Children & the BBC: from Muffin the Mule to Tinky Winky
Children have always been at the heart of the BBC's public service remit. Children's Hour, first broadcast in 1922, was one of the earliest radio programmes and was part of the BBC's ethos until 1964. Go for It, the last children's radio programme on a mainstream channel, was only cancelled in 2009.
On TV, the first real children's programmes started in 1946 after the end of WW2 when there was a live Sunday afternoon transmission also known as Children's Hour or For the Children – featuring the famous puppet Muffin the Mule with presenter Annette Mills. Children's Hour on radio had many popular features: much-loved presenters like 'Uncle Mac', and long-running series such as Norman and Henry Bones, boy detectives ; Jennings at school; Toytown; 'Romany' and great dramas such as 'The Swish of the Curtain' by Pamela Brown and John Masefield's 'Midnight Folk' and 'Box of Delights'. It dominated the BBC's output for children well into the 1960s and in a way was the template for the early TV service, complete in the early days with Uncles and Aunties.
The arrival of TV
Children's TV as a specialist area really started in 1950 when the first dedicated staff were recruited and when in 1951 Freda Lingstrom was appointed as head of department. Early programmes included Whirlygig, the first 'children's variety programme', which featured among others Sooty and Rolf Harris; All your Own, edited by Cliff Michelmore and presented by Huw Weldon (later to present the Arts programme Omnibus and become MD of BBC Television in 1968). There were also live dramas, often adaptations of classic books such as 'The Railway Children' and 'The Secret Garden', which were frequently re-made in later years as technology developed and went on being a regular feature of the output into the 1980s.
BBC Children's TV flourished through the early 1950s, but the arrival of ITV in 1955 brought a new challenge. The ITV strategy was to compete strongly in the late afternoons and early evenings especially when the 'Toddler's Truce', a programme-free time slot from 6 to 7pm, ended in 1956. For the first time, ratings became an issue, and the pressure on the Children's department to compete and win increased until the department was disbanded in 1963,
The department had tried to provide programming across the same range of genres as adult TV: Drama, Entertainment, Factual, Natural History etc. In the re-organisation, it lost its drama and entertainment output, including the prestigious Sunday afternoon serial, to the relevant adult departments, and what then remained - primarily Watch with Mother and a very new Blue Peter - went to the newly-formed Family Programmes department, a merger of Women's programmes and Children's headed by Doreen Stephens.
A number of factors, including the start of BBC Two, meant that this arrangement did not last long and the stand-alone Children's department was reborn in 1967 under Monica Sims. This is the department which today is responsible for a huge amount of output on BBC One and Two, and on the two dedicated children's channels CBeebies and CBBC.
The BBC has been responsible for a number of iconic children's programmes which over the years have become household names. Blue Peter is the longest-lived and best-known. Now over 50 years old and going strong, Blue Peter is known for its presenters, its pets, its 'make and dos' ("here's one I made earlier"), its appeals, and of course that elephant*! It is a programme which has constantly re-invented itself to reflect changes in fashion and society, and yet remains true to its core values. The concept of a magazine programme show of this kind has been adopted all round the world.
Play School (1964), the first programme ever shown on BBC Two, due to a power cut on the opening night, started a new style of programming for very young children. Much more informal, with younger presenters, it addressed the children as individuals and brought to television the best of nursery learning and tradition. Some of the Playschool team went on to create Jackanory (1965), a simple story-telling programme which used great actors to do the telling and great illustrators to make the pictures. Drama, made or commissioned by the Children's department specifically for the child audience, started again in the seventies and continues today with series such as Tracy Beaker and The Sarah Jane Adventures (a spin off from Doctor Who).
This was the thinking behind the creation of Grange Hill in 1978. It was a series set in a school, a background familiar to every child, which looked at life from the child's point of view and told stories and discussed issues relevant to the audience. At times this became controversial and there were frequent complaints from adults, but the BBC held to its position of respecting and not underestimating the audience.
Dealing with difficult issues through drama, as in the one off 'All on a Summer Day' about the 7/7 bombing in London, is as important as providing a comprehensive pre-school service or a regular children's news service.
Newsround, originally John Craven's Newsround (1971), is another example of providing a serious service for children. Like Blue Peter, it has a format which has changed and developed over the years but retains its basic philosophy of putting events in a context, explaining the background, and looking at things from a child's point of view.
In the future, children will consume their media in different ways but the underlying principles remain the same.
There are hundreds more great programmes which could be noted, from Crackerjack to Teletubbies, from Going Live to Granpa in my Pocket. However, what is really important is the commitment to a dedicated, properly funded service for children - providing the widest possible range of quality programmes, reflecting children's own culture, the world they live in and the wider world. In the future, children will consume their media in different ways but the underlying principles remain the same.
Anna joined the BBC in 1960, and worked on a number of major children's series including Playschool, Jackanory and Grange Hill. In 1981, she left the BBC to become Head of Children's and Youth Programmes, TVS, followed by her appointment in 1986 as Head of BBC Children's dept. She has a BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award and an OBE.
*Blue Peter and the elephant: "This is one of those pieces of television that everyone remembers - a real classic," explains Peter Purves, ex-presenter. "It all happened when Lulu, the baby elephant from Chessington Zoo, came on the show and caused chaos. Lulu did the lot! She drank and she peed, poohed and generally misbehaved - dragging her poor gamekeeper through the mess. Val (Singleton) gamely struggled to keep us all on the script, but John (Noakes) and I could not stop laughing".