Switched On 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1699

Since the 1960s, many children have got into the habit of switching the television set on as soon as they arrive home from school, and I was no exception.

The problem was, though, that until the early 1970s, the restrictions on broadcasting hours meant that there was nothing on until around 4.55pm, and even then this was subject to change.

It’s no coincidence that everyone remembers television start-ups and programming from this time as if it was an evening at the pictures, punctuated by nature’s call and the whistle of a boiling kettle, rather than a lady wearing horn-rimmed glasses serving Lyons Maid ice cream.

The scarcity and paucity of broadcast programmes meant that you had to spend time in front of the box at the time your favourite programme was shown -video recording being a luxury that few could afford – and there was only one set in the house. No remote controls either, and most of us had only two channels.

Test Card D

The BBC’s take on children’s television started with little fanfare. Good old Test Card D would be the first thing we’d see, and the tea would be served just in time for the opening announcement, and somehow we’re yet again into another day’s telly. There are a number of things that I recall vividly – a brass band version of “Ilkley Moor Ba’ T’at” being used as an opening tune around the early 1970s on BBC 1 North (which was on VHF Channel 2, Holme Moss). We did watch BBC 1 from Winter Hill (channel 12), but for some reason my mother preferred channel 2 – I think it was that reassuring high whistle and DX interference!

Testcard D

I’d watch BBC children’s television as if it was a weekday Tuppenny Rush. I recall “The Hardy Boys [The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure]” and “Tom Tom” from BBC-1 as being almost like features from a comic, but they were still imbued with that certain sparkle.

A lot of the programmes appeared to be cheaply put on, with poor production values (“Whistle Stop” with Roger Whittaker seemed to consist of poor miming and bad sets) but there were many more audience shows than there are now with high production values, “Crackerjack” being the most notable. For a show that featured the vaudevillian Peter Glaze teamed with the likes of Leslie Crowther or Ed “Stewpot” Stewart, ending each show with a medley of hits of the day or engaged in sketches and skits, it was vilified in its time, but is fondly remembered by a lot of us baby boomers.

Spinning globes

The presentation was still based around voice-over and spinning globe, and seemed to vary little from the standard BBC procedures. At the time I didn’t notice, but viewing some of the pieces in retrospect, the delivery is very formal but a little lighter than usual – almost pedagogic in some ways. It appears that the Corporation hierarchy saw programmes for younger viewers as a way into the BBC as viewers, listeners, and eventually licence-payers, and did not particularly brand the output in a distinctly different way at that time, although they had done so earlier.

The weekday period for children’s TV was roughly this – 11.00am Play School (BBC 2), 1.30 pm “Watch With Mother” (BBC-1) and 4.40 to 5.40 pm was kept as the “children’s hour” (literally). The times varied depending on season, sports or other considerations.

The weekends were rather disjointed, with maybe a short cartoon on Saturday morning, the evening “Doctor Who” slot and maybe a Tom and Jerry cartoon as an extra. I do remember a show called “Zokko!” which featured a new concept – no presenter, just a pinball machine that said “score 14 – music” and would then play a tune of the day, for example, and this was shown before “Grandstand” in, I think, 1970.

Imports

Eventually, some imported shows made their way into the schedule to fill Saturday morning – “The Banana Splits” for example (which started as a weekday filler in February 1970) – but it took a very long time for the BBC to develop a suitable type of entertainment for Saturday mornings in “Swap Shop”, and that was only in response to ATV’s “Tiswas”.

Anyway, back to my recollections. There were a couple of welcome variations to the standard Beeb fare, like the holiday mornings when cartoons mingled with repeats of serials like “Robinson Crusoe”. I don’t know if anyone might agree with me here, but the idea of “Why Don’t You?” irritated me immensely – I really didn’t want to learn about whittling wood or making rice krispie squares, our generation were punks, man! Seriously, although I never liked it, I’m sure there are fans of it out there.

Some cartoons had limited showings, like “Super Globetrotters” and others, like “The Pink Panther” were shown until the negative wore out.

If there was one area in which the BBC were head and shoulders above ITV, it was in having, it seemed, an almost exclusive contract with Hanna-Barbera. “Wacky Races”, “Yogi Bear”, “It’s The Wolf”, and so on, ad infinitum. All of these became fixtures of the weekdays at one time or another. At the tender age of 41, I watch Cartoon Network with my daughter who swears that “Scooby-Doo” is brand new, and, you know, I have never corrected her on that point… still enjoy it though.

Plain sailing

No mention of BBC TV would be complete without “Blue Peter”, which has transformed and reinvented itself over and over, and its longevity is probably down to its simplicity – have three presenters, give them specific tasks to show the viewers, and get the audience involved.

Some episodes were funny beyond belief (the now-famous elephant, which I saw live in July 1969), some were sickly (Princess Anne on a Blue Peter safari), but I watched with continued interest. Watching it now, only the Advent Crown and the Appeal remain, but the use of scissors is still restricted to adults, although sticky backed plastic seems to have been surpassed as a favourite material.

I noticed that as the 70s gave way to the 80s, the BBC were developing the presentation of children’s TV to include a live presenter, something that hadn’t happened since the 1960s, and had been experimenting with computer animation in the early 1980s (BBC Micro), but a looseness of approach was becoming apparent, in response to the successful Children’s ITV brand.

Stop watch

I very rarely watch children’s television now, because the presentation appears to have reached the stage of “zany” camera angles, hip and happening dudes in casual wear, and the use of street slang – it’s become very American, like a lot of UK television, and actually resembles the likes of Nickelodeon and Trouble.

Obviously, this is a management decision again, where, as I said earlier, the BBC has to draw in the younger viewers as they are potentially licence payers in the future, and the competition from both terrestrial and satellite makes it necessary to make the output unique and distinguishable from everyone else’s in order to survive.

The strand has become CBeebies and CBBC, and each session of children’s broadcasting is branded and stripped, with a stronger identity than before.

But, unfortunately, I couldn’t comment on whether I thought the programmes were any good…

I’m not saying that I would necessarily wish to go back to the cosy teatime – fireside aspects of sixties and seventies BBC kids telly, but it would be still be like that if it wasn’t for those meddling kids in charge.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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