Rear Window: Goodbye children everywhere

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The Independent Online
HOME from school, the scones on the hob, and Children's Hour on the wireless. An idealised picture, perhaps, but no doubt the sort that Liz Forgan, the managing director of BBC Radio, had in mind when she justified what amounts to the axing of children's programmes last week, with the words: 'We have to be where our audiences want us and not where our own nostalgia might lead us.' Thus, with Radio 5 giving way to a news and sports channel, 400 hours a year of children's programmes is to be reduced to 75.

Many of the places our nostalgia leads us to never existed. But for anyone over 45, children's radio is something to be justly sentimental about. In 1953 the audience for Children's Hour, the BBC's flagship children's programme, touched a million. Or 50 times the mere 20,000 that the BBC says now listen to Radio 5's evening story aimed at 8- to 11-year-olds.

Children's Hour was for more than 40 years one of the BBC's great institutions - to the pre-television generation an irresistible mixture of plays, music, adventure, quizzes, nature study and much more. First broadcast in 1922, only a few weeks after the BBC was born, its most celebrated host was Derek McCulloch, who as the benevolent and adored Uncle Mac passed into broadcasting legend with his daily wartime farewell, 'Goodnight children, everywhere'.

High points in the life of Children's Hour were the dramatisation of Dorothy L Sayers' The Man Born To Be King, and the appearance on the programme in 1940 of the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth. It also helped launch many other talents, among them Judith Chalmers, Michael Aspel, Brian Redhead and Julie Andrews.

Equally successful was Listen with Mother, with its own immortal catchphrase: 'Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.' A million under-fives and their mothers - father was at the office - tuned into it in the 1950s, when it occupied the 15 minutes leading up to Woman's Hour at 2pm. At which point, of course, the children obligingly went to sleep.

Children's radio is something people do get misty-eyed about, assuming that the instant gratification provided by television and video must be less desirable than the hard-won pleasures of pure listening.

There is indeed an irony to the disquiet that followed last week's changes, and it is not lost on the veteran broadcaster Frank Gillard. As the Director of Sound Broadcasting in 1964, Gillard, now 85, oversaw the scrapping of Children's Hour, its audience having plummeted to 25,000. In an attempt to halt the decline, the title Children's Hour had been dropped in 1961. Junior Time was tried, and then For the Young. But it soon became clear that it wasn't really for anybody at all.

'Children's Hour had been long established from the time when radio had a monopoly,' Gillard says. 'But by 1964 almost every home had a television, and where children had a choice between picture or sound they plumped for picture every time. It's exactly the same today.'

Gillard's solution was to retain on the Home Service (today's Radio 4) half an hour of drama aimed at children, and on the Light Programme (today's Radio 2) to introduce half an hour of records, which in the age of the Beatles and Cliff Richard was increasingly what children wanted to hear. But there was an outcry, and Gillard had to defend his proposals in the House of Commons.

'The fact is that Children's Hour had become very middle- class, and the audience was by no means all children,' he says. 'It was enjoyed as much by elderly ladies. I think it was proabably a reminder of their youth. It was, you might say, lavender-flavoured.'

Should we then set such store by the virtues of radio listening, atleast as far as the young are concerned? 'If you're dealing with abstract thoughts then I think pictures can distract you,' Gillard says. 'But I'm not sure it matters exactly how people discover radio. Music is what is going to attract people. That doesn't dismay me. So long as they are drawn to it in the first place, they'll be in a position to discover more when they are older.' So perhaps we shouldn't be sitting too uncomfortably.

(Photographs omitted)