After years of spirited fantasy, puppet shows and various incarnations of pot-bellied costume characters, children's television is getting a reality check. For the first time since its launch in 2002, CBeebies has decided to air its first live dramas.
The very first to be shown was Katy Morag, which premiered last Sunday. Based on the hugely popular series of books by Mairi Hedderwick first published in the 1980s, the programme depicts the adventures of a fiery-haired girl and her family on the fictional Scottish island of Struay. The show is already causing a particular stir in Scotland, but it is the second, which airs on Monday, that looks set to resonate most across the generations. And that's Topsy and Tim.
Since the first book appeared in 1960, more than 130 Topsy and Tim titles have gone to print, with more than 21 million copies sold. Written by Jean Adamson and her husband Gareth, who wanted to reflect the real-life experiences of children, each book describes a new moment for the eponymous twins, be it their first time camping or visiting the doctor. Now they will appear on television, played by two young actors (below) bearing the same zig-zag fringes that the characters have sported for more than half a century.
"I'd been asked before about doing them as an animation," says Kay Benbow, controller of CBeebies, who has commissioned 60 11-minute episodes of the show. "But I thought that bringing them to life with a real family and real scenarios could be really special."
For Benbow, realising Topsy and Tim as a live drama is an opportunity to show its audience a positive reflection of family life. "I'm hoping that they will connect and understand and see familiar things," she says. "Most people describe it as a positive, joyful show but it doesn't shy away from things that are big, such as moving house. Only by going through those ups and downs in life do you become a resilient person, and resilience is an important word for this show. It portrays children in a positive light, and the children are empowered."
Indeed, a sense of hope and optimism has been ingrained in Topsy and Tim since its conception during Britain's post-war revival. "It was not so terribly long after the end of the Second World War," explains Adamson, 84, who is looking forward to seeing the television adaptation of her characters. "And with all the rationing that had gone on, the wonderful 1960s were like life screaming back."
The Topsy and Tim television show will have two over-arching narratives. The first will be the twins moving house. The second will be starting school. "It's really mirroring a preschooler's life," says Benbow.
Although Adamson stopped illustrating the classic Topsy and Tim books in the 1980s (they are now illustrated by Belinda Worsley), she still thinks of ideas for new stories. The twins' adventures have always been influenced according to world events. For example, when holidays abroad became popular, Topsy and Tim promptly flew to Spain.
"Most of the stories are [about] what children always do, but there's a lot of technology now," says Adamson. "I feel I should have somehow worked that in but I haven't. I think there ought to be though. We ought to get the illustrator to scatter gadgets in the background."
Their adaptability, says Adamson, is because the stories are based in real life. "That was the gimmick, I suppose," she says. "Years ago when we decided to write a series and we were looking for a subject there was loads of lovely fantasy and animal stories and so on, but nothing with children in what was a wonderful life to us."
By commissioning two live dramas for the pre-school age group, it seems that CBeebies is continuing where Adamson left off. "There is a little bit of room for the wonders of life for the very young," says Adamson. "Because when you're two years old and begin to register stuff, it's all new and wonderful. There's a space for Topsy and Tim."
'Topsy and Tim' will appear on 11 November at 5.30pm on CBeebies Channel