The trend was re-started by the BBC's wonderful adaptations of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, which were rewarded with audiences of up to 10 million and a Bafta award. It is being carried on tomorrow by True Tilda, a characteristically meticulous, six-part version of Arthur Quiller Couch's Edwardian novel about a young circus girl (Morgan Bell) who flees from an evil priest (John Shrapnel) across the West Country.
In her role as head of BBC children's programmes, Anna Home is the person most responsible for this highly desirable back-to-basics campaign. "There's a myth or ideal of the family gathered around the fire with crumpets watching a good story," she observes. "Most have been period or fantasy, and it's important we continue them as a balance to modernity. They are an antidote to Grange Hill, Byker Grove and EastEnders."
Parents - and indeed children - also welcome the period serials as a relief from crash-bang-wallop computer games and cartoons. "There's a place for cartoons," Home continues, "but the BBC should never be a wall- to-wall cartoon channel. Children watch these dramas because they give them a sense of escapism, a sense of adventure and a sense of identifying with anti-authority characters. Your own peers are the heroes and heroines, and that's what kids want out of television."
The atmosphere certainly seemed escapist on a beautifully sunny morning last summer alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal, where True Tilda was being filmed. John Shrapnel, who plays the wicked Reverend Glasson, takes up the theme. "In this, there's a world created that is exciting enough for it to do without car chases and explosions. It's a funny script that bypasses the need for a lot of action."
Richard Carpenter, the silver-bearded adaptor of True Tilda, is now a guru of the genre. Since Catweazle in 1970, he has written more children's drama than you can shake a Sony Playstation at: Black Beauty, Dick Turpin, The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Robin of Sherwood, The Borrowers and Stanley's Dragon. He also reckons there may be a backlash against ka-pow cartoons.
"At one point everybody began to think that what people wanted was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and people being zapped with space-guns," he reckons. "But children are actually more intelligent than that, and they want a good story. There are three basic plots that never fail - look at Oliver Twist or Cinderella." True Tilda, he contends, falls into the same category. "One of the great themes of children's literature throughout the decades has been how children can combat evil through their own resources."
Within the industry, however, there is still a certain snootiness about children's drama. "Someone said to me, 'Why do you write for children?', and meant it perjoratively," Carpenter sighs. "People feel that writing for adults is more important. But I'd prefer to write adult stuff for children rather than childish stuff for adults."
The only risk for the future of these dramas is that the BBC will run out of source material. "The danger is you say, 'We've got to find another classic'," Carpenter asserts. "I was asked to do The Swiss Family Robinson. Have you ever read it? It's the most turgid, tedious book."
Carpenter, for one, will make sure the standards stay high. "The essential thing about writing for children is that there has to be hope," he opines. "You can't let children down and tell them, 'When you grow up, the world will be hideous'. You have to tell them, 'There's always hope, and you're the future'."
'True Tilda' begins tomorrow 5.10pm BBC1
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