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Children's TV Drama

Fantastic adventures and hard-hitting issues for children of all ages

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Drama aimed at young audiences became a feature of the BBC's postwar television service in 1950. Dramas were shown live, to all intents and purposes as studio-bound theatre productions. Most of these early productions were adaptations of turn of the century literary standards such as Little Women (BBC, 1950) and The Railway Children (BBC, 1951, 1957, 1968). The BBC at this time viewed American westerns and even the books of Enid Blyton as less worthy and as a result children turned over to ITV to enjoy swashbuckling productions such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60).

Internal politics led to the closure of the BBC children's department in 1962 - drama for children would be overseen by the 'grown-up' drama department for the next few years. ITV invested in adventure serials, most featuring plucky gangs of children outwitting diamond smugglers in stories heavily influenced by Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Secret Seven. Increasing amounts of location filming were vital to the success of these adventure runarounds.

When the BBC returned to the arena in the early 1970s, budgets were still small but there were notable successes with serials based on the novels of Nina Bawden (such as Carrie's War, BBC, 1974), and these added increasing levels of emotional depth to the children's drama.

New approaches to realism saw working-class characters and inner-city settings introduced to children's drama by the mid-70s. The Siege of Golden Hill (ITV, 1975) was about teenage gangs and council corruption while A Bunch of Fives (ITV, 1977-78) was a recognisable snapshot of school life. Similar but far more long-running was the phenomenally successful Grange Hill (BBC, 1978-present) which examined all kinds of adolescent issues from drugs to pregnancy, eliciting outraged responses from parents and teachers.

A golden age that lasted well into the 1980s saw both channels provide a huge number of dramas with a variety rivalling that of the adult service. Adventure stories, issue-led contemporary tales, science-fiction, fantasy, period classics and one-off plays (most notably the Dramarama strand (ITV, 1983-89) were all produced for children.

The mid-80s saw the BBC make concerted efforts into making product for international sale. The Box of Delights (BBC 1984), a lavish period fantasy serial, was a landmark in the genre and several tales of The Chronicles of Narnia followed (BBC, 1988-90), both produced with American finance. Expensive remakes of earlier BBC adaptations followed, including Tom's Midnight Garden (BBC, 1989) and The Phoenix and the Carpet (BBC, 1997), while The Borrowers (BBC, 1992-3) was particularly successful in America.

Byker Grove (BBC, 1989-present), about a Tyneside youth club, began as a serial but became more like a soap opera when production moved to twenty episodes a year. ITV, meanwhile, offered the brilliant Press Gang (1989-93), about a school newspaper, and long-running hospital drama Children's Ward (1989-2000). Such contemporary soap - including the perennial Grange Hill - began to dominate children's schedules and, as a result, short serials and one-off plays were squeezed out. On the whole this only reflected the state of play in the adult arena.

Alistair McGown

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Ace of Wands (1970-72)

Ace of Wands (1970-72)

Children's drama about a magician with telepathic powers

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 Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1955-59)

Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1955-59)

Hugely popular series that gave a ratings boost to the early ITV

Thumbnail image of Borrowers, The (1992-93)

Borrowers, The (1992-93)

Children's drama series about six-inch people

Thumbnail image of Byker Grove (1989-2006)

Byker Grove (1989-2006)

Bold and popular Tyneside-set teen drama that gave us Ant and Dec

Thumbnail image of Carrie's War (1974)

Carrie's War (1974)

Memorable children's drama set in WWII Wales

Thumbnail image of Catweazle (1970-71)

Catweazle (1970-71)

Children's comedy series about a time-travelling sorcerer

Thumbnail image of Children's Ward/Ward, The (1989-2000)

Children's Ward/Ward, The (1989-2000)

Junior hospital drama set in a Manchester paediatric ward

Thumbnail image of Chronicles of Narnia, The (1988-90)

Chronicles of Narnia, The (1988-90)

Lavish adaptations of C.S. Lewis's classic novels

Thumbnail image of Dark Season (1991)

Dark Season (1991)

First children's SF adventure from the pen of Russell T. Davies

Thumbnail image of Feathered Serpent, The (1976-78)

Feathered Serpent, The (1976-78)

Distinctive children's historical drama series set in Aztec Mexico

Thumbnail image of Grange Hill (1978-2008)

Grange Hill (1978-2008)

Groundbreakingly realistic TV series set in a London comprehensive school

Thumbnail image of Kizzy (1976)

Kizzy (1976)

Children's adaptation of Rumer Godden's story of a young gypsy girl

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 Owl Service, The (1969-70)

Owl Service, The (1969-70)

In Wales, two teenagers meet a local boy and become involved in a mystery

Thumbnail image of Railway Children, The (1968)

Railway Children, The (1968)

1968 BBC adaptation of the evergreen E. Nesbit story

Thumbnail image of Secret Garden, The (1975)

Secret Garden, The (1975)

Third (and first colour) television version of the classic children's novel

Thumbnail image of Tucker's Luck (1983-85)

Tucker's Luck (1983-85)

Grange Hill's Tucker and his mates grow up

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Thumbnail image of Children's Television

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