Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Through The Round Window

Guess which one will it be today children. The arch window? Or will it be the square window? Maybe the round window?
Readers of a certain age will remember this from the popular children's program Play School, immediately you will be now thinking of Big & Little Ted, Humpty, Jemima and the rather peculiar and strangely spooky Hamble accompanied by many various presenters including Brian Cant, Floella Benjamin, Derek Griffiths, Toni Arthur and of course Johnny Ball. What prompted today's entry was reading how the BBC had junked many 2 inch Quadruplex videotape master copies of this program in the assumption that they were no longer of use and the few remaining episodes was sufficient to retain. I can't help feeling that by doing this we are chucking away more than just a roll of TV sentimentality, we have irretrievably chucked away a way of life that will never return.

Now one can say that I'm looking through rose tinted glasses at the past and really the programs were awful products made by adults to give kids what adults thought they wanted. In reality it was actually a burgeoning time for children's TV, production costs were limited and most programming although produced on a shoe string budget were fashioned with great skill, consideration and above all a passion. None more so than programs created by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate who even today are remembered for Bagpuss, The Clangers and Ivor The Engine and probably summed it up in an interview I read many years ago about what made making all these programs worth it. In his reply he talked about a letter he received from a girl, now an adult, who thanked him for Bagpuss with it's gentle nature and make believe world as it had been her only escape from child abuse for fifteen minutes each week.

The destruction of Play School marks a watershed of changing attitudes to the way children's television has evolved, gradually we have moved away from the gentle nurturing of childhood and promotion of certain values and into a more, should I say, aggressive style of nurturing. Gone is the 'Watch with Mother', a special time set aside on television for mother and child to share, gone also is real after school children's programming, even the stalwart Blue Peter has had a dramatic makeover to appeal to hip children. The TV schedule today has no special format to allow a more progressive children's programming and the multitude of 24 hour children's channels nullifies any special aspect of a program.

Not a criticism just an observation, time as they say moves on, society cannot live in the past but sometimes the greatest things are gone before we have a chance to save them. Wasn't it more beautiful when you believed in everything?

So for the sake of preservation here are a few of my special programs that helped me through my childhood. First the unlikely Mary, Mungo and Midge, a girl, a dog and a mouse all living in a perfect block of flats that requires a mouse touch to operate the complex lift button. It's quirky home location was one of the first programs to place a character in an urban setting to reflect it's viewing audience. It always started and finished the same giving a sense of familiarity with a small adventure taking place in between.

Bagpuss needs no introduction, repeated regularly since it's release in 1974 it remains firmly at the top of the greatest children's programs ever made. Bagpuss wakes to find a lost often broken object, throws in some tall tales and a few facts to help restore the object then places it back in the window for it to be found. He then sleeps. Simple. It was Bagpuss that first made me realise that imagination is unboundless, from simple objects great delight can be sought, it also fired my passion for creative writing and a love of stripes.

Making use of things you find. The Wombles lived on Wimbledon Common in secret from humans making use of all the discarded house hold items we disposed of. Orinoco, Tobermory, Great Uncle Bulgaria and Tomsk became household names in the mid 70's and even spawned a real band that went on to narrowly miss the number one slot for Christmas in 1974 with Wombling Merry Christmas peaking at number 2. At least we saw them on Top Of The Pops on Christmas Day.

Another set of characters that need no introduction, The Clangers burst onto our screen with a sense of surreal in 1969 and remained firmly lodged in my head. With a peculiar whistling sound they experienced adventures beyond imagination, musical trees, iron chickens and plastic creating machines that cannot be turned off are just a few examples, couple this with a Soup Dragon and assorted Froglets and you have a perfect springboard for perfection.

The Herbs on the other hand is remembered for something completely different, it was the first program I saw in colour as a child. I was awestruck. A new television was delivered and as it warmed up, yes, you really did have to wait for it to warm up, a yellow faced, green mane talking lion lit up the screen. The sophisticated writing style and narrative delivery often went over the heads of children watching but it's hypnotic quality worked on so many levels.

For pure surrealism though you can't beat Mr Benn. Imagine pitching this idea to a television company today. 'Well, basically it's about a civil servant who likes to dress up in weird clothes, he has an arrangement that allows him to indulge his fantasy with a fez wearing local fancy dress shop owner. He strips down to his smalls, dresses in his fantasy attire and opens a mysterious door into a world where he can act it out with like minded individuals'

On paper it shouldn't work on television though under the creative guidance of David McKee it became a gentle classic.

So far we have looked at animation but programs of this era went even to even simpler yet still charming with programs such as Fingerbobs. The inventiveness placed numerous objects in front of Fingermouse and his friends who throughout the ten minute program created a new use for them. Simple but effective all delivered by Yoffy, a live actor who didn't hide the fact that Fingermouse and his friends were indeed puppets. The magic came from the interaction and clever use of objects, Yoffy talked to all his 'finger' creations. The theme tune lyrics probably explain the whole thing.

"Yoffy lifts a finger, and a mouse is there / Puts his hands together, and a seagull takes the air / Yoffy lifts a finger, and a scampi darts about / Yoffy bends another, and a tortoise head peeps out / These hands were made for making, and making they must do."

Hidden away in the listings and often after Pebble Mill at one was The Flumps. Small balls of wool filmed in a stop motion way. Father Flump was an inventor, Grandfather Flump played a Flumpet and Pootle guided us through the Flumpet world. Cute, cuddly, innocent with a very real familiarity for the viewer.

The eBay of the 70's this 1976 launched program allowed children not only to swap unwanted toys and gifts but also communicate directly with the program they were watching. For a children's TV show this level of interactivity was truly ground breaking. Unfortunately it was also one of the first programs that started to hype up children with celebrities, cartoons and other road show appearances to bring the ultimate in interactivity to it's viewers. It has it's place and influenced me greatly with it's genuine skilful approach to Saturday morning television but this was to me more of a turning point and by the time Swap Shop aired it's last ever episode in 1982 the gentler approach was already on it's way out.

Still going strong though from it's 1972 launch on ITV was Rainbow, an innovative format that delivered songs, stories and strong ties between the characters. Over a 1000 episodes were produced in total, Zippy, Bungle and George were very British about everything and retained a naivety to anything and everything, Zippy was the hyperactive child whilst George was the quiet shy type and as most children could relate to one or the other it worked perfectly.

Chigley, Trumpton and Camberwick Green, gentle tales set in the fictional Trumptonshire delivered with the unmistakeable voice of Brian Cant. It's probably one of the only children programs that covered most jobs of it's day. Not only do we have a postman , firemen and builders but also characters that seem so out of place today, a miller, milkman and chimney sweep. Even the description for the resident artist, who incidentally has no name, is classed as an un-named transient is quite naive and probably apt all at the same time. Set in a real world they existed and worked as one unit, problems were solved together and even though there were policemen and firemen there was never anything other than mild peril. Trumptonshire was a place that children of the time imagined that they were growing in to.

When it's gone, it's gone. Losing these programs and memories would be such a mistake. The creators of these programs believed with an unbridled passion in what they were doing and in turn created something very special for most people, a childhood.


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