From Muffin the Mule to the satellite kids

Half a century after the BBC started putting on children's shows, Gerard Gilbert and Lucy O'Brien look at a shifting genre

Never mind that Marilyn Monroe would have been 70 last Saturday. A far more traumatic landmark for hundreds of thousands of postwar British children comes up this Sunday: Muffin the Mule will be 50 - along with "Muff's" creators, BBC Television Children's Programmes.

These days, Muffin the Mule lives in agreeable retirement in the Museum of the Moving Image on London's South Bank - unlike Annette Mills, sister of John Mills, on whose piano Muffin would prance around like Michael Jackson on Tamazapan. She died in January 1955, the very week after Muffin got the chop.

Muffin the Mule, Andy Pandy, the Woodentops, Pinky and Perky, The Magic Roundabout, Jackanory, Animal Magic, Blue Peter, the Flowerpot Men - the rol1-call could go on and on, and is enough to have a fully-grown baby- boomer crying for his mummy. Talking of which, Watch with Mother managed to survive sexual and social revolutions, so that by the time it too felt the axe, in 1980, there were very few mothers left at home for toddlers to watch with. Today, it would have to be called Watch with the Nanny. Or, for the greater part of what remains of society, Watch It On Your Own.

Presiding over this heritage, and with the unenviable task of steering BBC Children's TV into the 21st century amid the shrieks and howls of moral crusaders and nostalgic parents (often the same thing), is Anna Home, who has been in BBC Children's Television since 1965, working on staples such as Play School and Jackanory, as well as pioneering drama series such as Grange Hill and the recent Demon Headmaster.

"Every generation brings with it their own memories," says Home, quashing the seemingly God-given right of those raised in the Fifties and Sixties to monopolise nostalgia. "There are secretaries in my office who talk fondly of Rent-a-Ghost, which means nothing to the Andy Pandy generation.

"The people who perceive that standards have fallen are those who remember their own childhood and are nostalgic for a style that harks back years ago," says Home. "I often get the same people saying how nice it is to see that Blue Peter is still on. And I say, but have you seen Blue Peter recently?"

The revamped show, which regularly attracts up to five million viewers and which now goes out three times a week, would be almost unrecognisable to adults with memories of collecting milk-bottle tops and watching Val Singleton explain how to build a tractor for Third World countries using washing-up liquid bottles.

New technology has revolutionised other old BBC formats. Newsround, for instance, which at one time plodded along faithfully with John Craven and zoo stories, is now pacey and punctuated with vivid graphics. Jackanory is another long-runner unrecognisable from its former self. "If you look at early Jackanory's, it's just one person sat on a white wrought-iron bench talking at you," says Anna Home. "Now it's full of pictures, action and drama."

Which is exactly what some critics object to - believing that such hyperactive presentation reduces children's ability to concentrate. Studies have claimed to show that children watching TV enter a trance-like state where the metabolic rate sinks lower than sleep.

In fact, in criticism of modern children's TV one senses a ragbag of concerns - from presenters' use of Estuary English (or, as the Daily Mail puts it, "displaying urban yob characteristics"), to what is perceived as the anarchic "paint-throwing tendencies" of much of modern children's TV. These were described to the Daily Mail by Rolf Harris at the time that his BBC children's programme Rolf's Cartoon Club was axed in 1994: "The presenters go for easy laughs by dunking people in gunk or pouring paint over them," he said. "I find myself disgusted by the way so many of these programmes treat children like idiots. It is so patronising. Every time you turn on children's TV you see adults acting like complete morons because they think the children expect it."

Rolf Harris has since made his peace with the BBC, returning to the fold with hugely popular early-evening shows where he holds the paws of sick animals. But Anna Home disagrees with his analysis. "Children's TV has to move with the way society moves," she says. "One of the old-fashioned traditions was that it was handed down by adults as if on tablets of stone. If children were on the screen at all, they were very tokenistic, whereas now they're very involved in programming, both in terms of ideas and on- screen presentation."

Moral scares are nothing new to BBC Children's Television. It seems you could just stick the test card up and there will be someone somewhere who somehow sees it as inciting paedophilia. The peculiar language used by Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, for example, had parents in the Fifties worrying that their children's speech development would be impaired (Bill and Ben's voices were created by Peter Hawkins, who seems to have been something of a genius, as he also created the voices of Captain Pugwash and the Daleks.) And Sixties parents were outraged when Sooty got a girlfriend, Sue the panda. Not only that, but they seemed to cohabit out of wedlock.

However, at the end of the day, it matters less what the parents think as what the children want to watch. Here lies the BBC's biggest problem as it gears up for the new millennium. With satellite gatecrashing the terrestrial party, the competition is hot when the tiny tots' fingers are on the remote control.

"There are a lot more channels now, things are much more competitive, so inevitably it has affected the kind of programming we do," says Anna Home. "If it's not working for children, then it's not working."

According to William Phillips, a journalist with Broadcast magazine, children "appear polarised between satellite for escapist nonsense and the BBC for uplift and stimulation." Dare we say it - education?

"Education with a very small 'e'," says Home. "We're not schools programming. We're an after-schools service. Children come home from school as tired as we come home from work, and they want something enjoyable to watch."

But where ITV - and satellite stations such as Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and the Children's Channel - can rely on sponsorship and advertising for revenue, dear old Auntie has to fight for budgets in a demoralised atmosphere of cost-cutting and accountants' law.

"There's an extraordinary myth around that because children are smaller, you'll make smaller-budget programmes," says Home. "This just isn't true. It costs more to do children's drama, for instance, because you can only work children legally for a certain number of hours per day. An episode of Grange Hill therefore will cost more than one of EastEnders because it takes longer to shoot."

Home sees children's television continuing more or less on current lines for the time being, perhaps with greater interactivity via home computers and the Internet. "Although we mustn't forget the vast number of children who don't have access to PCs or the Net."

She also believes that children need a balanced schedule of their own, in the same way that adults are catered for. When Children's BBC started in 1946, the view was that children should be given what was deemed good for them. "Grange Hill was the first drama to be written and shot from a child's perspective," she says. "That's why it was so revolutionary in its day, and why it was hated so much by adults.

"If you're not close to your audience you fail. Now we start with the child and end with the child. In the last 25 years that has been the biggest shift for children's TV."

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