London's calling

While he may now be hobnobbing with prime ministers, MKs and generals with partner Motti Kirschenbaum on Channel 10's London and Kirschenbaum interview program, a select group of Israeli viewers remembers Yaron London for something else: sitting on his lap or on a white sofa in the late 1980s as part of his class Mesibat Gan series, still considered a breakthrough children's program which attracted a wide adult audience as well. Truth is, after a long stint at Channel 1, London had pretty much left the station when Tunisian-born Michael Cohen-Aloro, a technician at Herzliya Studios, changed all that, and taught him some valuable lessons about children along the way. Cohen-Aloro had seen a French program with a well-known entertainer "who would bring kids up on stage in a large hall, ask them a few questions, then sing a song with them," recalls London in a phone conversation. "The parents cried, it moved them so much, and the children were very sweet, and he wanted to do something here, but that wasn't exactly what came out." At first, London wasn't interested. "He came to me and asked me if I was willing to do a kids' show, with interviews, and I told him: 'I have no experience in talking with kids.' I wasn't so good at it, even as a father. I wasn't the kind of father who read their kids books or had long talks with them." When it came to interviewing kids, "I was tabula rasa," admits London. Nonetheless, "we decided to give it a shot. We took a camera and went to a kindergarten and I started talking with the children. And I didn't think it was good. I didn't think I was really making a connection with them. We even hired a drama coach to teach me how to behave differently, because my experience was with adults." Interviewing adults, says the veteran prize-winning journalist - who has enjoyed a very distinguished career and has made several important documentaries before his current early-evening interview show - involves either going with the direction the interviewee wants or "you try to shock him, with the hope that the shock will lead him to give you something he didn't mean to say." But he found out talking to kids - about all subjects, including the YouTube clip we saw recently which included asking the young guests "What is the intifada?" "Why do the Arabs want to kill us?" and other hard, almost existential questions that he earnestly but gently discussed with his young interviewees - was different than his years of interviewing as a reporter. "With kids, there's no need to use these approaches, because they are open. True, they won't always tell you everything... but it's very easy, by asking direct questions, asked softly, in a way that makes them feel like you're their partner, to get them to open up and get them to reveal things. Children tell you things. And that was something that I had to learn." London can't stand the way people talk down to children, something he never did on his show. "I always spoke out against the babyish way people would speak to children. It was the way people would speak to the disabled. If someone's in a wheelchair, they're spoken to in a different tone. People speak to children sometimes like they're fools. And I always had this inner opposition to this. I didn't speak to my children this way. "I never felt that one must talk to children in an infantile manner... I thought that if you spoke to children this way, you could raise the level of the discussion, and discuss complex matters without the viewer or the child feeling that you, as the host, were fulfilling a didactic role, that you're a teacher. And I thought that was the proper way to speak to children, and that TV programs around the world made children stupider rather than developing them. I have faith in children, and want them to grow up to be enlightened kids who understand things, not dolts who are only entertained when a fat man falls on a banana peel. "That was the idea, and it turned out suddenly that this type of discussion was enjoyable both for the kids and adults... We also added a clownish, entertaining aspect to the show, Julian [Chagrin], who was like a big funny child, and together it worked well... His mimicry was great, he was really freaky and the children loved this character. So there was this funny part and the serious side." A topic would be determined and then questions worked out. Finding kids to appear on the program wasn't easy, however, London recalls. "The kids had to be checked out seriously, because not every child can stand up to such a thing. And we needed kids who were bright and who could focus. It cost a lot of money to make, and ended after a few years." The producers tried Rivka Michaeli in his place, but "it didn't work. So I can say modestly that there was a formula that fit me more than others." The program succeeded, he says, because "it represented a different way of talking to kids, very serious on one side and entertaining on the other, and adults really liked it. And this almost doesn't exist today. And you don't see too many kids' shows that adults enjoy watching. It also attracted adults, who were amazed at the kids, and the kids themselves as well." While he has some of the episodes on tape - some are viewable on YouTube and occasionally on classic loops of children's TV on Channel 1 - he "doesn't like to watch myself on TV." But he does get stopped in the street by adults in their mid 20s "who say, 'I sat on your lap 20 years ago,'" he says with a laugh. Would he trade in his current interviewees to be back with the kids? "To a certain extent, because of the innocence of the children, who don't hide anything, it's a lot more interesting. Ninety percent of the interviewees we talk with, we know what the answer will be. With kids, you never know, and that's what makes it fun." And he firmly believes that what stimulates them may have changed - "you need more pyrotechnics," he says - they're still the same, basically, after all these years. "But they have to be treated seriously and we must realize that they are our most precious treasure. If we don't treat them seriously and realize what a responsibility we have, they'll grow up to be stupid people. It's very simple." He believes he contributed something to Israeli television by showing "an adult treating a child seriously, and asking him his opinion," thereby giving him a good feeling. London, who today has eight grandchildren, got something back, too. "I discovered a world I really didn't know so well before, because I wasn't a great father... When my children were young, my thing was that they not bother me. And on the show, I learned to have patience with children and hear what they have to say, and how wonderful this phenomenon called childhood is."