Friday, 4 January 2013

Someone to Watch It over us... The story of ITV's Children's Television Presentation

On the 3rd of January 2013, CITV or by its full title Children's ITV will be thirty years old. Following the documentary broadcast on ITV over the Christmas and New Year period, which concentrated on that period and shown that the service itself was the first to offer national continuity for the children's slot, although not live at first and not the first to do it at all. The programme did try and maybe to set out its own history, but the history of children's television and its programmes on ITV stretches back to the origin of Independent Television itself.

With the launch of Independent Television in 1955, they set out to offer an alternative to the BBC and part of that service was to offer something different from the BBC's Children's
hour. The BBC had started to produce a strand for children called 'For the Children' in 1930's at the dawn of television itself, the first broadcast was ten minutes long on Saturday 24th April 1937. With a mixture of different presenters, performers, story-telling and songs, the programme seemed more like a miniature theatre show and with a regular slot on Saturday afternoons until September 1939, when the programme was brought off the air by the one thing which would dominate the lives of everyone and more so children for the next seven years, World War Two. The suspension of the television service meant children relied on the radio service where Children's Hours was broadcasting and had been since 1922 and became a vital companion for children everywhere, many of them evacuees away from their own families.

When fighting ceased and the television service returned in 1946, the strand doubled in length to twenty minutes and moved to Sunday afternoons, the first broadcast after the war was on July 7th 1946. Though during this time, it would see Muffin the Mule make his debut with his “friend” Annette Mills. But by 1952, the 'For the Children' would be dropped with the strand for younger viewers falling under the Watch with Mother strand and the other programmes introduced by continuity announcers. This settled the pattern for the BBC for nearly thirty-five years, but with the launch of the Independent Television service would see children's television change.

Independent Television launched on the 22nd of September 1955 with Associated-Rediffusion on weekdays and ATV at weekend to start broadcasting, followed by services in the Midlands in February 1956 with ATV during weekdays and ABC at weekends plus Granada launching on weekdays in the North and ABC at weekends during May of 1956. With these new companies came, new ideas for the making and broadcasting of children's
television. One of these was Small Time, the daily 15 minute slot for the under five's produced by Associated-Rediffusion and eventually picked up by Southern and Anglia Television plus also some others as well. The slot started on 23rd of September 1955 at 12.15pm with Johnny and Flonny, a series which had glove puppets as their performers as well as their assistant Paul Hansard, the next had one of Britain's biggest entertainers making one of their first appearances. Rolf Harris appeared in the The Big Black Crayon alongside Jean Ford, then on the Wednesday saw Toybox with Susan Spear. But Small Time also started careers in children's television of presenters and programme creators which would go onto bigger things and helped shape ITV's output during the sixties, seventies and beyond.

But this proved, that with one company making making such a slot, that other ITV franchise holders would take their the best of others programmes to be broadcast by themselves. Though this would be a problem, with some regions picking and choosing their programmes and sometimes placing programmes which may have been on family viewing instead.

Come 1957, The Adventures of Twizzle brought the fist ever television project by Gerry Anderson and his production company AP Films to the screens, shortly afterwards in 1958 by Torchy the Battery Boy. Anderson, so synonymously linked with Lord Lew Grade's ATV, had The Adventures of Twizzle distributed by Associated-Rediffusion, Four Feather Falls by Granada. But with APF in financial trouble and following Anderson's direction of low budge feature film Crossroads to Crime for Anglo-Amalgamated Studios, he was struggling to find a buyer for his new project. But if it wasn't for a fortuitous meeting with Lew Grade, who offered to buy the show. With the international success of Supercar meant that Grade finance for Anderson to produce Fireball XL5. With the success of Anderson's next project of Thunderbirds produced between September 1965 and December 1966 going stratospheric, meant that the output from AP Films was significant part of ITV's children's schedules leading to in the mid sixties. As well as the success of the programme being sold all around the world, proving that home based production could be popular both in the United Kingdom but able to bring profit back so money could be spending on making new programmes for children.

But with this, it proved that ITV could compete with the BBC over children's programming. In the early 60's, the BBC had downsized and merged their children's department into one Family Programmes department which meant that all of the children's programming including Blue Peter would be included under this department. With ITV and the federal system that they offered, meant that other regions were still buying in programmes from each other and also material from abroad as well. The powerhouses such as Rediffusion, Granada and ATV would produce programmes with other smaller regions having a contribution to make such as Southern, Anglia and Tyne Tees. Rediffusion brought comedy in the traditional style with Sooty and Harry Corbett moving over from the BBC plus new comedy with Humphrey Barclay overseeing new talents to performing Terry Jones, Michael Palin and also Eric Idle later to go onto merge with with John Cleese and Graham Chapman from Rediffusion's other new comedy show later in the evening, At Last the 1948 Show to form Monty Python. Plus with comic actors Denise Coffey and David Jason as well, they became the performers in Do Not Adjust Your Set from 1967 and such was the success of the programme that it led to it being repeated later in the evening when people got in from work or whatever they were doing during the afternoon so that more people could see this children's programme which had became a cult hit with viewers.

Southern Television had launched How in 1966, as a way to teach children about different aspects of their world around themselves and how it worked. Proving that what seemed like dry facts could be made interesting if they were presented in an entertaining way. Though one man who started on the programme in 1966, would go like the programme for the next 15 years to become one of the best known children's presenters in the country and even going beyond that to become a household name.

Rediffusion, ATV and Granada was proving that the Independent network could make quality programmes that had appeal, but by the late 1960's both the BBC and ITV were to get ready for the decade to come with programme which would a reflection of the world outside the front living room.

Though in 1967, the Independent Television Authority advertised their ITV franchises to start broadcasting in 1968, but with so much rumour and counter-rumour in the air. What was to happen, was to maybe shock and surprise people. But it was to have an effect on children's broadcasting overall, with the franchise round most regions seemed straightforward or were they? The creation of a new Yorkshire region saw applications from all over, but with the Telefusion rentals and pipe-tv group winning the franchise though with the stipulation that they had to take on the management and talent of rival bid Yorkshire Independent Television to form Yorkshire Television. ATV had lost their weekend franchise in London to David Frost's London Weekend but had gained the new seven day Midlands franchise and then came the London Weekday franchise, two companies, Rediffusion London and ABC TV, who provided great service for ITV individually since the inception of commercial television. Though with London Weekend getting the franchise for broadcasting at weekends in London, the new formed Yorkshire Television taking up the area on the east side of the Pennines, so neither could go their either with Lew Grade settled even more so in the Midlands now. Lord Charles Hill had a problem, both franchises had the talent and the management to make one company, more important to our story though was that Rediffusion had a very strong children's department which would be a huge part of ITV in the years to come competing against the BBC.

The small matter of this occurring between Rediffusion and ABC to form a new company taking on the responsibility of broadcasting to London on weekdays, though not a merger of the two companies but it was not quite to have winners either way. From Rediffusion being top banana of ITV, but their investment meant they were now part of a new company called Thames Television. Meaning the children's department at Rediffusion which had been so successful, took one the responsibility of making programmes for itself, but also making programmes to be distributed to the rest of the ITV network.

With the new companies producing new programming such as Magpie from Thames to rival Blue Peter, LWT moving into children's comedy and drama with Catweazle, Yorkshire with Junior Showtime, along with ATV with Captain Scarlet, the latest production from Gerry Anderson's AP Films. But what about the presentation? Because of the federal system of ITV, all the franchises had their own ways of presentation. Usually a normal continuity announcers just being a bit more jovial then usual in their usual suit or dress announcing programmes. Back in the early seventies, plans were mooted to do networked children's continuity in between the programmes. Though each region themselves had a strong sense of its own identity by putting their idents on the front of the programmes, meaning something broadcast by Southern would have the ident at the beginning before the programme even started to show it was from Thames. So the idea of networked children's continuity didn't even leave the ground, though the schedules having fully networked programmes with itself like How and Magpie, would sit alongside Anglia's Survival films and even repeats of family dramas which had been brought in by the various companies.

Over at the BBC, without this problem they were starting to move ahead in the schedules and something needed to be done for at least ITV to get a brand for their children's programming, that it could be identifiable from the other programmes surrounding it, making children feel that the programmes were for themselves like they did on the BBC. The BBC may have had the BBC1 globe before all the programmes, but their menus and captions looked like they were for children's programming. ITV regions had done it, but only the children in each region saw their own identities, leading to puppet characters such as Gus Honeybun and BC becoming such a success in the Westward/TSW and Anglia regions respectively.

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Watch It presentation from the early 80's

The change in style came in 1980 when finally the idea of the Watch It branding was formed, the programmes were distributed in the same way that schools programmes were via ATV and it was little surprise that it was conceived there too by the promotions department under Jim Stokoe, who oversaw the style of presentation for schools and colleges. Though not a wholly networked brand at all, ATV supplied animation and stings for each franchise to use at their will and when the seasons changed new one were sent out for companies to use if they wanted. But the continuity announcers stayed meaning that Southern or later TVS and Granada would have their own doing it, but with the logo itself, the animation would have the exclamation mark in the animation osculating to make it look like it was saying 'Watch ITV', subliminal maybe. But the initial idea of Children's ITV came from Lewis Rudd, Rudd had been involved in Children's television since the mid 60's firstly with Rediffusion, through Thames being involved with Magpie, Rainbow and The Sooty Show as a producer later on becoming the Head of the Children's department at Southern and then at the newly formed Central Television in 1982. He suggested a new method of presentation and it was the Central presentation department again with Jim Stokoe which came up with the concept of Children's ITV. An all networked service with regular presentation and presenters which would appear as a united brand to rival the BBC, beating them to the punch.

The way the system for broadcasting the service was itself like the system used for supplying the presentation for ITV's School and Colleges service from Central, whilst the individual companies played out their own programmes and supplied them around the rest of the network. Presentation itself was recorded, featuring faces from the programmes which were being broadcast meaning that the first ever presentation face was Matthew Kelly, already famous for Game for a Laugh, but also presenting the Madabout series for Tyne Tees. Plus taking their turns were Isla St Clair, from The Saturday Show, Mick Robertson formerly of Magpie, now with his new programme Freetime, Tommy Boyd also from Magpie and St. Clair's co-host on The Saturday Show with lots more faces over time. Meaning it had made its mark and the BBC had to fight back with the launch of the Broom Cupboard and Philip Schofield in 1985.

So contrary to ITV's documentary, Children's ITV may have started in 1983 but children's programmes on the independent channel stretched even nearly thirty-years before that. The history of children's television is a long one and also varied in the style, programmes and presentation, but it is an important one to both for continuity and also the way television came to be in the latter part of the 20th century. But 1983 was not only famous for the launch of united ITV children's service, the BBC's Children's Department also celebrated an anniversary as well, more of which soon.

Whichever way you look at Children's ITV is 30 years old and now has its own channel instead of a strand, giant leaps in 30 years. But if it was not for people like Lewis Rudd and Jim Stokoe, it would have just been a continuity announcer in front of a plain background announcing the children's presentation much like any other time of the day, Watch It and Children's ITV brought colour to the screen and also whole wave of programmes with it as well. 
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