From Muffin the Mule to In the Night Garden and beyond

Friday 10 February 2012, 13:52

Robert Seatter Robert Seatter

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Annette Mills with Muffin The Mule

Hello Muffin! Annette Mills and Muffin The Mule wave at their loyal audience.

It's hard to believe that it's already ten years since the children's channels, CBeebies and CBBC launched: the first for pre-school, the second aimed at 6-13 year-olds. In marked contrast to other digital children's channels, they were free of advertising and largely British in content (90% and 70% respectively).

A useful moment perhaps to reflect back - to the first ever children's broadcast on the BBC, which came right at the very start of broadcasting itself. Just under 90 years on 5 December 1922, engineer A E Thompson (later called 'Uncle Thompson') made broadcast history when he presented a few minutes' entertainment 'just for children'. He told a story of Spick and Span, two dwarfs, and played a gramophone record called Dance of the Goblins. From that moment on, children's programming never left the BBC...

It's easy of course now to laugh at the many BBC 'Uncles' and 'Aunties' who popped up on air in the 20s/30s - they had great names such as Uncle Mac, Uncle Rex, Uncle Caractacus, Aunt Sophie - and their patrician tone. Easy too to mock the safe world the early radio programmes conjured up, with those memorable opening words: Are you sitting comfortably?

Children watching television.

Children watching Andy Pandy

Later, TV gave us Muffin the Mule, and the unforgettable cast of Watch with Mother: Andy Pandy, Bill & Ben, The Woodentops etc. But all these programmes were based on a real desire to talk directly to its child audience, and to give them a small, safe broadcast island. In essence, no different to Children's broadcast aims today.

A young fan gets up and close to observe the finer detail of In the Night Garden.

But behind the scenes in radio and later on TV, it was a bitter battle for children's airtime and funding. The current digital channels come at the end of that. Valiant champions - invariably women producers - fought for the importance of children's broadcasting both inside and outside the organisation. Many traditional voices castigated it: even as recently as 1991, Schools Minister Michael Fallon called BBC Children's programmes 'wicked, brazen and sinister'. To and fro went children's programmes in the 1950s and 60s: to Adult Programmes, to a Family Unit, and back to Children's TV again. And finally to where it is now, in one creative centre, defined, safeguarded and globally successful. Spick and Span, Muffin, Andy Pandy, Bill & Ben, would all, I think, be pleased and proud.

  • CBBC and CBeebies have announced their new season of programmes for their 10th anniversary year. Read more on the BBC Media Centre website.
  • There are more clips, photographs and BBC history on the BBC Story website.
  • Watch an archive clip from Blue Peter in 1986 in which Janet Ellis and Phillip Schofield explain how a broken stopwatch caused mayhem for the CBBC 'Broom Cupboard'
  • To mark the anniversary of CBBC and CBeebies, there's a collection of signature tunes will be published available to fathom out on the About the BBC AudioBoo account. Test your knowledge with the first clip.

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    Comment number 1.

    One of the best and most cherished children's programmes shown before the BBC News at 6 was 'Ivor The Engine'. This was a well narrated, original, homely and very well crafted work of art. I still occasionally watch this on U-Tube. More black and white photographs like the above to capture the essence and uniqueness of the beginnings of the BBC Television.


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