Sunday, 6 January 2013

Children's ITV: Back to the Old Skool...

Happy 30th birthday, Children's ITV.  And what a celebration.  If you've been anywhere on Twitter or Facebook this weekend, and were a child in the 1980s or 1990s - or know someone who was - it won't have been able to escape your attention that we've just been treated to the televisual equivalent of stuffing ourselves with birthday cake for two eight-and-a-half-hour periods over a weekend.  In a somewhat unprecedented move, the CITV channel has aired what it called an "Old Skool Weekend" - in layman's terms nothing but archive programming from 9.25am through to close at 6pm for two days straight.  And it's been incredibly popular.  It's also been a very long time since I raced to the TV at 9.25am on a Saturday morning!

It's no secret that CITV's resources are limited compared to CBBC's so it's been great to see the anniversary get a full-hearted celebration.  A primetime ITV1 documentary (availabe to watch above) aired at the end of December looking at some of the most fondly-remembered Children's ITV programmes.  It was somewhat light on the continuity front but no matter, the 20th anniversary programme made up for that and is also available to watch (and in truth there isn't a lot more to add on that front from the last ten years).

I thought I'd blog about each programme, but before I do some disclaimers.  As a child I think I was more of a Children's BBC kid, but there was definitely a period between about 1990 and 1993 where I watched "both sides" more or less equally, and ITV definitely had the upper hand with the imperial younger-kids lunchtime slot which beat Playdays hands down.  Although he wasn't that popular with the audience I really liked the laid-back style of Tommy Boyd as a continuity presenter, and when he was replaced by a load of naff animations it was a big turnoff for me.  This means that my Children's ITV memories (and it was always Children's ITV, not CITV when I was watching) more or less cut off in 1993.  So bear that in mind as I take you through the weekend, programme by programme...


Mike and Angelo

Oh dear...maybe could have stayed in bed for another twenty minutes.  Everyone but everyone knows that Mike and Angelo was shit, and yet it ran for eleven long years..  I thought that was an American import when I was young - the production seem to do nothing to distract from this, being full of American accents and even the picture quality looking a bit ropey.

Super Gran

Aha - something I was a bit too young for at the time but have always been keen to see.  Highlight of this episode was seeing Super Gran racing around the Newcastle quayside which looked, erm, slightly less flashy and generally a hell of a lot more grimy than it does today.  And let's not dwell on how "super" Super Gran actually is, seeing as she generally seems to run around at normal pace but with a white outline drawn around her.  Incredibly, actress Gudrun Ure is still around today at the grand old age of 86.


The other end of the spectrum now - something I was slightly too old for when it was around, although was fairly familiar with anyway.  The theme tune is something else though - did they deliberately tell everyone to sing it slightly out of tune?


Um, yeah.  Not too familiar with this one and having sat through twenty minutes of it I still have no idea what it was all about.

Engie Benjy

Of course, as much as we'd like it to just be 1980s and 1990s archive there had to be a bit from the last decade too.  This one from 2004 is still being aired today, mainly thanks to the vocal contributions of Ant and Dec.  And that's about the most interesting thing I can say about this one.

The Raggy Dolls

From 1994!  From looking at this it could be ten years older.  A bit of lefty social engineering for kids TV here (coming from someone who thinks that's a good idea) - trying to teach children about tolerance and acceptance of those who have disabilities, or indeed "made imperfectly" as here. 

Puddle Lane

One of shows I was looking forward to the most.  My parents recorded numerous episodes of this on video in 1987 meaning that the lifetime of the show long outlasted it's original transmission period for my sister and me.  We also had lots of the spin-off books and even named our cat Tessa after one of the characters in the show.  Tessa died in 2003 meaning the programme's influence lasted over our whole childhood.  It hasn't aged particuarly well but the central concept of a magician casting spells and telling related stories still works a treat.  The magician in question was played by none other than Neil Innes who as well as being the "seventh Python" seems to have carved quite a career in children's TV in the late 80s, being almost single-handedly responsible for the afrorementioned Raggy Dolls too. 

Count Duckula

Another classic from the Cosgrove Hall powerhouse but one that still feels fairly familiar.  You all know the title sequence so special mention is reserved for the end credits, which are totally bonkers.

The Sooty Show

Probably the most famous incarnation of Sooty and certainly the one I remember from my childhood.  I think perhaps because Sooty has been around so long you forget how good it can be - the episode shown was actually genuinely funny to this 28-year-old.

Art Attack

Controversial viewpoint:  I was never that fond of Art Attack.  I think I always preferred the more sedate Hart Beat.  But the fact that this ran and ran until the point where it couldn't anymore due to ITV stopping making children's programmes is incredible.

The Big Bang

Not familiar with that one at all - having begun in 1996 I suppose I was slightly too old for it, but must have completely missed it through my "watching kids TV in a cynical it-used-to-be-better-than-this way" years too.  A slightly more scientific version of How 2, it seems.

Finders Keepers

I'd been waiting for this one.  Much of the attention of this repeat weekend has focused on Fun House, and rightly so given it was one of CITV's most popular shows.  But the hype around that over the years has somewhat unfairly meant that Finders Keepers lost out somewhat in the nostalgia stakes.  Indeed, it's been reported that, after inheriting it from TVS, Scottish TV axed it in 1996 as it was too similar to their own Fun House.  I think I would stick my neck out and say that Finders Keepers is actually better.  They get straight into the action in the main set - none of this messing about with games or go-karts - and Neil Buchanan is simply wonderful as the host.  I'd go as far as to say he's one of the most underrated children's TV presenters of all time, having occupied Saturday mornings for a decade in the 1980s, then the afternoons throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s with Art Attack.  And Finders Keepers can probably be said to be his best work - such a great format that it was even brought back for a series in 2006.  It probably says much for my upbringing that it's only now, having moved to London, I hear any trace of a scouse accent in his voice!  He didn't half keep a lot of confetti in his house though...

Fun House

The big one that everyone was waiting for...but having been on a loop on Challenge TV for years it doesn't feel unfamiliar at all (although the episodes shown this weekend are slightly older than the Challenge ones).  It also feels like a show of two halves: the three gungy games at the start are fairly forgettable.  Things improve with the Fun Kart Grand Prix but that's still fairly dull to watch.  It's not until the Fun House itself that the show really springs into life, but it is still genuinely exciting and well worth the wait.  That said, it deserves credit for being so consistent over a decade's run.  The format of the show didn't change one bit, the theme tune was identical, the titles only had minor changes and the main presenters and voiceover were the same throughout.  The Fun House itself  had cosmetic changes but at it's core was very similar for most of the run.  As a result other than the prizes it has aged fairly well, and the last couple of series could easily be repeated on CITV now without looking too out of place.


Another favourite of mine - this last triple bill comprising probably my three favourite Children's ITV shows of all time.  Let's mention the elephant in the room - the computer graphics don't look great, but then it would be amazing if twenty years on they looked good.  That said Knightmare was always about the story and the game rather than flashy graphics.  I loved the way Tommy Boyd used to tell you to draw the curtains and turn the lights off when it started!  Coming into this mid-way meant this was quite hard to get into, although does deserve special mention for making the teenage boy contestants continually talk to pretty girls.  That's hard enough in real life, let alone when you think a giant saw is going to swing at you through the wall at any moment.

Fraggle Rock

Jim Henson, Muppets, etc.  Might be blasphemy to some, but hey: boring.

The Worst Witch

From 1998, seemingly a Poundland version of Harry Potter, but ran for three series so must have been successful enough.


A great show, although how they managed to get so much mileage out of a boy changing into a dog I don't know.  Maybe by changing the boy and the dog every few years...


A series of standalone dramas, this one led to Children's Ward.  Thanks.

Press Gang

Famously Steven Moffat's first TV work although again one that I was a bit too young for at the time.  The Sunday episode featured a young Lucy Benjamin, looking exactly the same as when she was in EastEnders.

The Tomorrow People

Huh?  Was this dodgy remake of a dodgy show so fondly remembered?  Could do without seeing any of this...

Children's Ward

Another long-runner, although we seem to have been lumbered with two episodes from the dying days in 2000 when, like Byker Grove and Grange Hill a few years later, the format was clearly being tinkered with to attract a younger audience. 



Despite this being right in my prime years of Children's ITV-watching I have no recollection of this at all!  Apparently it was quite good.  If you say so.

Huxley Pig

I was aware of this but don't think I'd seen an actual episode.  And now I have.


One of the most famous ITV children's programmes of all, which of course began eleven years before Children's ITV itself.  It hasn't aged amazingly well but that doesn't matter - Rainbow is beyond criticism.

Button Moon

Not ageing well is one thing, but this one always looked a bit clunky.  Then you remember it's about a spoon landing on a button.  Because of this Button Moon kind of goes full circle and looks quite good in a timeless quirky sort of way.

The Riddlers

The main thing I remember about The Riddlers is that one of the main voices was Toby the Spell Dragon from Puddle Lane, which at that age was quite confusing.  This was quite a downbeat episode (with one "riddler" talking about her dead parents), which is unusual as I remember it being a bit more fun!

Rosie and Jim

Another biggie for me.  As we owned a canal boat until I was seven my parents were ALL OVER Rosie and Jim, whether we liked it or not, which is good because we did.  John Cunliffe is quite charming as he's clearly not a presenter by trade and isn't making much of an effort to be one, but the smart positioning of his Postman Pat books at the back of the boat shows his real talent.  As it's just puppets and canals it has barely aged a day and could easily be re-run now, although preferably the early episodes with Fizzgog and not the various numpties who replaced him later on.


Another iconic one that doesn't feel like it's ever gone away - most recently having a BBC Two repeat run.

Sooty and Co

Not the same show as Saturday, this is the Granada programme that was launched after The Sooty Show ended when Thames lost their franchise.  It's a bit unfamiliar to me for obvious, oft-repeated age-related reasons but what struck me here is simply how good Matthew Corbett is.  You can't accuse him of not putting his all into every episode.

How 2

This one started around the same time as Art Attack and ended about the same time too.  A sequel to the original "How", it eventually overshadowed it.  Watching this again it's such a simple format, but I think the key element is that the presenters don't claim to know it all.  Each "How" is set up as one presenter sharing some information with the other two, so it feels like we're dropping in on a conversation between friends rather than being lectured by a bunch of clever cloggs.  And full marks for choosing an episode that featured the iconic original theme tune.

Finger Tips

As much as this may feel like yesterday it's now ten years old and littered with archaic references to things like where to store your VHS tapes.  I'd never really watched this properly before but it's actually a pretty good make-and-do show in the tradition of the likes of Bitsa.  And as much as Fearne Cotton gets a lot of stick, I always thought she was pretty talented and endearing as a children's TV presenter.  It's also important to remember it was GMTV and CITV that gave her initial exposure, before CBBC swooped in to nick her in the same year this was broadcast.

Jungle Run

This is a programme I can tell I would have loved if I was the right age, basically being a rip-off of The Crystal Maze.  Curiously though it was hosted exclusively by ex-CBBC presenters, initially Dominic Wood (while waiting for Da Bungalow to be built), then here with Chris Jarvis (waiting for CBeebies to be launched) and finally by Michael Underwood (waiting

My Parents Are Aliens

Well, it had to be here somewhere I suppose, given this has been shown non-stop since it began in 1999.  But given it ended in 2006 it's a wonder the tapes have worn out yet, and it would have been nice to use the slot for something else.  But it was a great show (so I'm told), so fair enough.

The Rest

Lots of programmes from Saturday also had another run today. Mike and Angelo, which no-one needed to see any more of, was at least from a few years later. Fun House gets another episode from the following year, Knightmare was a continuation from the Saturday episode (although I have absolutely no idea what was happening at the end), and another not-as-good-as-everyone-remembers Fraggle Rock. Woof was from 1993 with the second lead actor, another Dramarama from the following year and the last episode of Press Gang followed. Finally another double bill of The Tomorrow People and Children's Ward finished the weekend off.

Saturday's programmes rated very well, with Finders Keepers topping the ratings at 411,000 (somewhat proving my theory above) followed by Fun House, The Sooty Show, Art Attack and Knightmare all above 350K.  The general reaction to the Old Skool Weekend has been incredible, and as much as CITV are saying it is a one-off, they'd be mad to not consider some select runs of programmes that can still appeal to today's children, especially given how few new programmes the budget runs to.  The praise directed towards CITV via social media has been quite overwhelming and shows there's still a lot of fondness for the brand, despite everything it has been through in the past few years.  Full credit is due to the channel management and planning in London, the scheduling, content and transmission teams in Leeds and presentation in Manchester who all put more effort than you'll ever know to make it happen.  And although I had but the tiniest of roles (those correct aspect ratios?  that was me) it was great to be a small part of something that made me feel really proud to work for the company.  They didn't have to do this, remember: it might not even have been acknowledged, but we ended up with a hour in primetime and a whole weekend of archive.  It's brightened up one of the most depressing weekends of the year as the Christmas decorations come down; and certainly kept me glued to the sofa for two days straight.  Maybe I wasn't so much of a Children's BBC child after all...