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About me: (4th Mar '13) - And here I go again!

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Straight from the Broom Cupboard

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01.04.2011

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Those were the days .  .  .

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.  .  . but we won't see them again

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What a huge area this subject covers! It would be possible, indeed, simply to write down a review on "Top 10 Children's TV Shows I Used to Watch in the School Sixth Form in What I Considered at the Time to be a Sophisticated and Probably Also Postmodern Piece of Ironic Art but was Actually Pretty Embarrassing". But as that would probably crash all Ciao's computers and earn me the undying enmity of everyone here, I shall refrain. Instead, I will stick to programmes I actually watched as a child – and also to those that were intended as children's programmes.

An important part of telly, and especially retro telly, is presentation. I don't just mean programme titles and theme tunes, I mean things like that clock-shaped countdown with the disappearing dots that those of a certain age will remember from schools programmes; or the Yorkshire Television fanfare that preceded How We Used To Live. While I merely find these things interesting, if you look around online you can find whole communities of people who are both extremely knowledgeable and extremely enthusiastic about them.

However, to save this piece from becoming even more self-indulgent than it already is, I'll keep mention of that sort of thing to where it's actually relevant. For the rest, just bear in mind that Central was the best ITV region, so there. The choices I've made are, of course, somewhat arbitrary. Actually extremely arbitrary, but we're not running a democracy here! I reserve the right to change my mind entirely by next week, if not sooner. Oh, and while we're on the subject, yes of course you can number them and then do a countdown in an Alan "Fluff" Freeman style if you so wish. Just don't tell me, eh?

Maid Marian and her Merry Men (BBC)

Only just making one of my criteria (I was 14 when the first series aired) Maid Marian nevertheless demanded admission to this list. A brilliant re-imagining of the Robin Hood story, with Marian now the brains behind the whole operation and Robin himself revealed as a shallow, fashion-obsessed wimp. Based around the village of Worksop (main export, currency and diet: mud) we follow the outlaws' attempts to derail the villainous King John and his cunning (but saddled with gormless soldiers) sidekick the Sherri of Nottingham. Increasingly bizarre as the four series went on, with some memorable songs provided by Barrington (Danny John-Jules) and some memorable idiocy provided by just about everyone.

Best known for: Tony Robinson's star turn as the Sheriff, and the hilarious Crystal Maze spoof in a later series.

Catchphrase: "It's P-P-P-P-P-P-P-P-Pancake Day!"

The Adventure Game (BBC)

A strange, low-budget, futuristic game show of the sort you simply don't see

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The Maid Marian and Her Merry Men boxset. And no, you can't have mine!
any more. Clearly heavily influenced by The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy – indeed, the BBC had asked Douglas Adams to write it – in it a group of celebrity space travellers would be put through a collection of bizarre puzzles and contacts with aliens from the planet Arg. These included a man who spoke backwards and a terrifying aspidistra. For what these days would doubtless be considered product placement reasons, there was also a rather ropey BBC Micro-hosted 3D maze simulation shoehorned in. At the end of each show the travellers had to get across a walkway guarded by a "vortex" to avoid being "evaporated".

Best known for: That aspidistra, the classical guitar theme tune, and the remarkably consistent type of celebrity traveller: Noel Edmonds, Jonny Ball, Sarah Greene, Keith Chegwin... seeing a pattern here?

Catchphrase: "Doogy Rev!" – praise from the backwards-speaking man!

Fraggle Rock (ITV)

Not from the US as many think, but in fact a Canadian production, this was one of the best of all the "muppetish" productions after The Muppet Show itself had gone off the air. During its several-series run a huge cast of characters from a variety of different races were used, giving a pretty good impression of an interconnected world. Each country's broadcasts had a different opening: here in the UK, after the TVS logo and jingle (in this case an integral part of my memory!) there was a swirling aerial sequence zooming in on a lighthouse in which Fulton Mackay and his dog Sprocket lived; we then zoomed again, down through the skirting board, to enter the world of the Fraggles themselves. Sadly most YouTube clips (and even UK repeats) are of the US version, which had a different, workshop-based, opening scene.

Best known for: like most Jim Henson productions, its colourful, energetic musical numbers.

Catchphrase: "Down at Fraggle Rock", of course!

Camberwick Green (BBC)

The first of three series set in what is these days (but wasn't at the time) branded as "Trumptonshire". Trumpton itself and Chigley came a little later, but Camberwick Green was the pioneer. Made in colour in 1966 (before British telly was actually broadcast in it!) that forward-thinking move kept it being repeated for years and years afterwards. I certainly remember it as late as the early 1980s, if not later still. Camberwick Green itself was a typical, if rather idealistic, village, with model postman, doctor, chemist and so on interacting. It was narrated by Brian Cant, whose voice was absolutely perfect for the role.

Best known for: the highly distinctive sound of Windy Miller's windmill sails revolving. 45 years on, it's still recognised enough to be used in bread adverts.

Catchphrase: "Here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside. Can you guess what is in it today?"

Blue Peter (BBC)

Still on the air more than half a century after its debut in 1958, though many would say it was now a sad shadow of its former glory. In the 1980s, though, it was still a huge success, regularly gaining eight million viewers in its twice-weekly slot. The memorable theme tune ("Barnacle Bill") and the classic Blue Peter Ship (designed by no less a luminary than Tony Hart) were complemented by presenters who were older than 14 and didn't disappear after three months of smiling blandly. I was too young for the legendary John Noakes, but the daring Peter Duncan and the dramas of Janet Ellis's skydiving training (breaking her pelvis along the way) still stick in the mind. In those pre-internet days, the Summer Expedition to somewhere exotic was also genuinely exciting.

Best known for: that badge, and the appeals. The Bring and Buy Sale for Cambodia in 1979 was perhaps the most memorable of the lot.

Catchphrase: "Here's one I prepared earlier."

Knightmare (ITV)

The later series (of eight) of this fantasy role-playing game show were rather annoying, infested as they were with pointless extra characters and intrusive, primitive 3D computer graphics; but go back a few years to its 1987 beginnings and you see why Knightmare is such a classic. One child, blinded by the "Helmet of Justice", was talked around a deadly dungeon by three advisors, helping to solve riddles and collect objects along the way. Supervising them was the Dungeon master Treguard, a role Hugo Myatt played outstandingly well. It also had a fine animated title sequence.

Best known for: its ferocious difficulty level, a rarity for a children's show. In eight series (112 episodes in all), only eight teams actually beat the dungeon.

Catchphrase: I can't decide between "Oooh... nasty" and "the only way is onward; there is no turning back!"

Words and Pictures (BBC)

Yes, it's a schools programme, but why not? I liked schools programmes. After all, back then it was quite an event to troop out of the classroom to the "television area" and sit on the cold tiled floor while you waited for the teacher to remember how to work the only video in the building... anyway, this show for English teaching was good fun. For some years it featured a strange 2D cartoon character named Charlie who interacted really quite well with the presenters, who included Sophie Aldred (otherwise known as Ace in Doctor Who). The show runs to this day, though in a less fun, more phonics-obsessed form to comply with government diktat.

Best known for: the Magic Pencil. Also for being featured in terrifying nuclear-war series Threads. "A cat's skeleton" – argh!

Catchphrase: "Top... to bottom... up... and over!"

Ludwig (ITV or C4 – can't remember)

And people say that telly today is strange... well, all those shock-horror merchants trying to break your brain are utter amateurs compared to the creators of Ludwig. In these short cartoons (five minutes a go) we followed the adventures of a jewelled egg, who flew up into a tree like a helicopter, sprouted limbs and began to play the violin like a virtuoso. As you do. After this, there'd be a soberly narrated, gentle story in which Ludwig would play tennis against a short-sighted owl while a never-explained character in a deerstalker watched from behind bushes. This makes it sound much, much less weird than it actually was.

Best known for: being the show that showed kids what being a stoned student might be like...

Catchphrase: the "da-da-da-daaa" of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony which began each episode.

Ivor the Engine (BBC then C4)

I couldn't possibly make a list like this without including something by Oliver Postgate. The gentle genius behind Smallfilms, he was also responsible for the likes of Bagpuss and Noggin the Nog, but Ivor the Engine was where it all began. First made in black and white in 1959, the colour episodes of the 1970s are what most people (including me) are familiar with. The small green eponymous locomotive and his driver (Jones the Steam) inhabit "the top left hand corner of Wales", and very Welsh it is too, what with coal mines, gold prospectors, huddled pit villages and places such as Llaniog and "Grrrrrrumbly Gasworks"! As always in Postgateworld, it all feels, in the best sense of the words, safe and comforting.

Best known for: Ivor's "voice": not only his "chhh-t-coo" chuffing, but also his membership of the local choir.

Catchphrase: "Is it coal you're wanting, Jones the Steam?"

Bananaman (BBC)

Rather in the way that ITV's Dangermouse parodied the likes of James Bond, Bananaman parodied the overblown nature of American superhero comics. Indeed, it originally was a comic strip, in the short-lived publication Nutty (later subsumed into The Dandy). Deliberately over-the-top and full of slapstick silliness, Bananaman was never a show to take itself seriously, and quite right too. US-style bombast simply wouldn't have worked in such a stereotypically British setting. The villains, led for the most part by General Blight, were patchy in quality, but the sheer joie de vivre of the whole thing carried it through.

Best known for: The superbly done narration, by the cast of The Goodies.

Catchphrase: "This is 29 Acacia Road..."

It strikes me, with more than a tinge of melancholy, that most of the children's programmes I've chosen here were well and truly British. In the modern world, where public service requirements for children's broadcasting have (the BBC to some extent excepted) been relaxed hugely or scrapped altogether, the Americanisation of children's TV has been great indeed. Perhaps the multi-channel, inter-connected world in which we now live has made this change inevitable... but I'm not sure it's made our children's television any more likeable.
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Comments about this review »

silverstreak 16.06.2011 10:08

Camberwick Green and Blue Peter were from my era, as was Ivor the Engine, although I didn't watch it. The others I have little or no recollection of, probably because I'm too old.

tallulahbang 18.04.2011 15:42

My brother ruined Fraggle Rock for me by constantly singing the rude version of the theme song. xx

KarenUK 11.04.2011 12:19

The Adventure Game was great fun!!

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This review of Top 10 Children's TV Shows has been rated:

"exceptional" by (18%):

  1. RICHADA
  2. torr
  3. watkins11

and 4 other members

"very helpful" by (82%):

  1. Soho_Black
  2. silverstreak
  3. tallulahbang

and 29 other members

The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.