I’m of the generation supposed to be blessed with the Golden Age of children’s TV (the 70s and early 80s). Fortunate enough to be on the Royal Television Society jury judging Children’s TV and TV Drama this year, I was delighted to see some outstanding original programming. Horrible Histories and The Sarah Jane Adventures won Best Children’s Programme and Best Children’s Drama at the awards on March 15th. It seemed a good point to put up this piece I wrote for @JamesofWalsh’s eminent fanzine Hospitalized for Approaching Perfection #2 last year.
When I was a sixth former in 1984, there was a girl called Rowena with waist-length plaits, who revealed that her family didn’t have a TV at home. She was 17. She was like the Amish kid at school. We felt sorry for her.
Flash forward to 2001 and I am raising my own spawn. Thunderbirds is still on TV. My son has a pathological fear of the restaurateur in Fireman Sam. My mother takes me aside one day and expresses her deep concern that my children are not watching ENOUGH television. They will be freaks to their peers in Reception, she fears.
How did this happen? Why was I turning away from the shiny box that had been such an important part of my own childhood? And what could I do to remedy the situation?
I realised that I was increasingly disturbed at the amount of rubbish being fired at my toddlers: poor quality, pastel, computerised fake “claymation” desecrating the memory of Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben; under dressed continuity presenters who kept making me think of those news stories about girls being “groomed”; scrolling captions along the bottom of the screen telling them what was coming up next to keep them glued; and the speed of the shot changes.
Aric Sigman, (brilliantly enough a former kids’ TV agony uncle) was for a while the only one out there warning about the impact of such overload on developing little brain synapses in a paper called “Visual Voodoo” for The Biologist magazine (Feb 2007). More recently Dr Susan Greenfield has said the issue is one she wishes to explore further.
The turning point came with the following two incidents: noticing “treat-sized” videos of Thomas The Tank Engine, with only 3 episodes, so kids couldn’t keep the tape going for 3 hours. And when I met a 50 something architect, who asked me in desperation: How do you manage to control how much TV your kids watch? He admitted that his own three year old was watching Disney feature films every night. All these adults with years of higher education, helpless in the grip of rolling kids’ TV…
Like a disillusioned parent living near a sink school, I opted for home education. Each of the following was originally administered to my generation in 15 minute doses, once a day, max. I’m shocked to realise how little time that seems. I went for doses of up to 30 minutes a time; the same duration as an episode of Teletubbies, that was aimed at one year-olds.
This proved less successful than I had hoped. Apart from the hauntingly beautiful music, the complexities of neo-feudal village life seemed a bit much for 3 year olds. They were terrified when bees got loose near the bakery. For some reason, watching the episodes myself, aged 30-something, I was reminded rather strongly of Went The Day Well? — Alberto Cavalcanti’s wartime adventure in which cuddly English stereotypes are about to axe and get axed by an advance force of invading Nazis.
LESSON TWO: Fingerbobs
This is like the Arts and Crafts lesson. Yoffy, a genial bearded Canadian with a neckerchief, has a selection of coloured gloves from haberdashery, and cuts little curls of gummed paper to make: a black crow, a grey mouse, a brown tortoise, a white dove and a pink shrimp, called confusingly, Scampi. I was rather disturbed to find that his is a polygamous culture, and that his harem of shellfish is referred to as “Scampi’s girls”.
There is, though, copious use of simple materials – pebbles, cottonwool, straw – to tell imaginative stories with beautiful music and evocative lighting. Even today, my first and most fundamental memory of Venice is the cardboard cut-out version from Fingerbobs, not my own visit to the real St Mark’s Square. My daughter’s favourite is set in the Mexican desert and is an animated collage involving paper men, honey, cacti and feathers. This does set me thinking ominously of Once Upon A Time In the West – but that can wait till Year 8. The overall impact: it feeds my daughter’s love of making stuff. Each programme is about 15 minutes long. They feel slower-paced and calmer than anything Cbeebies has to offer.
LESSON THREE: BAGPUSS
This was repeated on TV until well into the 1980s, a testament to its enduring appeal. The use of collage and beautiful folk style music (Madeleine, the rag doll, I now realise, was essentially Joan Baez) goes beyond Fingerbobs because of the use of junk and antiques. The ’70s were a decade full of the junk of history. Like the ’60s Sergeant Pepper vogue for wearing Victorian military jackets from I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, Emily’s shop is full of filthy, broken stuff from a pre-pop age. We sifted through it as children. I am reminded of dressing up in friends’ attics full of musty lacy costumes.
The chocolate biscuit mill episode fascinated both children as it did me. It’s the focus on the simple mechanics and pulleys. The voices are beautifully crystal clear. In 15 minutes a mystery is unfolded, ironed and carefully refolded. My daughter remains obsessed with owls. This is partly because she’s named after the Hindu goddess, Lakshmi, and the owl is her vehicle., but I can date the fascination to her first watching the opening Bagpuss episode, The Owls of Athens.
LESSON FOUR: PIPKINS
At the age of 6, it’s time for some urban (and commercial TV) grit. Like me, my kids first watched this far too late. Pipkins was an ATV pre-school programme aimed at 3 year olds, that I must’ve caught on rare sick days in junior school, aged 6-ish, when the BBC was far too snooty to run daytime programmes, so I was allowed to watch The Other Side.
Like Bagpuss, Pipkins is a shop full of filthy Victorian junk, including a very scary Punch and Judy-like puppet called Michael. I do wonder if he was named after Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night, when he’s driven to madness by his own ventriloquist’s dummy. I realise it is the children’s equivalent of a kind of Steptoe and Son. The original Steptoe or Inigo Pipkins died in real life, so the business is being run by my first crush — handsome, gently spoken Johnny (Wayne, now Amartie Laryea) — an example of impressively diverse casting. He’s paired with a myxomatosis version of Kenneth Williams.
Hartley hare is paranoid, egotistical, childish, and speaks in the same intense drawl, only with really mangy fur. Hartley Hare eats evil ’70s sweets like Spangles that he hides under his pillow at night. He hogs the rocking horse at the dentist’s waiting room. My kids adore him. Like Tony Hancock, I suspect some of the other cast members were deeply jealous of Hartley’s scene stealing.
There is a useful aesthetic lesson from Pipkins: the 70s were foul-looking, even studio set urban streets. There is Pig, made out of apparently rotting foam, who is clearly not quite “all there”. Topov the monkey speaks like he’s from a Children’s Film foundation project, trying to engage inner city yoof. And grumpy old man Arthur Smith appears to have modelled his voice on the gravelly-toned and morose Tortoise. Both Tortoise and Topov are made out of sludge-coloured army surplus socks.
In fact it’s not so much Steptoe, as it is a ’70s sitcom set in a children’s home. Occasionally Sue Nicholls from Coronation Street turns up to help. There are no mouthy kids who shout at gormless authority figures all the time. Johnny keeps his cool and engages his wards in the art of playing Westerns. And I am deeply grateful that Johnny doesn’t straighten his smart Afro.
LESSON FIVE: THE GOODIES
By 2009 my children were rising 10 and 8 and it was time to move onto the greatest underrated classic of all: The Goodies. I suspect Bill Oddie won’t want to know that my 8 year old daughter thought his name was Eckythump. Her Brownie pack were somewhat bemused when her contribution to the “design a poster about your favourite TV show” challenge was about The Goodies.
The strength of this programme is its child-like, not childish surrealism. Garden and Brooke-Taylor revealed a couple of years ago that they employed some veterans of silent cinema, to use their analogue, perspective-based visual effects on the most memorable Buster Keaton-influenced episodes. Certainly it’s interesting, having visited the Barbican’s Surrealist House exhibition, to see how much of the film material reminds you of The Goodies.
There is one episode that is currently banned at home — the sex and Mary Whitehouse one. Though my son, in particular, insists that they know all about sex, I point out that they’ve yet to acquire the requisite understanding of ’70s sexism that does rather mar the episode.
I decided not to flag up the rather anti-Semitic large fake noses and fur coats in the “Goodies at the Movies” episode that, I guess, is a reference to British showbiz moguls Lew Grade and Bernie Delfont. We have, however, discussed the “blackface” dressing up and why many people find it offensive, though our family’s attitude it not strict as my large Indian family’s two favourite films are The Party with Peter Sellers and Carry On Up The Khyber.
Once your children have learned to enjoy programmes that are slower paced, with a focus on dialogue, they are ready for… classic Doctor Who.
By choosing episodes carefully, mine have been able to appreciate Sarah Jane’s gutsy earnestness and flared trouser suits; compare Douglas Adams’ jokey scripts to more complex plots, like “Planet of the Spiders” (which references Buddhist spirituality as well as arachnids) and marvel at how many actors could sport comb-overs and Austin Powers-style teeth and still get major character parts on national TV. God only know what flicking through a 1970s Spotlight Directory must’ve been like.
MEETING THE MASTER
One day a few years ago I got a call from The Woman Who Created Play School and Jackanory and produced “The Magic Roundabout”. Joy Whitby of Grasshopper Productions had kick-started the careers of people such as Brian Cant at the BBC Children’s unit in the 1960s. She wanted me to re-voice Thora Hird and Shelley Winters’ narration on an early 80s show she made called Emma and Grandpa for its updated DVD release. Joy wrote the script, which was in rhyming couplets. Sitting in the Soho sound recording booth, watching the rural scenes on playback, I was able to enjoy the slower pace of speaking.
Each of the 12 episodes was set in a different calendar month to explore the changing of the seasons in the English countryside. Joy had to amend the lines about an 8 year old going up the road on her own to the shop, to cater to modern parenting standards. But there was an entire midsummer episode in which Emma goes out into the forest at night, alone, which is so fantastically impossible to imagine happening today, and another in which Grandpa and Emma discuss a dead rabbit they’ve found at the side of the path: Who killed it and who’s going to eat it. It is incredibly charming and I can “hear” myself smiling all the way through my narration.
I do not think my children are freaks, though there is something televisually quaint about their frame of reference. Amish children famously are allowed out into American towns at 16 to decide for themselves if they want to leave the community (at least according to the TV documentary I once saw). I’d like to think my children don’t have to choose. Like reading the Bible to understand great literature, or making clothes without buttons watching ’70s kids’ TV is about gaining depth and critical skill. It’s about appreciating things that are superficially simple, but made with love for children.
Along with The Simpsons and SpongeBob Squarepants, I hope there will be a part of them that will pass on Graham, Tim and Eckythump to the next generation.
Oh, and I know.. The Goodies isn’t a children’s show.