TV to unleash your little monster: The best family viewing

Parents (and kids) rejoice! A new wave of fantastic family entertainment is here

On paper, Yonderland shouldn’t have worked. In an era dominated by knowing Disney-style tween shows and animated superhero spin-offs, a show deliberately harking back to 1980s films such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal – featuring a multi-tasking mum on a quest to save a fantasy world, aided by a puppet and a talking stick – should have seemed creaky and ludicrous.

And yet Sky1’s Sunday-night comedy has been a success. Raved about by critics, it pulls in an average of 1.2  million viewers, a great ratings figure for a non-terrestrial channel.

That’s partly down to the wit of its writing team, the comedians behind the similarly smart/silly Horrible Histories, and partly because Yonderland is at the forefront of a heartening new commissioning trend, away from kid-specific programming and towards all-inclusive family entertainment.

It’s a phenomenon whose roots lie in Russell T Davies’s finely-tuned rebooting of Doctor Who in 2005, though, that aside, for most of the Noughties the only shows that could be considered genuinely “all ages” were those produced by Simon Cowell. Meanwhile, the proliferation of children’s channels from CBeebies to Nick Jr meant that children, freed from the supposed tyranny of children’s hours, could watch programmes aimed at them whenever they wanted.

 In theory, this was a great idea. In practice, it meant that parents parked their kids in front of the gogglebox and got on with making tea. Factor-in the shift towards very-small-screen, solo viewing on laptops and tablets, and it seemed that television as a communal household experience was doomed.

Yet recently the tide has turned again as TV has caught up with cinema in offering shows that can work for different ages at different levels simultaneously.  Sky is a leader in this field: as well as Yonderland, they have recently offered a less bawdy version of Chris O’Dowd’s warm-hearted semi-autobiographical comedy-drama Moone Boy on Sundays, with certain scenes and lines removed to make it more suitable for children. They’ve also been showing the witty but wholesome mockumentary Modern Family since 2009 and continue to air the longest-running family show of them all, The Simpsons.

Meanwhile, the BBC has capitalised on the post-Who appetite for family adventures with the likes of Merlin and Atlantis while ITV has rescued the all-ages genre of light entertainment from the reality TV doldrums with Ant and Dec’s supremely watchable Saturday Night Takeaway, a programme whose popularity has resulted in a spin-off, live arena tour, scheduled for next year.

Even specialised children’s channels have broadened their horizons. CBBC’s Horrible Histories may have ended but it continues to produce clever children’s dramas: Wolfblood, a supernatural series about young werewolves, was repeated on BBC3 and has been compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In addition, on the animation front, Disney’s witty Phineas and Ferb offers jokes for both children and adults and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time is a surreal, psychedelic fantasy that offers weary parents a respite from the endless shouting of Dora the Explorer.

And now the family TV boom is set to grow bigger, as the giants of online TV enter the fray. Following the adults-only  successes of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Netflix has taken its first step into high-quality original programming for all the family by signing a deal with animation giants DreamWorks; the first fruit of this collaboration, animated series Turbo FAST, based on the recent Hollywood film Turbo, arrives on Christmas Eve. Not to be outdone, Amazon recently ordered three children’s series to full season, out of five series in total, as part of its move into TV production, including the inventive science-based series AnneBots. Pilots for all three are available to watch on LoveFilm now, with more episodes coming next year.

So why is family entertainment suddenly all the rage? Perhaps it’s down to an onrush of nostalgia among TV execs. “When I was a child there weren’t bespoke channels for children and so my viewing experience was more about watching anything and everything alongside my parents,” explains Adam MacDonald, Sky1’s director of programming. “Now children can have their own worlds but you don’t want to lose that feeling of watching television together and because of that we looked for shows with cross-generational appeal.”

Meanwhile, Cindy Holland, vice president of original content at Netflix, says its deal with Dreamworks was also motivated by harking back to a bygone era of programming. “Some of the older shows that have done best for us on Netflix are those that parents remember from their childhood … [and as with those] DreamWorks create the sort of stories that appeal on different levels.”

It’s certainly true that parents in their mid-to-late thirties and early forties look back wistfully at the viewing habits of their youth. At the BFI preview event for Yonderland that I attended in October, the show’s creators noted that they had grown up watching comedies such as Blackadder and Monty Python with their parents and so, influenced by that, chose “not to write deliberately for children but to stick to what makes us laugh”.

As a 40-year-old parent I can only applaud this sentiment, although be warned: all this sophisticated family fare could turn your child into an arch armchair critic. When my six-year-old learnt about Doctor Who, we started watching the reboot from the beginning on Netflix. Now she considers Christopher Eccleston, a man who left the show before she was born, “her” Doctor, while dismissing David Tennant as “the man from the TV ads” and Matt Smith as “not right”.

Peter Capaldi should be very afraid…

‘Turbo FAST’ comes to Netflix on 24 Dec. ‘Yonderland’ continues on Sky1, Sundays at 6.30pm and you can catch up with previous episodes on Sky OnDemand

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living