The news that one of three original Humpty toys created for BBC children’s programme, Play School was sold at auction in Oxford for £6,250 got me thinking about television and radio classics from childhood. Generations grew up with Playschool as it ran for more than twenty four years from the mid 1960’s to 1988. Who can forget characters such as rag doll Jemima, Hamble Big Ted and Little Ted? Humpty was undoubtedly the star of the show and was so popular that he reportedly received fan mail from his young audience, it’s is perhaps no surprise that he broke all auction estimates.
It is certain that fantasy characters from our childhood are always held dear, from Wind in the Willows to Worzel Gummidge, whilst they may face the prospect of eviction from our television screens they are always certain to find secure tenancy in our childhood memory and nostalgic hearts. I still remember contented afternoons watching Scatterbrook’s scarecrow, Worzel Gummidge and his mischievous adventures. As some people will know, Worzel Gummidge’s early success was fuelled by the regular appearances on the BBC’s Children’s Hour radio broadcasts in the 1930s and 1940s. When he reached our screens we all further fell in love with this haphazard scarecrow that was given a heart and a brain by the mystical Crowman. It seemed that Worzel spent most of his time getting into preposterous situations whilst trying to woo the love of his life, the prim and proper coconut shy doll, Aunt Sally. It’s hard not to be nostalgic about this show after all no other show has ever provided us with the wonderfully confused Worzel Gummage lines of, ‘You put a Wor after W, and a Wor after O, a Wor after R, and it’s away we go.You put a Wor after Z, a Wor after E, a Wor after L, A zel after Wor, and you’re left…with me!’
When I take a nostalgic trip into the midst of my favourite childhood characters my focus tends to be of those that were on television such as Basil Brush or Playschool and it is easy to forget that before the advent of television, radio was king and formed the real focus of the home. Keen to provide entertainment for all the family the BBC dedicated a show to nippers known as Children’s Hour, this was first broadcast in December 1922 and it marked not only one of the earliest radio programmes in broadcasting history, but also marked the start of a tradition of children’s shows which continued in 1950 with Listen With Mother with its famous introduction: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then, I’ll begin.’
Back in 1922 the early Children’s Hours were improvised programmes featuring songs, poems and stories performed by various members of the station staff that were known to listeners as Aunties and Uncles. During these early broadcasts a lot of the show was just created off the cuff in a hit-or-miss fashion, but this disorganised genius worked and by early 1923, the Children’s Hour was becoming increasingly popular with a rapidly growing audience. It was decided that the broadcasts could no longer occur in a haphazard fashion, leading to ‘Aunts’ and ‘Uncles’ being given their own slots throughout the week and the development of popular series including, Norman and Henry Bones, boy detectives ; Jennings at school; Toytown and Romany.
During the Second World War Children’s Hour became a shorter show lasting forty five minutes but nevertheless it retained its now contradictory name and it provided comfort and constancy in an unsettled world. Wartime Children’s Hour provided contentment for many children as they listened with the blackout curtains drawn, in the flicker of gas lighting. By this stage it was a national institution and it even saw a teenage Princess Elizabeth sends her best wishes to the children who had been evacuated from Britain to America, Canada and elsewhere. Princess Margaret joined her at the end of the broadcast to wish all children a goodnight.
A series of programmes called, Children Calling Home was also run during wartime and although these programmes were not organised by the Children’s Hour, they predictably proved a hit with children and parents alike. The programmes were collaboration between the BBC and overseas broadcasting organisations and provided an opportunity for children evacuated overseas and their parents at home in Britain to send messages to each other and eventually communicate via the airwaves. This communication channel allowing thoughts and messages to flow across the miles was bound to attract listeners.
Radio basked in success for years, but the spread of television reception throughout Britain began to affect the listening figures and by 1957, there was real concern regarding the future of the Children’s Hour. Despite the introduction of new programmes such as Children’s Newsreel and Saturday Excursion and the publication of a Children’s Hour Broadsheet advertising forthcoming programmes, audience numbers continued to drop as the young audience turned from listeners to viewers. Eventually in April 1961, it was decided to abandon the name, Children’s Hour in an attempt to lose the old-fashioned feel of the programme with the aim of attracting new audiences. Despite a public outcry, the Children’s Hour was rebranded as Junior Time and later as Home At Five, but sadly despite all these attempts listening figures continued to fall and on the 27th March 1964, the final programme of ‘For The Young’ (the last incarnation of Children’s Hour) was broadcast. The Children’s Hour had been a feature of the BBC for over forty years and whilst listeners had fallen the show was still held in esteem as a British institution. The announcement of its demise resulted in protests from the public, the press and even Parliament, but all were to no avail; the death of the show was inevitable as the growth of television broadcasting had left the shows carpet of listeners threadbare.
The first real television children’s programmes started in 1946 after the end of WWII when there was a live Sunday afternoon transmission known as Children’s Hour or For the Children this featured the legendary puppet Muffin the Mule with puppeteer Ann Hogarth and presenter Annette Mills. Radio had led the way in the BBC’s productions for children and in the beginning radio shows were used as a template for the early television service, complete in the early days with Uncles and Aunties. Indeed it was on radio that we were first blessed with the strange language of “Oddle-poddle” which was centred on the word “Flobbadob” and various combinations of similarly enchanting gibberish. Hilda Brabben wrote three Bill and Ben stories for the BBC’s “Listen with Mother” radio series, back in 1951, before Freda Llingstrom and Maria Bird stepped in for the television adaptation. The television show arrived on the 12th December 1952, and it was shown every Wednesday as part of the popular “Watch with Mother’ show. Bill and Ben’s infectiously eccentric language was soon picked up and repeated in households and playgrounds up and down the country. It was so popular that it was repeatedly broadcast on the BBC right through to 1970. It’s opening narration I always think tells of a simpler time when children enjoyed being children for longer, “Once upon a time there was a little house. And all around the house was a beautiful garden. And down at the bottom of the garden was a place where the man who worked in the garden left his things while he went in to the house to have his dinner…”
Early programmes included Whirlygig, the first ‘children’s variety programme’, which featured among others Sooty; I have always loved Sooty and his slapstick antics and he has become a great British tradition having enjoyed appearances on our screens since 1952. Sooty was the creation of Harry Corbett and throughout the series the show would see Corbett deliver lines such as ‘Sooty, put that jam spoon down! Sooty, please, put that jam spoon away!’ It was an unwritten rule that the naughty, mischievous, but nice Sooty was about to cover Corbett and his surroundings in jam. It was in 1957 that a chum for Sooty, a dog called Sweep was created. I have always attributed my love of English Setters to my childhood love of the long eared sweep. Sooty played the xylophone and did magic with his catch-phrase spells of “Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy” and all I can remember of Sweep was that he always got in to mischief and was never far away from his bone, a bit like real life dogs I’ve owned. Over the years more characters followed there was Soo, the panda and Kipper the cat, Butch the dog and Ramsbottom the snake. For me my favourite memory of the show was the weary “Bye bye everyone! Bye bye!” that was uttered at the end of each show and was proceeded by a slap-stick catastrophe that usually involved the puppeteer being drenched with water or sustaining an injury of some form at the hands of Sooty and his comrades.
When you start thinking there are so many iconic children’s programmes which over the years have become household names. Blue Peter springs to mind, as it is the longest-lived and best-known. For over fifty years it has been known for its presenters, its pets, its ‘make and does’ with its accompanying catch phrase “here’s one I made earlier’. If ever there was testimony to the power of reinvention then its Blue Peter because it has moved with the times whilst sticking to its core values and it’s still going strong today.
Now considered a cult classic, the children’s television show Bagpuss was created by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate in 1974, and to this day remains one of Britain’s best loved programmes. Only thirteen episodes were ever made, which were broadcast from February 1974 to May that year, but they were repeated on television for the next thirteen years. I grew up listening to the yawn of the saggy old cat and I think it is the shows simplistic, unspoilt charm that makes it still a hit today. Each episode always started with Bagpuss asleep among lost belongings displayed in a shop window owned by Emily, played by Firmin’s daughter. When Emily left the shop, Bagpuss , an ‘old, saggy cloth cat, baggy, and a bit loose at the seams’ ,woke up and would tell a story about one of the broken items in the shop window. Various toys in the shop came to life, including Gabriel the toad, Professor Yaffle, a rag doll called Madeleine and mice on the side of the ‘mouse organ’. Led by Charlie Mouse the mice would sing in a high-pitched squeaky harmony “We will wash it, we will scrub it…”to the tune of Sumer Is Icumen. When Bagpuss’ story was complete the lost item would be magically mended and the newly mended thing was then be put in the shop window, so that whoever had lost it would see it as they walked past, and could come in and claim it. Then Bagpuss would start yawning again, and the show would end as he fell asleep.
We have Oliver Postgate to thank for a series of classic children’s television programmes including Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and Pingwings that were screened on the BBC and ITV from the 1950s and of course in the 1970’s he gave us the iconic soup loving Clangers.
Oh I can’t help but lament, give us back Willo the Wisp, Hong Kong Phooey, Mr Benn, Basil Brush, Take Hart, Captain Pugwash, Swap Shop, Crackerjack, Rentaghost, Paddington Bear, Rainbow, Roobarb and Custard, Tiswas and Parsley the Lion. Oh and does anyone remember the Flumps?
One thing is for certain, whilst today’s children consume their media in different ways and children’s programmes have become increasingly high tech, the classics of Thomas the Tank Engine and Postman Pat will always prove popular and Muffin the Mule still retains his ageless charm. After an enjoyable look at childhood characters, all that remains to say is ‘’Goodbye Bill, Goodbye Ben. Bill & Ben, Bill & Ben, Flower Pot Men.’’