We’re probably all guilty of donning rose-tinted specs when reflecting on the children’s TV we grew up with. But for many people, including me, the 1960s was a golden age.
Yes, some of today’s infants, seemingly computer-literate before they’re out of nappies, wouldn’t be impressed by puppets made from ping-pong balls and foam. But if ever a halcyon period existed, it must surely be the 60s.
In this two-part article, I’m revisiting some of these gems, many of which you’ll remember fondly while others might have faded during the passage of time.
Back then, puppets were seemingly proud to display a profusion of wires and strings sprouting from every extremity, production standards were crude and, like any period in TV history, there was some dross dished out as entertainment.
But so many offerings retain their charm – well, to big kids like me.
The pioneer responsible for several jewels from the period, most notably, Camberwick Green – initially Candlewick Green until a typing error in the BBC contract altered its name forever –was Gordon Murray, who also gave us Trumpton and the lesser-known Chigley.
What appealed to me was that Murray’s little worlds were always idyllic, where citizens lived in harmony and crime was non-existent.
The cluster of puppets were perfect role models of politeness, typifying the society their creator once knew. He utilised the programmes to encourage children to be kind.
The words vandalism, mugging and robbery weren’t even in the Trumptonshire dictionary. Murray once told me: “Many years ago, I saw a charming Czech puppet film set in a village, and thought what a splendid idea it would be to base a programme in a typical English village where only minor incidents occur.”
The feeling of serenity was palpable in Murray’s productions, as they were in other classics of the period.
Equally capable of turning out hugely popular low-budget creations were Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, who chalked up a list of successes, including Pogles’ Wood, Ivor The Engine, Noggin The Nog and Bagpuss.
The latter was once crowned most popular BBC kids’ show ever – not bad for the saggy, pink and white striped cat whose colouring only came about by accident.
“I drew a picture of a marmalade cat,” explained Firmin, “before asking a company in Kent to produce some marmalade-striped material, but a mistake with the chemicals left it pink!”
Postgate and Firmin’s first creation for the 1960s was The Pingwings but the duo’s big hit of the decade arrived in 1964 when they invited us to observe the world of woodland folk living in a tree.
The wonderful little series captured my imagination so much, I couldn’t walk in the woods without fear I might tread on a Pogle, podgy little creatures who lived in tree roots.
From a converted pigsty and disused cowshed near Canterbury, Postgate and Firmin created 32 episodes which were repeated for years.
“Each programme started with a long country shot, then a close-up of the little notice board saying, Pogles’ Wood,” explained Postgate.
“Some of the shots featured children – mine or Peter’s. We shot outdoors whenever possible, but walking the Pogles in single frame shots across the landscape was like walking under a neon sign thanks to the fluctuations in light.”
Before the decade was out, Postgate and Firmin introduced us to strange pink mouse-like creatures living on a distant moon made of cheese.
Postgate once told me about the origins of The Clangers. “At the time of developing the series, so-called because of the noisy dustbin lids used to protect the entrances into the Clangers’ holes, we wanted to focus on space because man was just about to set foot on the moon.”
The series was so well received, a NASA official even described it – without a trace of irony – as a bid to introduce a note of realism to the fantasy of the space race.
Inspiration comes from everywhere, and for Michael Bond it was the view he saw beyond his window. One of my favourite programmes as a kid was The Herbs, which joined the Watch With Mother club in 1968.
While Bond provided the stories, esteemed animator Ivor Wood, who later helped bring Postman Pat to TV, designed the puppets who lived in the secret herb garden.
Bond remembered the unexpected phone call that brought the opportunity to pen the series.
“A few days previously, I’d been looking out of the window at my herb garden.
“I began watching the leaves of parsley blowing in the wind and thought they resembled a lion’s mane. Then, Doreen Stephens, head of Children’s Television, phoned asking if I had any ideas suitable for Watch With Mother. Although extremely busy, I outlined an idea where all the characters were named after herbs. She asked for a pilot script then commissioned 13 15-minute films.”
There was a magical quality about Bond’s creation, exemplified by the old-fashioned walled garden owned by Lady Rosemary and Sir Basil. Viewers were only allowed in after uttering the magic words, “Herbidacious”, and our allotted time was short.
While some programmes were set in a world of fantasy and magic, others were deliberately rooted in realism, such as Joe, an oft-neglected little gem about a dungaree-wearing boy whose parents owned a transport café.
The scripts were by Alison Prince who decided to create kitchen sink drama for kids.
“I wrote a story about a child called Joe, based on my youngest son, who was always mad on traffic,” explains Prince.
“One day, a roadsweeping vehicle passed me when I was out with the pram and I decided to call the story, The Big Brush Lorry.
“My son was fascinated by the vehicle and would have followed it for miles. I suddenly thought: ‘What if a child had followed the vehicle back to the depot and had got lost?’
“There was a problem, though, because how would a child be allowed to do such a thing? Why wouldn’t his mother do exactly what I did: take his hand and walk safely home?”
Prince found her answer while driving along in her battered car and noticing a transport cafe, with a car park full of large trucks. On the café’s doorstep sat a small child.
“I suddenly thought, ‘That’s it, I’ve cracked it!’ If the child lives in a transport cafe, his parents are inside frying chips and dishing out peas, it’s quite reasonable that they wouldn’t see him wander off.”
Thirteen episodes were later commissioned and shown under the Watch With Mother umbrella in 1966.
Not everyone was enamoured of the series, though. Some parents wrote to the BBC drawing attention to the dangers of children playing around parked vehicles.
In October 1966, Doreen Stephens replied to one concerned parent, stating: “There is nothing in this series likely to encourage children to play around in a dangerous way with lorries and cars.
“We feel the more familiar they are with them, the less likely they are to be tempted to play where they should not. On the other hand, we feel that when something is forbidden, it tends to arouse a child’s curiosity and may even present a ‘dare’.”
A second series, this time in colour, appeared in 1971 and saw Joe moving with his parents to the seaside.
What Joe successfully achieved was to offer a realistic, down-to-earth view of the world from a child’s perspective, instead of falling within the normal parameters expected of children’s programmes.
This concept was adopted, albeit to a lesser degree, by Mary, Mungo and Midge, which told of the adventures – usually misadventures – of Mungo, a lugubrious dog, and Midge, a mischievous mouse, when they were let off the leash by Mary, the little girl who owned them.
The first of 13 episodes transmitted on the BBC in October 1969 was set not in a fantasy world or rural idyll but a bustling town full of blocks of flats, in one of which Mary, Mungo and Midge resided.
John Ryan – who also created Captain Pugwash, the rumbustious, overweight pirate who first sailed onto our screens in 1957 – designed the characters and settings.
Scripts, meanwhile, were supplied by Daphne Jones, a director in the BBC’s children’s department, who later wrote On the Farm, a live action series seen in 1970.
“The BBC wanted something realistic and modern, something urban as opposed to cuddly country stories,” explained Ryan.
“They also wanted something educational, such as what happens when you post a letter? What happens in hospitals? I saw Mungo as a rather pompous old thing – he was the establishment. Midge was the curiosity bit, so it was the establishment versus curiosity.”
With BBC newsreader Richard Baker narrating and providing voices for Mungo and Midge, it was Isabel Ryan – John’s daughter – who brought Mary to life.
Isabel later watched the programmes with her own daughter. She said: “The quality of the imagery is superb. What’s extraordinary is the ability of the faces to have a series of expressions – even though the technique was very limited. It was all done with flat cardboard cut-outs, levers and dividing pins.”
The 1960s, in particular, was a decade rich in children’s TV and it’s been so difficult deciding which programmes to mention and which to discard. In fact, the subject could occupy pages and pages.
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