BOOK REVIEW / In the set with Sooty and his panda pal: 'Into the Box of Delights' - Anna Home: BBC Books, 15.99 pounds

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THE HISTORY of children's television is an index of the immense changes that have taken place in adult notions of what sort of entertainment is suitable for the young. In 1964 there was some heart-searching in the BBC about the dangers of sex creeping in once the popular glove-

puppet Sooty was allowed a panda girlfriend on his show. By 1980 reticence was so far out the window that Tina Heath, a Blue Peter presenter, had her pregnancy charted week by week on the programme. In 1988, John Craven's Newsround (watched by about 4.5 million children) covered National Aids Week.

Away from sex, Top of the Form, the ultra-respectable radio quiz for schools, was transferred to television in 1962. By 1984 the idea that teachers had all the answers no longer served. Enter Beat the Teacher, in which pupils competed with their pedagogues and sometimes won. Eventually the Saturday show 8.15 from Manchester went farther, setting the quiz in a sports complex, where any teacher outscored by pupils was dropped into a swimming pool.

There are many more good examples of cultural change in Anna Home's study. There are also some engaging stories, such as the account of Sir Huw Wheldon as a presenter on a children's hobby programme. After he had leant on and then demolished a child's model of a harpsichord constructed entirely of matchsticks, his breezy attempt at self-exculpation ('I'm sure you can stick it together again') was not judged an unqualified success.

But aside from providing memorable detail, the author has another purpose. A distinguished programme-maker herself, who set up Play School, Jackanory and Grange Hill, she is anxious to make the case for quality children's television while there is still time. For now that the BBC and independent television companies increasingly contract programmes to outside producers, maintaining an in-house children's department is difficult. Yet without one, continuity and a tradition of quality are dissipated. Children's programmes never make much money and are often expensive to produce, so small wonder they are usually first candidates for the chop.

But short-term savings should never be allowed to stand in the way of long-term cultural goals. Children's programmes offer a very influential definition of childhood to children and to their parents. When the BBC mounted its Diamond Jubilee Festival Exhibition in 1983 celebrating 60 years of children's programmes, the queues stretched for nearly half a mile.

Nor is this appeal simply nostalgic. The best children's television has always taken its audience seriously. On Grange Hill, topics such as bullying, drug- taking, child abuse and teenage pregnancy were discussed before six million young viewers. There is something rotten about a culture that does not try to communicate effectively and meaningfully with its children. Merely handing over the job to cartoon shows made in the Far East is not good enough.

Children themselves have little say in such matters, and parents are often happy to leave them in front of the television set as long as they are quiet. But one of the virtues of past children's programmes was the way their sheer quality sometimes managed to bring adult and child viewers together. The Sunday serial, a frequent victim of cuts, often did well here, as did some of the comedy programmes. ITV's Do Not Adjust Your Set featured the first appearance of what later became the Monty Python team, and soon became widely popular.

Adult involvement in children's television also means adult complaints, with many innovations greeted by loud protests. But what we offer our children on the screen should be a matter for debate. The public silence today now that adult viewers have been driven away from most children's television by its remorseless triviality is far worse than the odd grumble or media-fed controversy of former times.