From Small Time to big time 

3 September 2005 tbs.pm/3461

The proliferation of channels, on many different platforms and in many differing forms, is typical of today’s television broadcasting. It is possible to turn on your plasma screen at 2am and watch “Battle Of The Planets” and “Hong Kong Phooey”, and there is so much kids TV out there both on subscription and Free-to-Air, both original and rerun.

Fifty years ago there was less, much less. Apart from “Watch with Mother”, there was a “Children’s Hour” separated from the rest of the BBC output by an hour’s gap, the famed Toddler’s Truce.

Programmes tended to be rather portentous and patronizing by the standards of today. For example, one of the earliest surviving clips of “All Your Own” featured Huw Wheldon talking to a very young Jimmy Page about skiffle music and throughout the clip one can sense that Wheldon just wanted the item over and done, as quickly as possible, and didn’t really connect with either Page or the subject.

All this was to change with the advent of commercial television. In this article, we are looking at the first two decades of ITV’s children’s output: there is so much to say that it is inevitable that some favourites may be left out.

In the beginning

To begin at the beginning… ITV, in 1955, had intention of providing as much of a programme range for children as possible, in both the “Small Time” and “Tee-Vee-Time” schedules. “Small Time” ran at lunchtime as part of the Morning Magazine, which started at 10.45am on weekdays with the serial “Sixpenny Corner” and included the ITN News, read by Barbara Mandrell in the early days. There were a number of different ideas being tried out, some more successful than others. For example, in the first week, Rolf Harris – then 25 – presented “Big Black Crayon”.

It seems, from a description in a contemporary issue of TVTimes – it’s probable that no recording exists – to be almost exactly like some of the children’s TV he did later (“The children help Rolf Harris and Jean Ford to draw a picture with their big black crayon”). He later went on to do another programme with a character Oliver Polip, an octopus (his left hand with a hat on).

“Johnny and Flonny” was a weekly serial featuring a rabbit, Flonny, and a glove puppet of a boy, Johnny, who was always getting into scrapes.

On Wednesdays, “Toybox” featured two unusual stories: “Doodle Bird” (a duck made of 7 pieces of wood that can be assembled in 57 different ways) and “Billy Boots”, in which all the characters are pairs of shoes.

At this point, “Small Time” was mainly presented and produced by a kind of A-R repertory company, unsurprising in that only Associated-Rediffusion was on air during the week. ABC (later ATV) had London weekends, but was producing “Robin Hood” which was the first big successful family show on ITV: it led to a number of other historical drama series, such as “Ivanhoe” and “The Buccaneers”.

When ABC Weekend came on air in Midlands in February 1956 and the North three months later, it was a little while before they were winning awards with “Snip and Snap”. Granada, however, mainly contributed “Zoo Time” and “A to Zoo” to the network, with the help of Desmond Morris.

There was a short-term cash crisis in the ITV system in 1956-7, and daytime schedules were scrapped for a time, resulting in the companies’ entrenchment in the evenings. However, the situation did eventually improve substantially, with money arriving into the system to save the ITV franchises from bankruptcy, and to fund more programmes.

Marionettes

1957 brought a new series, “The Adventures of Twizzle” which featured marionettes telling stories featuring the eponymous hero and his cat Footso. This was an idea which was written by A-R’s Roberta Leigh (who went on to write many other childrens’ and adults’ books) and it was a first TV production by Gerry Anderson with his then partner Arthur Provis.

Due to the limited budget available at this stage, the puppets were very primitive, and were apparently operated by means of pieces of carpet wool. While Anderson felt compromised by the constraints he was working under, the success of the series, plus the financial rewards, enabled him to establish a production base that would enable him to develop his techniques.

“Torchy The Battery Boy” was produced a year or so later by Pelham Films, APF and ABC TV, but it was “Four Feather Falls” (Granada/APF) that showed the greatest advance, that of Supermarionation – in short, the puppets could move their lips in time with a voice track, as they “spoke”.

A handshake agreement with Lew Grade of ATV guaranteed a worldwide distribution for APF and the prolific period of work that followed included “Supercar”, “Fireball XL5”, “Stingray”, and the sine qua non of all his work, “Thunderbirds”. (His original partner, Arthur Provis, was producing “Space Patrol” – a series in vein of “XL5” – for ABC in the early 1960s.) Gerry Anderson continued to make strong contributions to ITV throughout the sixties, eventually developing his shows to the point at which the puppets were so lifelike that they began to resemble their voice artistes – Captain Scarlet sounds like and looks like Francis Matthews, for example. The dark edge of “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”, coupled with proto-violence, was maybe a little too much for some.

As a result, he went back to basics with “Joe 90”, which had a homelier mien to it, but only enjoyed modest viewing figures. The most odd of his original Supermarionation series must be “The Secret Service”, in which Stanley Unwin appeared as a priest and in puppet form.

This was the one where, reportedly, Lew Grade saw just one episode in a viewing theatre and told Anderson to immediately stop production. It was, at that point, that Gerry Anderson started to make the live action series “UFO” and “Space 1999”, and produced “The Protectors” for peak-time viewing. After a long period of personal problems, he returned to TV production later, but his influence on baby boomers and, in turn, today’s youngsters remains immense.

Rock and/or roll

Let us go back to the late 1950s/early sixties for a while. Early skiffle and rock’n’roll were covered on the BBC’s “6-5 Special” and “Drumbeat”, and ITV’s “Oh Boy!”, “Boy Meets Girls”, “Wham!” and “Thank Your Lucky Stars”, but these were aimed at an older age range than Children’s Hour.

This was the area in which A-R’s “Tuesday Rendezvous” began, a lively magazine programme with an emphasis on music. It later evolved into “Lucky Dip”, then its best-known twice-weekly incarnation, “Five O’Clock Club”, which ran from 1963 to 1966. Hosted at various times by Howard Williams, Wally Whyton and Muriel Young, with help from Fred Barker and Ollie Beak, the pop groups of the day were featured doing their latest single releases.

To take each of the names above in turn, Howard Williams helped to introduce one of the best-loved children’s characters ever, in a show called “The Three Scampis”. This was the quick-witted, cheeky and aristocratic fox, Basil Brush, voiced by Ivor Owen, who became a fixture of BBC TV from 1968-1980, later to resurface on ITV in a schools programme – “Let’s Read With Basil Brush” – in the early 1980s, and eventually, be back in a blaze of glory on the Beeb again.

Wally Whyton, meanwhile, had been a member of the late 1950s skiffle group The Vipers, who made a number of records for Parlophone. After this, he made a number of musical contributions to “Small Time” programmes like “The Musical Box”. After “Five O’Clock Club” he took over Granada’s “Time for a Laugh” from Peter Eckersley, an introduction to each of the cartoons and singing the theme song (and if you’ve read this far, you can sing along too):

Time for a laugh, time for some fun,

Come on and join us, everyone,

We’ll have a ball, cartoons for all,

Whether you’re six or you’re sixty, it’s time for a laugh…

The most important name, though, has to be that of Muriel Young, whose contributions to ITV children’s television remained consistently high in quality, despite somewhat limited budgets. In the sixties she produced a number of formats for Rediffusion, in the seventies for Granada she came up with ideas such as “Lift Off” “45”, “Look Alive” and “Get It Together”, producing cost-effective music television featuring the stars of the day.

She also managed to get a number of artists to have shows produced around them, like The Arrows, but her finest hour was “Shang-A-Lang” with the Bay City Rollers, with every show featuring a complete riot at the end.

She also produced “Marc” featuring Marc Bolan and T.Rex, which steadily built up audience figures, and was going to commission another series on that basis: however, Marc was killed before he could capitalize on his comeback.

Slapstick

Once again, if we look back to the early days of ITV, comedy shows for children tended to be knockabout affairs, such as “Mick and Montmorency” featuring Charlie Drake. Humour tended towards the lowbrow, with odd scholarly references thrown in.

One doesn’t expect innovations, but, occasionally, things do occur to change comedy and its perceptions forever. Jeremy Issacs of Rediffusion had heard that “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again” was being listened to by children in significant numbers, so requested that Humphrey Barclay, the series producer, could make a series that could have that type of appeal. Thus, Barclay recruited Eric Idle, who he knew from the Cambridge Footlights, and Terry Jones, who in turn brought in Michael Palin.

Humphrey then wanted two others to offset the three university performers, and selected Denise Coffey, an actress with a broad range, and David Jason, who he saw as a knockabout comic: the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band contributed musical interludes. Together, they were the team behind “Do Not Adjust Your Set”, which established itself as essential viewing for children and adults at Thursday teatime throughout the first three months of 1968.

As time went on, the show began to get more surreal, in no small part to the contributions of Terry Gilliam that began creeping in. Viewing the recently issued DVD set, the shows look more permissive than they did at the time, and the “Captain Fantastic” interludes look even more Chaplinesque.

Of course, Idle, Palin, Gilliam and Jones later decamped to “Monty Python” on the BBC, and Coffey and Jason went through varying roles, and series, until Jason established himself with “Only Fools and Horses” in the early 1980s.

Comedy and music

“Little Big Time” starred Freddie and the Dreamers in musical numbers and comedy sketches, and one series featured an attempt at a kind of rock opera, “Oliver In The Overworld”, which was ambitious but nonetheless funny. Each of the characters had its own theme song, such as Graham Haberfield’s Undercog.

“You Must Be Joking!” from 1975 featured the group Flintlock lead by drummer Mike Holoway (of whom more later), with friends Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, and Jim Bowen as a kind of authority figure. Again based on sketches and knockabout comedy, it developed into another similar series, “Pauline’s Quirke’s”, and put Quirke and Robson in the public’s mind as a double act, later to reach a career peak in “Birds Of A Feather” in 1989.

It was Saturday mornings, however, that brought about a major change in children’s television, and ITV in particular. Saturdays had been spent in a kind of haze, with cartoons, adult education and black-and-white films filling otherwise dead airtime.

ATV devised “Tiswas” (said to mean either “This Is Saturday, Watch and Smile” or “Wear a Smile”), and the first show went out in the Midlands in January 1974.

It developed an anarchic edge under the helm of Chris Tarrant, presenter/producer, and his motley crew, which featured Sally James, John Gorman, Lenny Henry, Bob Carolgees and many others. Its very status as a show watched by children and adults made it a classic in its own time, but eventually lead to its own undoing.

Tarrant and most of the team went to a late-night show, “OTT”, which was heavily pilloried and criticised, later leading to a rethink on format and title (“Saturday Stayback”), which couldn’t save it from oblivion.

There were descendants of “Tiswas”, notably “How Dare You” in the late eighties, but the original shows, mostly unseen since their original broadcast, remain definitive.

Since the 1970s, there have been many attempts to make a Saturday morning format that would appeal to all, and the best of these has been “SM:tv”, primarily because of Ant and Dec’s ebullient personalities, and because of its willingness to try anything.

Drama and laughter

Drama led the way for ITV children’s programming in the sixties and seventies, with “Orlando” featuring Sam Kydd, “Freewheelers” from Southern TV, and the series “Timeslip” from ATV. “Ace of Wands” introduced magic and illusion to teatimes, whilst sci-fi continued with “The Tomorrow People” featuring Mike Holoway amongst others. There was even a kind of soap, “The Kids From 47a”, which dealt with the problems within a family when big sister had to play mum.

In an attempt to present one-off plays and comedies, ITV companies developed short seasons in which pilots could be shown to assess viewer reaction: “Funny Ha Ha” in 1974 featured six, of which one, “Commander Badman” was written by Eric Idle, and featured Henry Woolf and David Battley (who were later featured in Idle’s series “Rutland Weekend Television”). “Dramarama” allowed for new and published writers to get breaks on television.

Presentation

The presentation of children’s programmes has progressed since the 1950’s, but how much exactly? As previously mentioned, there were originally two distinct slots, “Small Time” and “Tee Vee Time”; with the abolition of the 6pm Truce in February 1957, the children’s programmes ran roughly from 5pm to the early evening news.

The start time was brought forward to 4.30pm in some areas. With the advent of daytime TV in October 1972, the lunchtime programme strand developed, and with it, new programmes like “Inigo Pipkin”/”Pipkins” and the best of them all, “Rainbow”.

It wasn’t until the very early 80s that “Watch It!” became the title of the children’s strand, later to be Children’s ITV, and now simply CITV.

In 2005 ITV is 50 years old, and although the peak-time programmes will be feted and celebrated, it is the children’s output that acted as an entrée for all of us into the fascinating and exciting world of television.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

Report an error

Author

Andrew Hesford Contact More by me

Your comment

Enter it below