CBeebies turns 10: Meet the visionaries responsible for Tinky Winky, Iggle Piggle and co
The BBC's children's channels are 10 years old. Simmy Richman heads to CBeebies HQ to discover the truth behind their surreal (and often controversial) output.
From time to time the life you've always imagined and the life that you actually have converge – and this is one of those moments. We are at London's Wembley Arena patiently waiting for the show to start. To fill the time, I have started to list all of the great acts I can remember seeing here over the years: Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, David Bowie, Prince, the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads... Never mind that my son doesn't yet realise the full weight of the history being imparted. He is, after all, only nine months old. And never mind, too, that the reason we are here today is the somewhat less impressive spectacle of a show called CBeebies Live: Reach for the Stars.
Before the boy was born, we'd never really sat down to have the "How much TV should we let him watch?" conversation. In the too-much-Information Age he'd been thrown into, television seemed the least of our neurotic, new-middle-class-parent concerns. And so, in the first few months after he arrived, we began to venture to the far reaches of our digital box and found there some 30-odd channels we had never paid much attention to before. There were assorted Disneys, a smattering of Nickelodeons, something called Baby TV, various dedicated cartoon stations and then there was the Beeb, the UK's reliable, trustworthy, public-service broadcaster, with its own two modest offerings: CBBC and CBeebies.
Clearly, the days of one 15-minute programme to "Watch With Mother" were long gone. This year marks many milestones for the side of the BBC that provides programmes for the very young. It is precisely 90 years since a radio engineer called AE Thompson (soon to become known as "Uncle Thompson") presented the first ever few minutes of "entertainment just for children" that took the form of a story, "Spick and Span", followed by a record called "Dance of the Goblins". The groundbreaking Newsround (or, as you and I remember it, John Craven's Newsround) has just celebrated its 40th birthday. And most immediately, those two dedicated digital channels are now, astonishingly, 10 years old and the one aimed at younger viewers, CBeebies, currently boasts that half of its target audience – around 2.3 million under-sixes – tunes in every week.
And it was around CBeebies in particular that our own domestic routine developed. In the mornings we might catch an episode of Postman Pat or a musical show with monkey-like creatures called ZingZillas. If we were up early enough, there was Me Too!, which seemed to be aimed at parents dropping their children off at a childminder while they went off to work. The songs from Boogie Beebies would, as the week progressed, become unshiftable earworms. The boy did not really sit and watch these programmes, you understand. But they provided a background buzz to the demanding days of new parenting and slowly stitched themselves into the fabric of our new life.
Best of all was the "Bedtime Hour", a cluster of shows between six and seven in the evening that we would watch and pause at our convenience as the bath, feed, sleep pattern presented itself. It would be futile to attempt to describe Waybuloo or In the Night Garden to anyone who has never seen them. Both are slightly surreal shows with no creature you would recognise from any visit to planet Earth. Waybuloo sees the "Piplings" for ever being called to do "yogo" and follows their efforts to encourage children (or "cheebies", in Waybuloo world) to join in their gentle, stretching movements. In the Night Garden is, if anything, even more eccentric, with characters called Iggle Piggle and Makka Pakka, a flying machine called the Pinky Ponk that seems to have been created by a modern-day Caractacus Potts, and a voice-over by none other than Derek Jacobi.
Both shows are exceptionally well made, utterly beguiling, unmistakably British and as bonkers as – if you can imagine such a thing – a sort of Monty Python's Flying Circus for pre-schoolers. With such singular offerings, it is no surprise that the BBC's children's unit has attracted its share of controversy in recent years. First, there was the accusation, fired by the American Moral Majority spokesperson Jerry Falwell, that the Teletubby known as Tinky Winky had to be gay because he carried a handbag. More recently, there have been objections to Rastamouse (a character created by the Rastafarian Michael De Souza) on the grounds that it was "racist", while those yoga-loving Piplings have come under fire from Christian groups for promoting "eastern philosophy" and the "one-armed presenter" Cerrie Burnell has been accused of "scaring our children".
And then there is the suspicion that, although both channels are thankfully entirely free of commercials, many of the shows could be seen as extended advertisements for a range of products from cuddly Iggle Piggles to live extravaganzas. Could it be that this channel we had welcomed into our home and allowed to assist us in shaping the blank-slate mind of our little boy was actually being run by some agenda-pushing cabal intent on selling us merchandise while promoting its own brand of political correctness gone mad? There was only one way to find out and so, to mark the channels' 10th-birthday celebrations, I head to Media City UK to find out.
Media City is the name given to the complex in Manchester's Salford Quays that is, since the broadcaster's estimated £1.5bn move there last May, now home to around 2,500 BBC workers, including those from the departments responsible for religion, sport, "future media" and breakfast TV. The children's channels alone employ around 400 people and, in spite of the shake up that moving out of London's White City entailed, about 50 per cent of those working here have willingly, and with assistance from the BBC, made the move from London.
In this plush, purpose-built metropolis (still boasting "Plenty of retail opportunities"), I am escorted from the Peel Media-owned studios where the presenters film their links, through the corridors of power to the staff canteen. Here, over power-lunch salads, the controller of CBeebies, Kay Benbow, is talking with machine-gun rapidity about her job of deciding what programmes the nation's pre-schoolers will grow up watching.
A behind-the-scenes kids' TV maker with more than 20 years' experience (she was Andi Peters' producer in the days of the "Broom Cupboard"), Benbow explains how the "responsibility and duty to our young audience is the reason I come into work every day". She is, she says, merely the latest in a line of "quiet but determined female role-models" who have shaped the BBC's children's programmes over the decades (Cynthia Felgate, Play Away; Biddy Baxter, Blue Peter; Anne Wood, Teletubbies; Judy Whitfield, Tweenies) and that she is privileged and honoured to be able to count herself among that roll-call and spend her working life "championing the pre-school audience".
Of the latest controversy to hit her channel, Benbow admits that sometimes you have to listen to your audience, hold your hands up and admit that you have made a mistake. It was Monday 9 January and we had sat down to watch the first of the "all new" episodes of Waybuloo. There, instead of the usual Zen-like calm of the land called Nara, was that bloke off of Come Dine With Me giving it his knowing voiceover. What was going on? We, and many other parents across the land, hit the internet demanding answers. Dave Lamb, the CBeebies website informed us, had been added to the programme to "bring his trademark inimitable and humorous style to the series".
The next day a message appeared on the same web page: "Thanks for all your comments," it read. "It's great to see how passionate you are about the show. We've listened to all your feedback and have decided to revert to the original format for the show from tonight onwards. Thanks for all your views – keep them coming!"
Benbow laughs. "We made a decision at 9am and it was sorted that day. That's one of the advantages of k the direct conversation we have with our audience and the fact that the chain of command here is incredibly direct."
There are other decisions Benbow is more determined not to backtrack on. "I think a lot of the criticisms over the years have come from an adult's perspective. Take the fuss over Teletubbies. Children love bags, three-year-olds love to pick up a bag and have no concept of it being a female thing, let alone a gay thing. A child sees things in a different way and we are trying to give them a robust and resilient understanding of how to cope in the real world. We can't cover everything and we can't hope to please everyone but we can reflect different cultures, communities and parts of the country and open subjects up for children in a safe, meaningful and engaging way."
As far as the "One-Armed Presenter is Scaring Children" headlines go, Benbow is equally adamant that having a disabled presenter on the channel is an important step for British TV. "It never occurred to me that children would be scared but I did think it would make them ask questions and I do feel it was right to take those first steps so that such things can become the norm and become less of an issue."
Cerrie Burnell, the 32-year-old presenter in question, agrees. "I never took it as a personal attack," she says, "because I knew those attitudes exist and had known that for a long time. I'm a woman and I grew up with one hand and the truth is that those people felt those things long before I stepped on to the screen. I was pleased that the subject was given airtime. When I meet children, which I do a lot, I tell them that I am very lucky to have grown up with one hand, that I can still do everything anyone else can and that it doesn't hurt me and they can touch it if they want." A mother herself, I ask Burnell how she would – if she can imagine such a thing, explain that sort of issue to her own child. Her reply? "I'd simply say: 'Everyone's born different. Now, what do you want for tea?'"
Burnell, like everyone associated with the CBeebies "brand" (and, in fact, the brand itself), is a fabulous mix of glowing goodness and steely determination. It is the BBC, remember, which has long pioneered what we now call "diversity", and the director of the BBC children's department, Joe Godwin, remembers how "growing up in the Midlands I probably saw more black faces on children's TV than I did around town". Godwin – the 47-year-old man responsible for the approximately £120m budget allocated to kids' TV – is still excited about the fact that the BBC has always been "ahead of the game" in such matters and is keen to show me a photograph on his phone of himself with the legendary Play Away presenter Derek Griffiths.
Godwin describes his love of kids' TV as an obsession and says his job is like "the mascot becoming Alex Ferguson". It is this kind of genuine and heartfelt enthusiasm, perhaps, that has led to what many insiders consider a new golden age of children's television. "This is a tough economic climate," Godwin says, "and there is all that choice and competition. But we are the only people commissioning UK content and there is a huge responsibility on us to do the stuff that a public-service broadcaster should be doing. We are not there to outdo Disney. Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon are great at what they do and we are not given this privileged funding to beat them at their own game. Our brief is to do broad, cross-genre programming that is high quality and distinctively British and there is no one else doing that."
"CBeebies is a national treasure," says Anne Wood, the woman whose Ragdoll Productions has been responsible for two of the channel's biggest successes: Teletubbies (now shown in some 50 countries around the world) and In the Night Garden. "You are either drawn to this work or you are not," she says. "It is a gift to have an innocent sense of fun and to be able to find a way back to how you felt as a child."
On the subject of her own programmes, although adults might watch them and wonder what drugs the creators are on, nothing could be further from the truth. As Wood explains it, her shows are devised and made in the same way that a child learns: through a combination of "struggle, practice and play". It is, she insists, arduous and expensive and so she is thankful every day that the BBC exists to air her productions. "If we don't value these channels," she says, "we would lose something very precious indeed. Even since the early days of Teletubbies, television has changed and the proliferation of channels has diluted the content. The role of television has changed, too, because children are growing up computer literate and don't play outside as they did when I was a child. So it's crucial that the programmes we do make are of the highest quality and have meaning while never forgetting that the most important thing is to make children smile."
The logistics of creating what Joe Godwin calls "memories that will stay with children for ever and that have the potential to change the way they see the world" is giddyingly complex. The journey from pitch to commission to production to airing can take months, even years. Godwin is hoping that the next jewel in the BBC's crown will be a new Russell T Davies series called Aliens Vs Wizards, currently filming in Cardiff and due to be shown in the autumn.
Making such programmes demands serious dedication but the rewards can be great. Due to the complexity of the many licensing agreements between the BBC and the companies that make the toys and market the images popularised on the channels, no one is quite sure how much money is generated by the Enterprises side of the BBC's business. All anyone can say on the subject is that the vast majority of the commercially generated income is pumped back into the programmes and that is one of the reasons why the BBC's output has improved so much since the days of wobbly sets on the likes of, say, Rentaghost.
"I don't want to get too happy-clappy about this," Godwin says, "but if you accept that children's television is a hugely powerful tool, then it's my job to see that the quality is comparable to anything you would see in prime time. When our audience is not watching our stuff, they are playing videogames or watching Hollywood movies, so the production values of our own output – say Tracy Beaker or Horrible Histories– have to measure up."
And, of course, as we have discovered in our house, the programmes shown on CBeebies and, to a slightly lesser extent CBBC, are made for two audiences: the children and the people tasked with bringing them up. Because we modern-day parents do not merely oversee, we participate, and to that end it makes sense that the few shows we do use to take a break from all that hands-on parenting are as enjoyable and entertaining for us as they are for those they are primarily aimed at.
Back at Wembley, meanwhile, the little one is suddenly overwhelmed by the children's birthday party/pantomime excitement of seeing so many of his favourite characters in the flesh. As Justin Fletcher, otherwise known as Mr Tumble, leads the CBeebies Live crew (Tweenies, various "skin characters" from Postman Pat, Lazy Town and Mike the Knight, assorted ZingZillas) through their all-singing, all-dancing paces, we consider the boy's first taste of live entertainment only a moderate success and, as we escort the tired and emotional little man out of the building during the interval, we understand why the promoters recommend that "this show is not suitable for children under 18 months". Too much, too young? Perhaps we'll try again with In the Night Garden Live later this year.
'In the Night Garden Live' tours the UK from 24 May to 23 September, nightgardenlive.
From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The very best of tots' TV
Watch With Mother
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. Taking its name from the radio series Listen With Mother, in 1953 the best of the Beeb's "for toddlers" output was rolled together under the banner "Watch With Mother". It featured a variety of slow-paced, gentle stories with programmes such as Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, Muffin the Mule, Andy Pandy, Rag, Tag and Bobtail and The Woodentops.
It's been popular with generations of kids thanks to the presenters, the pets, and the sticky back plastic creations. Occasionally struggles with a do-gooder/dullsville image: Blue Peter was an early champion of green issues, charity appeals and is generally keen on wholesome fun. Not that its presenters are always so squeaky clean: in 1998 Richard Bacon was famously sacked after a tabloid reported his cocaine habit.
The Magic Roundabout
Originally a French show, Le Manège Enchanté. But when Play School presenter Eric Thompson was brought in to provide an English translation he simply made up a script of his own fancy: names, characters, plotlines and all. It became a cult favourite with adults – the BBC received complaints when they tried to move it to an earlier slot – and while the "they-must-be-on-drugs" thing has been thoroughly discredited, Dylan the rabbit was based on Bob Dylan.
They're knitted, pink, long-snouted mice-like aliens, who enjoy a diet of blue-string pudding and soup made by the Soup Dragon. For some reason, this set-up captured the hearts and minds of young viewers. The Clangers communicate through whistling, although there was a real script, in English, which was turned into Clanglish. Despite this, Auntie once objected to a script which read "Oh sod it!" No swearing at the BBC please – not even if whistled.
A human presenter surrounded by a host of curious puppets – Bungle bear, George the pink hippo and whatever-the-hell Zippy was meant be. It began with an educational bent, but by the 1980s had become largely character-led. That infamous innuendo-laden episode was never actually aired – it was made solely for the amusement of ITV staff in 1978.
Short lived but much loved, the saggy pink-and- white cat was children's television master Oliver Postgate's biggest hit. It frequently triumphs in "best children's show" polls – coming number one in the BBC's in 1999 – probably thanks to the gentle whimsy of the stop-motion animation.
Thomas and Friends
1984 to present
Forget The Beatles – this was surely Ringo Starr's finest hour! He narrated the TV adaptation of the Thomas the Tank Engine books for the first two series. It became a hit in the US too, and guest narrators have included Pierce Brosnan and Alec Baldwin. A live-action film version, helmed by 9 director Shane Acker, is on the cards.
Its baby-speak caused some harrumphing among parents, but the colourful romper-suited creatures were a global hit, making millions in merchandise sales. It won a Bafta, and a pop version of the theme tune went to number one. The American cleric Jerry Falwell criticised the show in 1999 for promoting gayness, because Tinky Winky was purple and carried a handbag.
More than 200 complaints were made last year about the crime-fighting, reggae-loving Rastafarian rodent, mostly arguing that the show mocks – or encourages – the use of Jamaican slang. But it's been a hit with young viewers, and, naturally, the mouse and his music have developed a fond adult following, with celeb Twitter endorsements from the likes of Lily Allen and Dizzee Rascal.
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