he said. "Free speech, freedom to question, to choose what we read, where our children go to school, where we live, what we say, what we think. All our glorious inalienable rights. So solid, so permanent. But are they?"

Reaction to "The Children's Story" was predictable. Janet Maslin, writing for the liberal New York Times, described it as "a half-hour alarmist fable that has a numbing obviousness, and plenty of other objectionable aspects," and compared it to "the cold-war hysteria of Rod Serling's ''The Twilight Zone'' without any of the ingenuity." Gene Triplett, writing in conservative Oklahoma for The Oklahoman, saw it differently, calling it "a riveting and thought-provoking half-hour of television viewing," and praised Ross's "effective portrayal of the soothing, manipulative instructor [through which] we are given a disturbing demonstration in how charm and fallacious logic can seduce and subvert young minds." The Christian Science Monitor's Arthur Unger described it as a "unique horror show" and added that "This slight but important half-hour in class is a shocking lesson about the sometimes forgotten power over our children which we delegate to our schools."

Perhaps Janet Maslin right. The one thing you can depend on when it comes to evil is that it does exactly what it tells you it's going to do. If that makes it "numbingly obvious," so be it.

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In Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by the writer and linguist Amanda Montell, the author examines how words can be manipulated to build a sense of community, enforce collective values, and even shut down the debate. I'm not necessarily applying the message of that book here, but: notice the phrases that the New Teacher uses, always insinuating the children into an exclusive club of knowledge, one that only the privileged are part of. "We know, you and I," she says, "you and I and all of us." Our new world," she says. "I can learn from you, as you can learn from me," she says. 

Arthur Unger, in that Christian Science Monitor review, called "The Children's Story" "an unnerving lesson in the danger of the hidden message."

If this isn't the language of exclusivity, if it doesn't operate in the same manner as the cult, how else should we describe it?

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So there we have it. What do we make of it?

Well, it's a very unhappy ending, isn't it? Reminiscent of 1984, the first entry of this series, when, at the very end, it is said of Winston Smith, "He loved Big Brother." That's called "one of the most heartbreaking lines in literature," and for good reason.

From here on it, of course, you’re under no obligation to read my thoughts on the subject. For that matter, you don’t have to read anything I write, here or anywhere else. And if you’re concerned about being offended, you can stop here and go no further; at the very least, you'll have come away with some interesting notes about television history. Please know that I'm not here to offend anyone, but that doesn't mean I'm going to hold back either. Consider yourself warned.

In watching "The Children's Story" today, you might think to yourself that this isn't a cautionary tale so much as it is a documentary. However, Clavell's warning about the future, which appears so prescient in so many ways, got one detail wrong: the Marxist infiltration of our education system didn't require a war being lost or a nation being conquered; the abandonment of our children to this singular form of indoctrination happened without a shot being fired. 

You might also think the children in this story are very stupid, that all you have to do is say their name or know their birthday or give them a piece of candy, and they’ll do anything you want. I don’t know that I’d call them stupid, though—I’d call them human. We’re all vulnerable to flattery, to bribery, to being made to feel important. It’s like wearing a badge, or a medal.  It shows everyone else that I’m special. I’m more special than you. Now, we're all special in the eyes of God. But, I forgot—there’s no God either, is there? After all, if He were there, He’d answer your prayers, wouldn’t He?  Praying to God or anyone for something is a waste of time, the New Teacher tells her students. You can pray if you want to, if it makes you feel better, but it won’t do any good. Your parents want you to, "but we know, you and I, that it means nothing. That’s our secret."

We're told how it's so very important that we protect people from wrong thoughts, from fake news, from “misinformation” and “harmful content.” Those quotes are from Facebook’s “Community Standards and Protections Policy,” by the way. Other forms of social media have similar policies, and most companies have diversity policies with similar language. And if you violate those policies, you’re subject to some kind of sensitivity training. It’s just like going back to school. And who decides what makes thoughts strange and content harmful? The people who make the policy, of course. As the New Teacher tells Johnny, “It’s right to show grown-ups right thoughts when they’re wrong." Kind of like the Hitler Youth.

So, what were those wrong thoughts? "Just some grown up thoughts that are old fashioned. We’re going to learn all about them in class. Then we can share knowledge so I can learn from you as you can learn from me." Ah, yes, those old fashioned thoughts are so gauche, aren’t they? Ideas like religion, patriotism, and Father Knows Best, American history and the Founding Founders. Acts like questioning the "experts" when it comes to the Wuhan virus, or insisting that you have the right not to be injected with an experimental, morally illicit drug against your will. They're just in the way, you know, preventing us from getting where we need to be. Anyway, "It’s not right for others to believe wrong thoughts. Is it?"

This is the world in which we live today, the world we’ve been living in for some time now, and if you think this isn't already happening, no matter where you live, you haven't been paying attention. From Common Core to Critical Race Theory, public schools in America—and many private ones as well, including schools professing to be Christian—have become nothing more than indoctrination centers for the government, repositories of hate and division, of propagandizing and conditioning; institutions committed to undermining the authority of parents, the values of society, the traditions of a nation, and where even silence can be seen as dissent from this new Creed, the Creed of, as the New Teacher put it, “our new world.”  

A world where history is what we say it is.

A world where the only thing that matters is what happens today.

A world founded on slavery, on bigotry, where our homeland was never great, or perhaps even good. 

A world where error has no rights and wrong thoughts must be punished, where a supposedly free citizen must have the proper papers to avoid being branded as a dissident, where there are no such things as second chances, where doubt can never be allowed, even for a moment, to darken the precepts of the new morality.

In such a world, who can you trust? Not history. Not God. Certainly not what you thought you knew, or what your parents or grandparents taught you. They’re prisoners of the old way of thinking. They’re trapped by wrong ideas.

No, the only thing that matters is having right thoughts. The thoughts that you learn in your government school. That’s what it is, you know, so we might as well call it that, the unholy alliance between the state and the education establishment. 

"Freedom, however you conceive it, is such a fragile possession," Peter Ustinov says at the end of "The Children's Story." "It has to be worked at to be protected. So all of us have a part in
this story. What’s the value of your child’s mind? Or your right to question?"

Yes, this children's story is not just for children.  TV  


  1. Thank you for this. Everything you wrote is absolutely true. "The Children's Story" is on YouTube and I look forward to watching it, though I'm sure it will not be a happy experience. Given how far we've already sunk, perhaps you should change "Descent" into "Arrival."

    1. Thanks, David. Really good point--remember Koestler's book "Arrival and Departure"? Maybe what we're experiencing is Departure and Arrival.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!