Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Factual Children's Television

TV keeps it real for the kids

Main image of Factual Children's Television

Lord Reith's edict that BBC programmes should "inform, educate and entertain" clearly echoes in the children's factual output of both the BBC and commercial channels. It's not essential these programmes have proven educational value, unlike the more tightly controlled content of schools programmes, so children's television emphasises entertainment and avoids didactic teaching.

Programmes based on core school subjects like history and science are rare. Treasure Houses (BBC, 1982-87) provided historical biography, while Johnny Ball enthused on maths, chemistry and physics principles in various series beginning with Think of a Number (BBC, 1977-84). How (ITV, 1966-81; 90-) often explains simple scientific principles using party piece tricks.

Children's television treats art as an expressive rather than an academic subject. The BBC's Vision On (1964-77), Take Hart and Hartbeat (1977-93) and SMart (1994-) or ITV's Art Attack (1990-) suggest creative ideas that can be tried at home rather than lecturing on art history.

Natural history programmes have proved popular since Zoo Time (ITV, 1956-68) first broadcast from British zoos. Animal Magic (BBC, 1962-84) saw Johnny Morris provide funny voices for zoo animals to comedic effect. The Really Wild Show (BBC, 1986-) was more scientifically accurate and tried increasingly to get out of TV studios and zoos to show animals in natural habitats. Animals in Action (ITV, 1980-83; 86) reused footage from the primetime nature series Survival (ITV 1961-).

This repackaging of adult formats demonstrates how children's television continues to borrow all manner of mainstream programming strands, from the chat show - Ask Aspel (BBC, 1970-81) - to news programmes, including Children's Newsreel (BBC, 1950-61) and the long-running Newsround (BBC, 1972-).

While written literature is difficult to portray on a visual medium like television, children's books were covered by The Book Tower (ITV, 1979-89), which used illustrated readings and dramatisations. Programmes examining other media have endured. Junior Points of View (BBC, 1963-70) let young viewers comment on their favourite and less favoured TV shows, as did First Post (ITV, 1983-85) and Take Two (BBC, 1982-96). The latter progressed to cover all media in intelligent ways. Cinema history and production were knowledgeably chronicled by Clapperboard (ITV, 1972-82), while Call the Shots (BBC, 2002-) goes behind the scenes of cinema today.

Advice on life problems and issues tend to be covered within the fictitious realm of Children's Drama. School classes in 'citizenship' usually take the form of discussion and debate and this approach was utilised in Search (BBC, 1971-5) and Z-Shed (BBC, 1975). The 'All About Me' personal video diaries were a central part of Going Live! (BBC, 1987-93). Religious matters were rarely tackled but there were occasional series like The Sunday Gang (BBC, 1976-81) and Knock, Knock (BBC, 1988-89).

Most factual topics can be happily included within a wide-ranging magazine series like Blue Peter (BBC, 1958-). The remit of the flagship BBC children's programme stretches from pop interview to animals to historical biography. It has outlasted predecessors - Cliff Michelmore's Telescope (BBC, 1950-51) and Studio 'E' (BBC, 1957-58) - and commercial rivals alike, including Magpie (ITV, 1968-80).

Alistair McGown

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Animal Magic (1962-83)

Animal Magic (1962-83)

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

Thumbnail image of Blockbusters (1983-93)

Blockbusters (1983-93)

Popular teenage quiz genially presented by Bob Holness

Thumbnail image of Blue Peter (1958- )

Blue Peter (1958- )

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

Thumbnail image of How / How 2 (1967-81, 1990-)

How / How 2 (1967-81, 1990-)

Children's science series that sets out to answer basic questions

Thumbnail image of John Craven's Newsround (1972-)

John Craven's Newsround (1972-)

Daily news bulletin aimed at younger audiences

Thumbnail image of Magpie (1968-80)

Magpie (1968-80)

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

Thumbnail image of Really Wild Show, The (1986-2006)

Really Wild Show, The (1986-2006)

Children's wildlife series replacing the more whimsical Animal Magic

Thumbnail image of Record Breakers (1972-2001)

Record Breakers (1972-2001)

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

Thumbnail image of Take Hart (1977-83)

Take Hart (1977-83)

Children's art series with Tony Hart, best known for introducing Morph

Thumbnail image of Think of a Number (1978-84)

Think of a Number (1978-84)

Children's science series presented by Johnny Ball

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 Why Don't You... (1973-94)

Why Don't You... (1973-94)

Popular kids-based series promoting non-TV activities

Thumbnail image of Zoo Time (1956-68)

Zoo Time (1956-68)

Live coverage introducing Britain's zoo animals.

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Children's Television

Children's Television

Broadcasting for children of all ages

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Ball, Johnny (1938-)

Ball, Johnny (1938-)

Presenter, Writer

Thumbnail image of Baxter, Biddy (1933-)

Baxter, Biddy (1933-)


Thumbnail image of Home, Anna (1938-)

Home, Anna (1938-)

Director, Producer, Executive

Thumbnail image of Morris, Johnny (1916-99)

Morris, Johnny (1916-99)