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Children's Entertainment and Comedy

Who says kids' TV has to be educational?

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Only parents with Victorian attitudes would insist all children's programming be 'improving' and educational - there should be room for fun and entertainment, as in adult schedules.

Popular new genres of the 1950s included live theatre variety and the game show and Children's TV replicated both. Crackerjack (BBC, 1955-84) was a mini-version of series like Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ITV, 1955-67; 1973-74), comprising variety turns, comedy sketches, pop music, party games and simple quizzes.

Both children and television have changed greatly since Crackerjack began. The 1960s produced Top of the Form (BBC, 1962-75), an austere inter-schools general knowledge quiz with serious-minded questions addressed to uniformed pupils. Film quiz Screen Test (BBC, 1970-84) used a similar static, sit-down panel format, albeit enlivened by movie clips. Runaround (ITV, 1975-81) brought the quiz format to life - active youngsters sprinted across the studio to answer trivia questions, egged on by a noisy audience. After the first series of Cheggers Plays Pop (BBC, 1978-86), BBC Head of Children's Edward Barnes remarked, "It's the most vulgar thing I have ever seen - but I'll recommission it!" It mixed music guest spots, pop quiz and action games involving inflatable contraptions and messy gunge. The latter ingredient, influenced by TISWAS (ITV, 1974-82), became de rigeur in the likes of Fun House (ITV 1989-99) and Get Your Own Back (BBC, 1991-). These shows allow free rein to natural childish energy; quizzes of the 1950s and '60s were an extension of the classroom.

Cheggers Plays Pop and Crackerjack included pop performance, but ITV provided dedicated music shows in the 1970s and '80s, Muriel Young producing several for Granada in the 'glam rock' and 'teenybop' eras - Lift Off With Ayshea (ITV, 1969-74), including a legendary 1972 appearance by David Bowie, Shang-a-Lang (ITV, 1975) a showcase for the Bay City Rollers, and Marc (ITV, 1977), a vehicle for Marc Bolan. Get It Together (ITV, 1977-81) was a durable mix of performance and quiz, let down by a poor guest roster and dubious cover versions sung by host Roy North.

Pop interview, performance and - from the early '80s - music video also became a regular part of Saturday morning shows. Music video and its ubiquity, via satellite channels, has removed much of the impact enjoyed by shows like Lift Off, then a rare opportunity to see music idols perform.

Comedy for children usually deals in physical slapstick, farce and bad puns. In this vein, doddery old Mr Pastry (BBC, 1950-62) was an early comic hero, as were the grotesquely greedy schoolboy Billy Bunter (BBC, 1952-61) and the similar comic strip schoolroom antics of Whack-O! (BBC, 1956-60; 1971-72).

Broad pantomime traditions informed Pardon, My Genie (ITV, 1972-3), Grandad (BBC, 1979-84) and Rentaghost (BBC, 1976-84) - faces were blackened by exploding ovens and struck by flying cream cakes. Such series used experienced comic actors like Roy Barraclough or Clive Dunn, but farcical events and comic misadventures also befell child actors in Here Come the Double Deckers! (BBC, 1971), Graham's Gang (BBC, 1977-79) and Jossy's Giants (BBC, 1986-87). Such physical comedy has nonetheless taken in satire (Educating Marmalade, ITV, 1982) and strong character writing (Worzel Gummidge, ITV, 1979-81; Channel 4, 1987-89).

Absurdist pre-Python series Do Not Adjust Your Set (ITV, 1967-8) was a rare example of truly innovative sketch comedy. While nothing since has matched its influence, the earthy humour of various 1970s Thames series like You Must Be Joking (ITV, 1975-76) and Pauline's Quirkes (ITV, 1976) proved both popular and controversial. Play Away (BBC, 1972-84), a colourful mix of corny jokes and songs, was the longest running of all children's comedy series.

Further reading

Home, Anna, Into the Box of Delights: a history of children's television (BBC, 1993) esp Chapter 6: 'Entertainment'

Tibballs, Geoff, The Golden Age of Children's Television (Titan Books, 1991)

Alistair McGown

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School (1952-61)

Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School (1952-61)

Children's comedy series about the perpetually greedy fat schoolboy

Thumbnail image of Crackerjack (1955-84)

Crackerjack (1955-84)

BBC children's variety series, featuring comedy, music and games

Thumbnail image of Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69)

Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69)

Madcap children's sketch show starring several future Pythons

Thumbnail image of Educating Marmalade/ Danger: Marmalade at Work (1982-84)

Educating Marmalade/ Danger: Marmalade at Work (1982-84)

Children's comedy series about the world's worst-behaved girl

Thumbnail image of Just William (1977-78)

Just William (1977-78)

11 year-old William Brown causes havoc among the 1920s middle-classes

Thumbnail image of Play Away (1971-84)

Play Away (1971-84)

Children's songs, jokes and sketches, presented by Brian Cant

Thumbnail image of Rentaghost (1976-84)

Rentaghost (1976-84)

Children's comedy series about an agency for the recently departed

Thumbnail image of TISWAS (1974-82)

TISWAS (1974-82)

Saturday morning anarchy presided over by Chris Tarrant and Sally James

Thumbnail image of Whack-O! (1956-60, 1971-72)

Whack-O! (1956-60, 1971-72)

Public-school comedy starring walrus-moustached Jimmy Edwards

Thumbnail image of Worzel Gummidge (1979-81)

Worzel Gummidge (1979-81)

Children's series with Jon Pertwee as the living scarecrow

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Children's Television

Children's Television

Broadcasting for children of all ages

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