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Children's TV in the 1970s

The first all-colour decade produced many enduring classics

Main image of Children's TV in the 1970s

The 1970s witnessed the dawning of a golden age in children's television, with the talents gathered in the 1960s now nurtured with the kind of funding and institutional support for which they had fought long and hard, and thus able to achieve their ambitious ideas. There was a notable expansion in the quality and scale of indigenous output and markedly less reliance on imported shows and decade-old repeats. Children's programmes moved into new parts of the schedules, due to both institutional and fiscal factors. Government easing of restrictions in broadcasting hours - at a time when parts of non-peak schedules showed only the test card - went hand in hand with new levels of funding. Average weekly regional ITV children's output increased from seven hours in 1970 to 9.5 hours by 1974.

When ITV was allowed to open up daytime TV from October 1972 it devoted half an hour around noon to programmes for pre-school children. Inventive shows included Rainbow (ITV, 1972-95) and Pipkins (ITV, 1973-81). Saturday mornings were a wasteland of adult education programmes and blank screens until in 1972 LWT experimented with linking buy-ins and repeats with pretty host Sally James presenting birthday requests, film clips and occasional pop guests. Branded Saturday Scene (ITV, 1972-77), the package, only ever shown in London, was the UK's first Saturday morning children's show. ATV soon trialled the similar TISWAS (ITV, 1974-82) in the Midlands.

The BBC had attempted occasional Saturday lunchtime half-hour shows such as Edandzed! (BBC, 1970) and Outa-Space (BBC, 1973), but finally invested heavily in a networked rival to ITV's morning shows: Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (BBC, 1976-82) arrived in October 1976, created by Blue Peter producer Rosemary Gill.

Although the BBC perhaps produced the longer-running children's shows of the decade, ITV's commitment to innovation is evident above, with the governing IBA's guiding hand of strong regulation at the tiller. In 1972 the IBA began a two-year research study into children's viewing, then in February 1973 held a Consultation in Children's Television, at which the regional franchises discussed how best to serve young viewers. ITV schedules were arranged by a Children's Sub-Committee of the ITV Network Planning Committee, meaning regions could plan in advance the best possible complimentary output.

The 1970s saw strategies finally adopted to produce homegrown animation programming. The BBC decided against expanding the in-house graphics unit and instead helped set up outside facilities such as Q3 London to produce Crystal Tipps and Alistair (BBC, 1971-74) and Fingerbobs (BBC, 1972), while also encouraging independent filmmakers such as Smallfilms to work with them. Thames TV funded Manchester-based subsidiary company Cosgrove Hall to create animated series including Chorlton and the Wheelies (ITV, 1976-79) and Jamie and the Magic Torch (ITV, 1977-80).

The BBC overhauled its dated Watch With Mother output throughout the decade with colourful animated series like Mr Benn (BBC, 1971-72) and Bagpuss (BBC, 1974) and indeed dropped the archaic umbrella title by 1973. Another home to animation was the five minutes prior to the BBC1 Evening News. The Magic Roundabout (BBC, 1965-77) had opened up this slot to both child and adult audiences, itself moving into colour in the 70s, but also residing here were Roobarb (BBC, 1974-75) and colour remakes of Captain Pugwash (BBC, 1974-75) and Ivor the Engine (BBC, 1976-77).

Live action comedy and entertainment also expanded beyond dependable old warhorse Crackerjack (BBC, 1955-84). The esoteric Elephant's Eggs in a Rhubarb Tree (ITV, 1971) featured nonsense songs, poems and sketches fronted by Richard Beckinsale among others and drew on works by John Lennon, Spike Milligan and Ivor Cutler. The only vaguely similar offering was the BBC's jokier Play School offshoot Play Away (BBC, 1971-84). More typical broad panto fare included fantasy-based slapstick series written by Bob Block; Pardon My Genie (ITV, 1972-73), Roberts Robots (ITV, 1973-74) and Rentaghost (BBC, 1976-84).

Traditional hi-jinks could also be found in gang show Graham's Gang (BBC, 1977-79), movie spoof series Potter's Picture Palace (BBC, 1976-78) and Clive Dunn vehicle Grandad (BBC, 1979-84). Just William (ITV, 1976-78) and The Ghosts of Motley Hall (ITV, 1976-78) were among ITV's classier Sunday teatime sitcoms, but the channel also produced snotty, controversial sketch comedy shows such as the raucous and adolescent You Must Be Joking! (ITV, 1975-76), Pauline's Quirkes (ITV, 1976) and You Can't Be Serious (ITV, 1978). You Must Be Joking! featured house pop band Flintlock, and ITV made major inroads into pop in the 70s, beginning with Lift Off With Ayshea (ITV, 1969-74) and also taking in Bay City Rollers' vehicle Shang-a-Land (ITV, 1975).

Drama had been defunct at the BBC in the 60s and a revival began with the halfway house of Jackanory Playhouse (BBC, 1972-85), fairytales cheaply presented theatre-style in studio. A location-filmed episode spun off into its own series, Lizzie Dripping (BBC, 1972-75). A fresh generation of regular ITV Sunday teatime serials expanded on groundwork laid at the end of the 60s, including adolescent equine drama Follyfoot (ITV, 1971-73), magical comedy Catweazle (ITV, 1970-71) and horsey costume action in The Adventures of Black Beauty (ITV, 1972-74). Also at ITV, Southern continued to provide popular outdoor adventures such as Freewheelers (ITV, 1968-73), a modern-day Enid Blyton's Famous Five (ITV, 1977-79) and scarecrow comedy-drama Worzel Gummidge (ITV, 1979-82). Wales and West franchise HTV majored in spooky series like Sky (ITV, 1975) and King of the Castle (ITV, 1977). By the decade's end smaller regions like Tyne Tees were also active, bringing Geordie accents to the screen in The Paper Lads (ITV, 1977-78). Drama got tougher on both channels - petty crime in working-class Liverpool featured in Rocky O'Rourke (BBC 1976) while King Cinder (BBC, 1977) was a thick-ear crime thriller. ITV's rough school drama A Bunch of Fives (ITV, 1977) was largely forgotten after the BBC's mould-breaking hit Grange Hill (BBC, 1978-2008).

Factual likewise expanded in this decade - Blue Peter spin-offs included Record Breakers (BBC, 1972-2001) and travelogues Special Assignment (BBC, 1973-81) and Go With Noakes (BBC, 1976-80). Facts were entertainingly presented on ITV in noisy game show Runaround (ITV, 1975-81) which brought the quiz genre out from behind desks for the first time. Similarly inventive was art show for the deaf Vision On (BBC, 1964-76) a multi-award-winner hitting its stride in the decade of colour TV. It was just one among dozens of shows demonstrating the unfettered creativity at work in the area of children's TV in this exciting decade.

Alistair McGown

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Black Beauty, The (1972-74)

Adventures of Black Beauty, The (1972-74)

TV adaptation of Anna Sewell's classic children's novel

Thumbnail image of Bagpuss (1974)

Bagpuss (1974)

Just a saggy old cloth cat. But Emily loved him.

Thumbnail image of Blue Peter (1958- )

Blue Peter (1958- )

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

Thumbnail image of Bod (1975-76)

Bod (1975-76)

The philosophical and whimsical adventures of Bod and his friends

Thumbnail image of Catweazle (1970-71)

Catweazle (1970-71)

Children's comedy series about a time-travelling sorcerer

Thumbnail image of Crackerjack (1955-84)

Crackerjack (1955-84)

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

Thumbnail image of Crystal Tipps and Alistair (1971-74)

Crystal Tipps and Alistair (1971-74)

The colourful exploits of a girl and her pet dog

Thumbnail image of Fingerbobs (1972)

Fingerbobs (1972)

Finger puppets forage for everyday objects to help tell illustrated stories

Thumbnail image of Flumps, The (1977)

Flumps, The (1977)

The adventures of a family of burrow-dwelling furry creatures

Thumbnail image of Grange Hill (1978-2008)

Grange Hill (1978-2008)

Groundbreakingly realistic TV series set in a London comprehensive school

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 King of the Castle (1977)

King of the Castle (1977)

Children's serial about a lonely boy who stumbles into a parallel universe

Thumbnail image of Lizzie Dripping / Lizzie Dripping Again (1973-75)

Lizzie Dripping / Lizzie Dripping Again (1973-75)

Much-loved children's fantasy about a child with an unusual friend

Thumbnail image of Magic Roundabout, The (1965-77)

Magic Roundabout, The (1965-77)

Hugely popular children's animated series

Thumbnail image of Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (1976-82)

Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (1976-82)

Pioneering BBC children's phone-in show, hosted by Noel Edmonds

Thumbnail image of Pipkins/Inigo Pipkin (1973-81)

Pipkins/Inigo Pipkin (1973-81)

Imaginative puppet-based programme for pre-schoolers

Thumbnail image of Play Away (1971-84)

Play Away (1971-84)

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

Thumbnail image of Rainbow (1972-95)

Rainbow (1972-95)

Colourful pre-school frolics with George, Zippy and Bungle

Thumbnail image of Record Breakers (1972-2001)

Record Breakers (1972-2001)

The tallest, the shortest, the fastest, the slowest...

Thumbnail image of Rentaghost (1976-84)

Rentaghost (1976-84)

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

Thumbnail image of Roobarb (1974-75)

Roobarb (1974-75)

The animated adventures of an excitable green dog

Thumbnail image of TISWAS (1974-82)

TISWAS (1974-82)

Saturday morning anarchy presided over by Chris Tarrant and Sally James

Thumbnail image of Vision On (1964-76)

Vision On (1964-76)

Children's series aimed at the deaf, but which attracted a much wider audience

Thumbnail image of Worzel Gummidge (1979-81)

Worzel Gummidge (1979-81)

Children's series with Jon Pertwee as the living scarecrow

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