Documentary – Won’t You Be My Neighbour?

Looking forward to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Steve Taylor-Bryant watched the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? currently streaming on Netflix...

With the new film starring Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, nearly upon us I thought I would try and find out a little more about who Fred Rogers was so I can maybe get more than a passing appreciation when I watch the Hanks film. What I was not ready for was the outpouring of emotion I would have watching 2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbour? from director Morgan Neville. I am not going to lie, I was on cry number six about 40 minutes in and stopped counting but I promise you the lump in my throat and the moisture in my eyes never went away.

I have no memories of Fred Rogers. I am not an American, I didn’t grow up in America, and so this often spoke of childhood hero didn’t actually mean anything to me, my only real knowledge was that he was the inspiration for Eddie Murphy’s character in his Saturday Night Live skits. Why then did I have such an emotional response to a man I knew nothing of? It was sadness mainly. Sadness that I hadn’t been exposed to Rogers way of speaking to children when I was a child. You see Rogers wasn’t just a presenter, he didn’t just say ‘Hello, children’ and then introduce some cartoon full of violence like my childhood was full of, he listened to children, he understood them, he knew that they were worried about real world problems but didn’t understand what they were feeling, and he explained it to them and made them feel a part of the discussion, but mainly he made them feel safe. As a child I was unfortunately touched by death at an early age, and repeatedly, and never knew how to grieve, never understood the why’s and what’s of real life and what I was feeling, and I took these complex emotional issues into adult life with. Had my childhood had a presenter like Rogers who could take the Vietnam War, or the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, or racism and segregation and explain to children what was happening why it was happening and that they were okay to feel angry or sad, that children should love people for what they are not what they look like, then my adulthood may well have been less painful and involve a lot less therapy.

It’s the therapy angle I took the most from when watching the documentary. Rogers, who was going to be a minister before television came about, did simple things that today would be classified as childhood psychology. The taking off of his work jacket, his shoes, and the putting on of a jumper or cardigan may seem irrelevant but they are visual ways of telling children they are in a safe place, it is comforting. He treated children like human beings and not children. Yes, he used puppets, make believe, and voices, but the problems of anger, frustration, sadness, grief were constantly dealt with, so children had a great chance at growing into adolescence with some semblance of how to function in life.

There is much more in the film, much that is vitally important to your understanding of who Fred Rogers was, there is fantastic insight from those who knew him, were involved in his work, from his wife and from his children, and the film is put together in a highly watchable way, but you will get from the film what you want to get. If you are perfectly normal, or heartless, you may not feel as emotional as I, but I am pretty sure the majority of you will spend an hour and half with a painful lump in your throat.

Stunning insights into an obviously special man and great preparation for non-Americans to enjoy Tom Hanks new film.

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