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Children's TV in the 1960s

The decade when things started to get seriously creative

Main image of Children's TV in the 1960s

Producers of children's TV in the 1960s were obliged to innovate within political and, especially, financial constraints. Television - both BBC and ITV - was still to make up its mind how entertaining or educational children's programming should be and what resources it should receive.

ITV's early, very regional set-up meant a patchwork service - despite going on air in London in 1955, the ITV network of local stations was not completed until 1962. Children's television was caught up in the rush to air and lacked cohesive strategy or even nationwide scheduling.

ITV's backbone was bought-in film series, both homegrown and imported. ITC, the filmmaking arm of ATV, produced exciting family swashbucklers, among them The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITV, 1955-59) and Sir Francis Drake (ITV, 1961-62). Filmed puppet series included Roberta Leigh's The Adventures of Twizzle (ITV, 1957-62) and Torchy (ITV, 1959-60), early exposure for filmmaker Gerry Anderson, who would later dominate the decade with sophisticated science-fiction puppet series, most notably Thunderbirds (ITV, 1965-66). All such series were made with an eye to American sales, hence their predominantly trans-Atlantic feel.

Most days' schedules would include one overseas buy-in; fast-moving if formulaic adventures from the US, Canada or Australia dominated. Photogenic animal heroes included doggie star Lassie (US, 1954-73) and resourceful dolphin Flipper (US, 1964-67). Imported cartoon 'funnies' were also favourite standbys.

A handful of reliable homegrown shows addressed factual needs, including animal show Zoo Time (ITV, 1956-68), sensible noughts and crosses-based game Junior Criss Cross Quiz (ITV, 1958-67) and several identical magazines dedicated to junior sporting instruction and achievement: Seeing Sport (ITV, 1956-65), You Are Tomorrow (ITV, 1967) and Junior Sportsweek (ITV, 1967-68).

ITV's London contractor Rediffusion became the hub of networked children's programming. Programmes for the very young ran under the Small Time banner from 1955 to 1966 in the 4.45pm slot. Shows included The Musical Box (ITV, 1958-66), with Rolf Harris and later Wally Whyton singing songs illustrated by Peter Firmin, traditional storytelling in Fireside Story (ITV, 1963) and the earliest animations by Oliver Postgate, including Ivor the Engine (ITV, 1959-64). Puppet fox Basil Brush debuted here in The Three Scampis (ITV, 1962-65). Similarly, Small Time used the interaction between hosts such as Muriel Young, Whyton and guitarist Bert Weedon and hand puppet pals Pussy Cat Willum, cheeky owl Ollie Beak and woolly dog Fred Barker, all sending birthday greetings to viewers.

Small Time's presenters and puppets crossed over seamlessly to older children's magazine Tuesday Rendezvous (ITV, 1961-63), later begetting the twice-weekly Five O'Clock Club (ITV, 1963-66). Young, Whyton, Howard Williams and Gerry Marsden introduced quizzes, hobby items and post-Beatles pop with performances from Billy Fury, The Spencer Davis Group and The Kinks, among others.

Regional ITV had smaller-scale birthday greetings shows of their own: Westward had hopping rabbit Gus Honeybun and ATV Jean Morton and koala bear chums Tingha and Tucker. Elsewhere, American kindergarten format Romper Room had spawned four local UK versions by 1968 - Anglia were first in 1964; Grampian, Ulster and Border followed.

British-made weekday drama was rare, but Rediffusion produced rural melodrama Badger's Bend (ITV, 1963-64), coastal adventure Smuggler's Cove (ITV, 1963) and hi-tech actioner Sierra Nine (ITV, 1963). Spoofy spy thriller Orlando (ITV, 1965-68) became its first real drama 'brand', running for 76 episodes. South-England franchise Southern pushed through with exciting, modern adventure dramas including The Master (ITV, 1966) and The New Forest Rustlers (ITV, 1966) and their reward was to produce Orlando's spy-fi replacement Freewheelers (ITV, 1968-73). Comedy was largely limited to Ollie Beak's cheeky asides until Rediffusion's Do Not Adjust Your Set (ITV 1967-69) blazed a trail with anarchic pre-Python sketches. Though catch-as-catch-can at times, ITV's service was extremely popular. By the early 60s the share for children's programmes was in some extreme cases 85:15 to ITV.

The BBC Children's Department was duly charged by its superiors with losing the audience, calling into doubt its role. New BBC chiefs Hugh Greene and Stuart Hood radically overhauled stale, self-satisfied and middle-class television output. Children's was thought a main offender, and the department was slowly dismantled. Drama and Light Entertainment were removed from the department's purview in November 1961. Crackerjack (BBC, 1955-84) would now be handled by the adult LE Department. A line of interesting modern serials was curtailed, having recently included Paradise Walk (BBC, 1961), a mystery set among West Indian immigrants, and The Racketty Street Gang (BBC, 1961), which had some sequences filmed in Australia. Even the square-jawed Saturday teatime adventures of pilot Garry Halliday (BBC, 1959-62) were abandoned before long. Despite innovations, including Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89; 2005-) and Quick Before They Catch Us (BBC, 1966), a Swinging London take on Enid Blyton crime-solving, output was otherwise limited to Sunday teatime literature adaptations such as The Old Curiosity Shop (BBC, 1962-63) and a remade The Railway Children (BBC, 1968).

The endgame was clearly the department's total closure and the dispersal of those responsible for its perceived failings. In January 1964 the department was finally 'restructured' as part of a wider-remit Family Programmes Unit under Doreen Stephens. Nonetheless, seeds of genuine innovation flourished here, including progressive pre-school show Play School (BBC, 1964-88), on the newly launched BBC2, and storytelling format Jackanory (BBC, 1965-96), an important showcase for non-drama fiction. These two new shows were part of a core handful forming the backbone of the service. Magazine Blue Peter (BBC, 1958- ) expanded under the driven stewardship of the formidable Biddy Baxter, Animal Magic (BBC, 1962-83) was a light-hearted wildlife series, Crackerjack serviced entertainment needs and Tom-Tom (BBC, 1965-70) showcased jet age science and technology.

There was little homegrown product outside of those half dozen shows, the BBC relying on overseas imports even more heavily than ITV. US cartoons like Boss Cat (Top Cat, US, 1961-62) and live-action film series such as Western Champion, The Wonder Horse (US, 1955-56) appeared, although the BBC also featured more 'cultured' European fare, including film serials from France (Robinson Crusoe, Belle and Sebastian) and Yugoslavia (White Horses).

In 1967, Doreen Stephens and her second Joy Whitby suddenly left to head the Children's Programmes Department of new ITV franchise LWT. With the appointment of Monica Sims, the BBC Children's Department name finally came back into use, the quiet dawn of a new era. A period of creative freedom under stringent finances witnessed experimental formats such as Whoosh! (BBC, 1968), the first BBC children's show to air on Saturday lunchtimes, the psychedelic Zokko! (1968-70) and Storyline (BBC, 1969), an attempt to bring animation to the Jackanory approach. There was even the slight return of indigenous (non-costume) drama with Adventure Weekly (BBC 1968-69).

ITV's 1968 franchise renewals meanwhile saw Yorkshire provide fast-paced period dramas Tom Grattan's War (ITV, 1968-70) and The Flaxton Boys (ITV, 1969-74), while Thames TV's Magpie (ITV, 1968-80) was far more considered than Five O'Clock Club's puppet hi-jinks. Nonetheless, the decade closed with ITV schedules still partly propped up by ageing Torchy and Robin Hood repeats, while the BBC's Watch With Mother continued rerunning 1950s puppet series like The Woodentops. Greater recognition - and funding - would certainly be needed if children's TV were to flourish in the next decade.

Alistair McGown

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Twizzle, The (1957-62)

Adventures of Twizzle, The (1957-62)

Children's puppet series from the creator of Thunderbirds

Thumbnail image of Animal Magic (1962-83)

Animal Magic (1962-83)

Long-running children's animal series presented by Johnny Morris

Thumbnail image of Blue Peter (1958- )

Blue Peter (1958- )

Live magazine show offering British children a window onto the world.

Thumbnail image of Captain Pugwash (1957-66)

Captain Pugwash (1957-66)

The misadventures of a bungling pirate of the high seas and his crew

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 Ivor the Engine (1959-64)

Ivor the Engine (1959-64)

The animated adventures of Welsh steam engine Ivor

Thumbnail image of Jackanory (1965-96)

Jackanory (1965-96)

Long-running BBC children's story-telling series

Thumbnail image of Magpie (1968-80)

Magpie (1968-80)

Children's magazine programme: ITV's answer to Blue Peter

Thumbnail image of Mary, Mungo and Midge (1969)

Mary, Mungo and Midge (1969)

The adventures of a little girl and her pet dog and mouse

Thumbnail image of Orlando (1965-68)

Orlando (1965-68)

Espionage adventure capers with old Irish sea dog Orlando O'Connor

Thumbnail image of Play School (1964-88)

Play School (1964-88)

Long-running BBC programme for pre-school children

Thumbnail image of Railway Children, The (1968)

Railway Children, The (1968)

1968 BBC adaptation of the evergreen E. Nesbit story

Thumbnail image of Thunderbirds (1965-66)

Thunderbirds (1965-66)

F.A.B. adventures of International Rescue

Thumbnail image of Zoo Time (1956-68)

Zoo Time (1956-68)

Live coverage introducing Britain's zoo animals.

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