Children’s TV is on my mind this week as I’m chairing an event at the BFI Southbank on Saturday Feb 2nd with the original creator of Playschool,Jackanory and producer of Catweazle Joy Whitby. They’re screening several of her programmes and she’s giving a talk with many archive clips about the art of telling stories on the telly. Many of the cast and crew of her programmes are attending, including Terry Jones and Neil Innes,(who are introducing one of the screenings) Tim Brooke Taylor and several Play School presenters including Jonathan Cohen. I wrote 3 pieces this week for the national media about children’s television and its history:A life spent telling children stories – Daily Telegraph interview with Joy Whitby Feb 1st 2013Children’s TV veteran reflects on career – BBC News website features on Joy Whitby Jan 31st 2013
Joy found herself making headlines in the Telegraph and Daily Mail for her comment that she wouldn’t leave a child under five alone in front of children’t tv now if she could possibly help it. Her concern was about the glutting effect of all day channels and the poor quality of some programming now.
And there’s one for The Guardian about the disappearance of children’s programming from the main UK channels. You can read it here. It’s really about older children (12+) not toddlers as the photo from In The Night Garden used to illustrate it is might lead you to think. 3 important concerns I addressed in the piece were edited out in the version The Guardian posted, up so I’m putting them here:
Some current children’s programme makers have told me they worry that the status, funding and perceived value of high quality children’s programmes might be damaged when TV bosses won’t see them as part of the mainstream.
2. A missing angle on important events
The remarkably responsible way Newsround handled the suicide of the much loved children’s presenter Mark Speight a few years ago, showed the power of children’s programmes at the heart of a mainstream schedule to judge tone and mood just right. It was the only place children’s grief was acknowledged with their emails read out. It was a lesson for adult news broadcasts on difficult topics. Newsround and programmes like it are still out there, but perhaps the chance to influence adults, including policy makers about children’s interests has been severely reduced.
3. Leading the way on casting/content
Children-focussed Tv from the earliest Play Schools to the Sarah Jane Adventures and even Merlin, which started out very much as a Saturday teatime family friendly drama have often proved to lead the way on diverse and creative in their writing and multi racial and gender casting.Take the example of Paul Danquah — who was in both the ground breaking British social realist film A Taste of Honey but also just another Play School presenter too. This is an issue that came up in discussion when I was on a Royal Television Society children’s programmes jury. (The Sarah Jane Adventures and Horrible Histories won that year). The best children’s television has always been conscious of its audience and as you’ll see, if you look at the Commissioning brief on the CBBC website, sets out to reflect modern Britain, but in a non-preachy way.
My comparison to E4’s popular The Big Bang Theory, which has, once you start watching it regularly, a very large amount of questionable sexual stereotyping and content, was intended to point out that it was not an adequate substitute for the richness of voices, writing and non-stereotypical characters that specialist programmed for older children could offer.
In comments on the Guardian post some readers questioned the quality of programmes arguing that many including Cbeebies’ In the Night Garden seemed really designed around marketing to toddlers. That wasn’t the focus of my piece, but it’s a good point to consider.
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