Media: Looking back, it doesn't seem quite so good: From 'Twizzle' to 'Tiswas' and the 'Thunderbirds' revival: a young person's television history. Celia Dodd reports on a sad decline

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The Independent Online
IT IS usual to look back on the television of our own childhood as somehow better than that on offer to children today. Measured against the tacky game shows and endless cartoons lapped up by children in the Nineties, how could Watch With Mother and Muffin the Mule fail to appear more reassuring and altogether nicer?

In fact, there remains a solid core of programmes offering innovative drama, story-telling and information. And many of them are more than simply technically superior to those of the Fifties and Sixties.

Like many children of that era, I have fond memories of Sunday tea in front of Armand and Michaela Denis On Safari and Twizzle at my best friend's because my family didn't have ITV. But take off the rose-tinted specs and it all looks rather wooden, very slow and terribly worthy.

Children's lives were very different 40 years ago, not least because television played such a minor role in their daily routine. The first children's producers were able to rely on a captive audience who would watch almost anything because television was such a novelty.

Yet the arrival of ITV in 1955 had a dramatic effect. With a shameless schedule of Westerns and adventure series like Lassie, Roy Rogers and The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Richard Greene, ITV won a child audience three times the size of the BBC's. The BBC fought back with Champion the Wonder Horse and other American series, but ITV kept its glamorous edge.

Since the Sixties, children have grown up accepting television as part of the furniture. They go to bed later and have sets in their bedrooms. In the Nineties, a combination of television itself and computer games has accustomed them to a pace of presentation that would have bemused previous generations.

Satisfying such a sophisticated audience is a daunting task. The first concern of children's programme-makers now is to treat children as equals; any tendency to over-protect or patronise has been stamped on. Anna Home (see above) says this is in line with a general change in attitudes: 'The way people talk to children and how much they tell them has changed over the years and I think we reflect that. In the early days, children's producers wouldn't have dreamt of doing hard news stories about Ethiopia or Yugoslavia as Newsround does. Children's Newsreel in the Fifties was very much morris dancing, animals and items about royalty.'

The same change in attitude was evident in the earliest junior soaps. Grange Hill, first broadcast in the Seventies, reflected life in contemporary schools - sex abuse, drugs, teenage pregnancy and all - from the children's viewpoint. Until then, television's portrayal of education had remained solidly public school, with series like Jennings and Billy Bunter.

The relationship between presenter and audience, both at home and in the studio, has also become much less formal. On Crackerjack (1955-84) a schoolmasterly Eamonn Andrews, in suit and tie, talked at rather than to contestants, who all wore school uniform. 'And it was a girl who knew it, too]' he would exclaim at a correct answer. The studio audience shrieked 'Crackerjack]' but only on cue.

A much more anarchic, anti-adult style was spearheaded in the Seventies by Tiswas, introduced by Chris Tarrant and featuring Lenny Henry. It was one of the first of the Saturday morning programmes for children that saw off the ritual of Saturday morning cinema.

Today's presenters have developed the Tiswas style. At one extreme, bright young things with loud shirts and relentless smiles are on nudgingly familiar terms with young participants and the audience at home. At the other, they're rather bossy - as in 'Buy jumble sale clothes to save the environment'.

Delivery has become so informal that it seems they're constantly making mistakes. Children are everywhere on the screen, marking a deliberate change of policy made in the mid-Eighties. Before then, it was thought that the audience at home disliked watching their contemporaries. The overall effect has been to reduce the impression of adults delivering a service to children.

There have always been cartoons on television, although Mickey Mouse was stopped in mid-stream when BBC television closed down for the war in 1939. Some parents have always complained that animation is neither uplifting nor informative. But it is relatively cheap - and a sure-fire way to build ratings. The flood of cartoons from the United States and the Far East since the Eighties has done little to improve the image. It's not just because of violence. They often last longer - half an hour rather than a harmless five minutes - and many are terribly bland.

Parents are more tolerant of a distinctively British style of animation that started with the primitive Captain Pugwash in the Fifties (you could almost see the hand rocking the paper boats) and developed with puppets like the Clangers in the Sixties, Paddington and The Wombles in the Seventies and Postman Pat in the Eighties. The style is similar to that of The Magic Roundabout, which provided a perfect coda to Children's Hour from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Eighties and which was revived in 1991.

The biggest surprise for producers and parents has been the new generation's enthusiasm for revivals of Sixties classics like Thunderbirds and Dr Who. It's also rather reassuring. The special effects may look ridiculous to Nineties eyes, but children don't seem concerned. For all the sophistication children have acquired at the hands of television, what still matters most of all to them is a good story, well told.

(Photographs omitted)