Long Runners: No 19: Jackanory

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The Independent Culture
Age: 28. Actor Lee Montague, parked uneasily on a wrought-iron garden bench, read the first story, Cap of Rushes, just before Christmas 1965.

Frequency: five times a week, three months a year. Back when children's TV schedules were less crowded, the Jackanory season would run from September to March. It still ends in March, but now starts in January. When not on air, the slot is filled by the likes of Rude Dog and The Dweebs.

Formula: the oldest of all, and one that has made an effortless transition from caveman to radio to television. Listeners gather around a flickering fire / cathode tube while a village elder / well-known actor spins a yarn.

How has it changed? The famous kaleidoscope beginning and the mantra 'Jack-a-nory . . . Jack-a-nory . . . Jack-a-nory . . .' were dropped 18 years ago. The book that the storyteller pretended to read from was exchanged for an autocue about 10 years ago (it was felt that the less said about books the better). There used to be one story per week, but they are now broken up so that if children don't like a particular story, they don't skip the whole week.

Where does the name come from? From a 19th-century rhyme:

I'll tell you a story

of Jackanory,

and now my story's begun.

I'll tell you another

of Jack and his brother,

and now my story's done.

Any rivals? ITV briefly introduced The Book Tower, started by Joy Whitby, Jackanory's first producer.

Past readers: a surprisingly heavyweight Who's Who of British thesping, including Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Anthony Quayle, Denholm Elliott, Edward Fox, Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier, Helen Mirren, Dudley Moore, George Cole, Kenneth Williams, Alan Bennett, Miranda Richardson, Harry H Corbett, James Robertson Justice . . . and most of the cast of Middlemarch.

Most capped reader? Bernard Cribbins. He's appeared 26 times, including the thousandth programme in 1970.

Any royals? In 1984, striking a Pythonesque attitude in the middle of a windswept grouse moor, Prince Charles recounted The Old Man of Lochnagar.

What makes a good reader? The current producer, Mel Romano, says: 'I like it if people have done things on the radio, and can be compelling with their voice alone. Often it's an instinctive thing.'

This year's main attractions: Paul Merton, Sandi Toksvig, Mike McShane, Sean Hughes, Chris Barrie.

Are they taking kickbacks from the Comedy Store? Jackanory has always reflected what's trendy on television at the time. As for the present taste for ex-stand-ups - these guys spent their formative years outrunning hecklers and tend to talk too fast.

Tell me about the chairs: The most popular seat for readers seems to be a captain's chair. High-backed Emmanuelle-style cane chairs seemed popular in the early Seventies (albeit containing Wendy Craig instead of Sylvia Kristel) while World of Leather-style sofas made a regular appearance in the second half of the decade.

What about now? Readers are expected to walk around the set. Damn it, this is television.

How much do writers get? A standard pounds 16.62 per minute. For a three-part story, that amounts to about pounds 750.

Do they accept unsolicited manuscripts? Yes. The immensely popular Johnny Briggs stories started this way.

Is it keeping up with fashions? Well, in 1991, a story was told in rap.

Anything make you want to kick the set in? Not really, unless it's that Bernard Cribbins popping up again. For an example of how not to talk down to children, witness Arthur Lowe reading The Emperor's Oblong Pankcake.

The bottom line - is it any good? Parents probably prefer to think that their offspring are watching Jackanory rather than Jayce and the Wheeled Warrior or Twinkle, the Dream Being. You would have thought children themselves preferred junk cartoons, with no prefectorial adult mediation, but viewing figures of 2-3 million suggest otherwise. The new freewheeling format detracts from what is surely the essential point of Jackanory, the unbroken line between storyteller and audience. Why not go the whole hog and dramatise it? Gerard Gilbert

(Photograph omitted)