REMEMBER Andy Pandy?
I’m sure I can’t be the only one who grew up believing Andy to be a girl.
I was all of 25 when someone gently broke the news to me that Andy was, in fact, a boy.
Having spent the best part of my early life waving back to Andy on our little black and white TV, I must have been confused by the outfit.
And never once did I question why Andy lived in a picnic basket.
The television we watch when we’re little stays with us forever.
Decades later, a long forgotten theme tune or song can take us right back to our childhood.
He was a bit before my time, but it appears children’s TV character Muffin The Mule was once considered a threat to the health of the nation’s youngsters.
The forerunner of later classics like Andy Pandy, The Woodentops and Rag, Tag and Bobtail caused concern in the pioneering days of children’s TV.
Psychologists and educationalists were worried that television stopped families from talking and having meals together. That debate continues to this day.
Dentists also expressed fears about jaw displacement. So the BBC put out a short broadcast warning children not to lie on the floor with their head in their hands.
That’s just one of the jaw-dropping revelations in Children’s TV On Trial (BBC4, Sunday, 9pm), the first in a five part series which continues each night up to next Thursday.
It tells the story from the birth of modern day children’s television in the 1950s all the way to the present day, via Blue Peter, Doctor Who and The Teletubbies.
When the BBC launched its television service in 1936 there were no dedicated programmes for children. TV closed down for the Second World War.
When it returned, the star for young viewers in the late 1940s was puppet Muffin The Mule.
The woman said to have invented children’s TV in Britain is Freda Lingstrom.
In 1951, at the age of 57, the schools radio producer was appointed head of the new Children’s Television Service.
One of her producers was Cliff Michelmore, who was to go on to become a top BBC’s presenter. He says children’s TV was “just wallpaper” before she came along.
Her adopted daughter Alison Gassier recalls: “She came in one day from the wood shed with a flowerpot in her hand and said, ‘”I’ve had an idea for another programme.’ And that was the beginning of The Flowerpot Men.”
Bill & Ben became stars, along with their little friend Weed. They were broadcast in a daily TV slot called Watch With Mother.
It was the first to be aimed at the under-fives and also featured toddler Andy Pandy, along with his friends Teddy and Looby Loo, the rag doll who danced when nobody was watching.
Other favourites included Picture Book and The Woodentops. All were made as “deeply reassuring” programmes for children.
It was in this period that the tradition of classic BBC children’s drama series was born, then broadcast live.
On Sunday afternoons the actors would file back into the studio to act it out all over again, so that parents could watch too.
Cliff accepts that those in charge sometimes got it wrong, with many BBC programmes “smug, self-satisfied and relentlessly middle class”.
He adds: “It was a start. We were pioneering children’s television. And like all pioneers, we made enormous mistakes along the way.”
The BBC faced competition when ITV went on air in the mid-1950s.
The new commercial channel went for popular entertaiment like Robin Hood, William Tell, Ivanhoe, Roy Rogers and Lassie.
ITV wasn’t as sniffy as the BBC about cartoons and had a huge hit with Popeye.
Sunday’s programme also illustrates how class still divided Britain. Children on BBC shows spoke with posh cut glass accents and invariably went to a decent school.
There are several priceless clips, including one of the Queen visiting Crackerjack.
Children’s Week on BBC 4 begins tomight with Goodbye Children Everywhere (7.40pm) and The Kids’ Verdict (9.05pm).
The second Children’s TV On Trial film on Monday looks at the Sixties, tracing the evolution of programmes from the early animation and puppetry of the Fifties to the technicolour world of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet.
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the men behind shows like Ivor The Engine, Noggin The Nog, Pogles’ Wood, Bagpuss and The Clangers, discuss witchcraft and space travel.
Trumpton and Camberwick Green creator Gordon Murray talks about the class system and the private life of Windy Miller. Also featured are the Cold War origins of the Daleks.
The Seventies programme looks at ITV classics like The Tomorrow People, Timeslip and Ace of Wands.
It reveals how after the BBC turned down America’s Sesame Street, ITV devised a home-grown version – Rainbow. The decade also saw the arrival of shows like Rentaghost, Catweazle and Grange Hill.
The Eighties marked the rise of marketing associated with children’s TV shows – from Postman Pat and Thomas The Tank Engine to The Masters of the Universe and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.
And the story is brought up to date via Byker Grove, The Demon Headmaster and Spongebob Squarepants, a funny yellow sponge who just happens to live at the bottom of the sea.
Check out the links below for more.
Whirligig: 1950s Television Nostalgia
Watch With Mother
BBC4 Children’s TV On Trial Site