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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing / PR / Social Media Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A thriving online media busines...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?