Sunday, 24 February 2013

Are the kids still alright? BBC Children's Broadcasting at 90

February 2013 sees the 90th anniversary of children's broadcasting on the BBC, from its earliest days on the radio through children's hour. Its origins come from a broadcast gave by A.E. Thompson, an Birmingham based engineer on their station based there did a short spot for children on February, 5th 1922 and it lead to other stations around the country doing their own broadcasts for children. With the success of this, came the first London based Children's Hour on December, 23rd 1922. These early shows were mix of song, stories and poems performed by senior members of the presentation team for each stations being referred to as 'Aunts and Uncles'.

By the start of 1923, Children's Hour became a feature of the daily schedule and the audience grew over time. But with this came need for the programmes to be more structured, so the appointment of Ella Fitzgerald as the Central Organiser of Children's Hour for London and the other provinces responsible for finding relevant material for the programmes, however in December 1923 it was decided that various 'Aunts and Uncles' would have set times of appearing on the programmes and also the structure of the productions would be more rigid and less spontaneous.

In April 1925, C.E. Hodges was appointed with the task to unite the programmes together, though the idea was put forward to drop the moniker Auntie or Uncle making the programmes more formal, however protests from parents and children made the identities still exist but not encouraged any more than that. Though C.E. Hodges was in charge of the production, there were people at each regional station to oversee the conduct of their station. 1930's were to see the loss of several Children's Hour programmes from the regions as the programmes merged into one as by the outbreak of World War Two saw the staff move to Bristol to make the programmes from there, but with only one programme during Monday to Friday but by September 1939, weekday programmes resume by only for half an hour at first. There was a conflict because of the quality of material not seemingly being of a good enough quality seen by some of the presenters, though the regional stations were themselves not happy with the amount of time they were given to their features on the programmes.

As the end of the war itself came, that radio was facing something new with the resumption of television. With Children's Hour, though the actual length of the programmes were usually under an hour long. But were on seven days a week with Sundays usually with a more religious theme itself. The production had now become part of the Entertainment Division of BBC Radio with audiences still at a high peak under W.E. Davies who became the Head of Children's Hour in 1953. The effect of television was now beginning to have an effect on audiences as over the decade, slowly they ebbed away to the magic box in the corner. Growth of television's overall audience meant that Children were more like to be watching what the BBC would be offering, plus with Independent Television starting in 1955, it meant that radio had to compete even more for listeners.

With the BBC offering Children's Television, the style of presentation may have seen almost trying to be apart from the normal BBC presentation, with the 1960's including a short film insert played out before the programmes started to declare they had begun. Trying to forge some sort of separate identity for the service, meant that there was a clear boundary of what the programmes were within children's hour. Stretching originally for an hour between 5pm and 6pm, between 1946 when television resumed after the Second World War and 1957.

At some points between this period and the early 1960's, ITV's offerings were winning against the BBC's significantly. In a review of the children's output, there was a need that a radical overhaul was needed in the service both agreed by the Director General Hugh Carlton-Greene and Stuart Hood, the controller of the Television Service. They thought the output was too middle class and self-serving. The majority of new television viewers coming from working class and more diverse backgrounds. This meant that shows like Crackerjack being a variety show for children became part of the Light Entertainment group of programmes, which made the programme even better and it grew over time with Leslie Crowther in charge from 1964 onwards to the end of the decade and children's drama would also go to the relevant adult department from 1961, but in January 1964 was to see a change in programmes for children as the Children's Department was axed for a new 'Family Programmes Unit' to have a larger then before remit under new head Doreen Stephens. Though this helped new shows flourish and existing ones expand.

"It's Friday... It's five o'clock.. It's Crackerjack!"

Blue Peter which had launched in 1958 was undergoing a change where actor John Noakes joined Valerie Singleton and original presenter Christopher Trace in December 1965. But it was only when Peter Purves replaced Trace in 1967 that a new age of Blue Peter was born, by teaming Singleton, Noakes and Purves together that then something clicked between the three of them. Where the programme may have seen staid to some people there were occasional nods that the social backdrop to the programme was changing and that the young viewers were changing as well. The programme got a second edition as reward for its continuing success under the team of Editor Biddy Baxter and also with Edward Barnes as well, though at this time with Blue Peter settling down with Noakes, Purves and Singleton, Biddy Baxter came up with a proposal for a new magazine for older children to be made by Blue Peter's own production team focussing on items which were of a more stranger nature. To be called 'John Bull'.

This was to be the big brother or sister to Blue Peter with Britt Allcroft later to be famous for adapting and creating the Thomas the Tank Engine stories for television and also Terrence Edmond, an actor who was famous at that time for appearing in Z-Cars in which his character had been killed off from the series. Completing the team was John Noakes, to be used on location as a presenter. But the style of the pilot was jarring, the recognised formula of Blue Peter combined with the spirit of the 1960's was a bit too much as the pilot seemed disjointed in its style. Though it is interesting that sort of style was used by Thames for Magpie when that launched in July 1968, that it may have been seen as template inadvertently for the show itself.

Though the 1960's were to see the BBC put their own mark on Children's Programmes, offering the alternative to ITV. One such programme was Bristol-based production Tom Tom, whilst ITV and Southern Television had How, this science based series presented by Jeremy Carrad and John Earle with roving reporter Norman Tozer started in 1965 and with new technology and the space age in full effect, but it did produce some memorable moments in its five year history as author Louis Barfe remembers. “The main things that spring to mind are that when the SS Great Britain returned to Bristol, my father-in-law Colin Godman, who worked on the series did an OB into Tom Tom of it just before it came up the Avon into dock. Being live, it doesn't survive, sadly.”

The output itself relied on only a few home grown productions at this time, there was a time when seventy-five percent of an afternoon's viewing would have been imported with animation from Hanna Barbara and filmed live action series in Champion, The Wonder Horse and also Skippy, a mainstay of the schedule. Plus also European made dramas such as White Horses and Belle and Sebastian to name but two, amongst this all a gentle series which drew upon the BBC's links with Bristol Zoo, made for a series which would live long in the memories of those who saw it.

Animal Magic started in 1962, with the antics of the animals and also zoo keeper Johnny, Johnny Morris. The premise of Morris doing his rounds at the zoo, allowed children to meet the animal and with Morris's skills, he gave voices to them as well. In comparable to ITV's Zoo Quest, this was a different format with everything during the 1960's filmed with the programme later to move into the studio. Teaching through entertainment was its message, for children who may have not seen animals in a zoo, this was a first chance to do so. Morris' own character made him hugely popular and likeable, so much so that the programme lasted through the 60's, the whole of the 1970's and until 1983 when it was decided a new breed of wildlife programmes for children would be thought of with Morris' later assistant Terry Nutkins joining that new production, The Real Wild Show. But much of that programme and also Wildtrack as well, owed much to Johnny Morris paving the way for them.

But what about the modern age? Children's BBC has now left BBC 1 and BBC 2, moving full time to their own channels in CBBC Channel and Cbeebies, I decided to ask three people who have been there, seen it and done it. Sarah Greene, former Blue Peter and also Saturday morning television presenter, Richard Marson, former editor of Blue Peter and now a BBC Producer and also Steve Ryde, former producer of Children's ITV presentation and also a BBC Children's producer. Though in these times, what did they think are or were the most influential children's programmes ever? Richard Marson remembers “I suppose I would have to say Blue Peter - and not just for the obvious personal reasons. I think it must be the most influential because it has endured so long and - in the heyday certainly - was a big part of the lives of millions of children. There were the rituals of the appeal, Christmas, the makes, the action films and the summer expedition - the window on the world. But more than the presenters, pets and items themselves, the influence extended to the way in which many factual programmes are structured and made (much modern factual TV owes a lot to the classic BP approach - look at The One Show as a current example). They were good principles too - let the audience reach up (never talk down) and have a rich mix. Above everything, ensure that each programme or film had at least one 'killer' fact - what are now known as 'water cooler' moments.”

Blue Peter from the 1960's with Chris, John and Val

Sarah Greene herself was part of the 60th Anniversary celebrations in 1983 and this was an exciting time not only for the children's department but herself in meeting one of the icons of children's television on the BBC “I can mainly remember it for meeting the creator of Muffin the Mule! Though as far as the most influential shows go then John Craven's Newsround for bringing the news, sometimes harrowing events and explaining them to children in not a condescending way. Also Blue Peter, which dealt with so many different topics over the years, educating children and also the appeals as well which helped many good causes over the years.”

Children's Drama has always been a key part of the schedule, from the likes of Russell T. Davies creating new and exciting drama to the screens and also with the Sunday Teatime drama slot as well. Sarah Greene continues “Children's drama has always been important from the adaptations of The Railway Children, to The Swish of the Curtain, Grange Hill & Byker Grove as well. These productions have shown that both historical and contemporary dramas play an important role in children's television and have done for many years.”

Though for producer Steve Ryde his most influential programme comes from another planet completelyI think it's different for everybody. Whichever show makes a connection and stays with you throughout your life. 'Grange Hill' was certainly a breakthrough, tackling tricky real life subjects for the first time on kid's TV. Blue Peter deserves a mention for its longevity and tenacity. Tracey Beaker has been a more recent phenomenon and has engaged so many viewers over so many years; this would have to be contender for the title. Well written, acted and produced.

The most influential BBC kid's show for me? The Adventure Game. I loved the good humoured commitment of the celebrity contestants, the improvised nature of it and the world they created. It had genuine jeopardy; the vortex was simple but gripping.”

Children's television can be a hive of creativity for production staff with little budgets compared to the bigger departments, though for those people who have been involved what do they think of this from their standpoint? Richard Marson continues “You can do amazing things with a small budget (and people do and always have done in children's tv, which has never been well funded) but there is no substitute for a bigger budget and better facilities. Why should children have shows made in smaller studios with fewer resources? Alas it's a reality - again, look at BP - which used to regularly command big studios and now seems to spend most of its time in a much smaller space which then has a direct effect on the scale and ambition of the items you can do in the studio.”

Certainly it is a help to have a bigger budget but as Steve Ryde points out “It's always better to have more resources. It's entirely possible to be creative with a larger budget. Creativity is vital whatever the budget.”

But over the years has seen children's television develop into a multi-channel, multi-million pound industry. Now children have a greater choice of channels and channels dedicated to them which broadcast for twelve hours a day. With the moving of children's television off the two main BBC channels and also from ITV in the past couple of years, means that the channels have got a lot more new technology to compete against. From a public point of view there was a small outcry at both times when it was announced that it was going to happen, but is it a case of nostalgia from adults who remember the days of strong schedules full of programming or is it a rose-tinted view of what happened? Steve Ryde speak on the matter “If a show still works, is relevant and watched then long may it continue. Every show, no matter how great an idea in the first place must come to an end or should radically re-invent itself to survive. Tradition for its own sake feels like nostalgic adults trying to hang on to their childhood, which isn’t necessarily the best thing for the new audiences.”

Richard Marson continues “Inevitably. Many more hours have to be filled - which means programmes now must have a longer shelf life, standing up to many repeats. Budgets have shrunk. Competition is now fierce (most of it not TV - video games, Youtube, streaming, music etc.) But original home grown production is, though there has been an inevitable loss of range and quality because of these factors - across the board, TV is now very risk averse and, other than some token exceptions, really first class and original factual and drama has shrunk in scale and quality.

He continues “Yes, there is a lot of fantasy and adventure material - and much of this is very good of its kind - but there is little contemporary drama reflecting the lives of modern children. Tracy Beaker and its spin-offs are not enough. Period drama (other than in a fantasy context like Leonardo) - especially adaptations - just doesn't happen - too expensive and niche. Fear of losing an audience means that factual and entertainment content is often pitched pretty low level. Again there are exceptions but there is a depressing sameness about much of the content these days. I was very against the move to introduce a ceiling of 12 to CBBC - I think this excludes a lot of the audience of 12-16 year olds who can still be counted as children in many ways but who are effectively excluded.”

But as Richard Marson puts it “Scheduling becomes less of an issue as children are always at the forefront of technology and just expect to be able to access what they like on i-player or streaming services.”

Steve Ryde says on the same subject “Viewing figures would suggest that Saturday morning kids TV as we remember it is no longer relevant. Kids can find cartoons 24 hours a day and they don’t hold the novelty value they had when we were kids. Back in the 70’s, 80’s and up to the late 90’s Saturday mornings on BBC 1 and ITV were one of the few opportunities to find shows aimed at you. As for kids’ shows these days on BBC One and BBC Two, the recent change feels like we’ve lost something (to people of a certain age), but the kids go to the dedicated channels anyway. As long as these channels continue to be funded properly and creative risks are taken the genre will thrive and evolve.”

So as we look on over 90 years of Children's broadcasting on the BBC, from John Craven, through Ant and Dec, also Val/Lesley, Pete and John, Noel Edmonds onto Dick and Dom. With children's television attracting the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Vic Reeves to perform and bring their sense of humour to the screens in the past few years alone, I have to admit even at the age of 34, to see the likes of the best comedians performing in programmes, that even I tune in. But the stars have always been there, Roy Castle with Johnny Ball, Tony Hart, Zoe Ball, Clive Dunn, Floella Benjamin, Toni Arthur. The kids have always been alright and remain as new programmes continue to fascinate into the future.