In My Day... Kids' TV Past and Present

by Samuel Marlow. Published 29th June 2014

This is a title that has been on my list of articles to write for some time, but I have decided to skip ahead to it so I can discuss one show in particular while it is still on the air.

The Broom Cupboard

A very young Phillip Schofield in the CBBC "Broom Cupboard"

My viewing of what could be described as Children's Television falls into three broad categories. The first, when I was in the target audience, encompasses the late 1980s to late 1990s. The second, when I was a student, extends from about 2002 to 2007. Finally, now, as an adult in the second decade of the 21st Century.

As I've got older, I've often heard my peers talk about kids' TV as it exists now and lament that, "The shows were so much better when we were kids!" After covering the dangers of nostalgia in a previous article, I wanted to put my critical cap on and see if the theory bears up to scrutiny. I should say, I consider Sesame Street, as such a long-running show, and being so damn near perfect, that I haven't included it in main body of this article, as it would just be 2,000 words of me gushing about how amazing it is.

Here, I'll be discussing scripted drama for older children and teenagers, in part because I don't think my keyboard could take the furious hammering if I were to compare the seizure-inducingly unpleasant In The Night Garden to lovely, soothing Bagpuss. I have very fond memories of the TV I grew up with, as would be expected. I consider it a golden age of programming where it could ask more probing and important questions than the TV of the 70s, but before special effects became so cheap and easy that story could be negated entirely in favour of a stream of colourful images.

I consider that I had a fairly healthy mix of "indigenous" British programming (i.e. from the kids' arms of the BBC and ITV - CBBC and CITV), and imported content, mainly from the USA and Australia, which was screened on CBBC and CITV, as well as live-action and animation.

There were great British institutions like Grange Hill, set in a North London comprehensive school, and it's Sister in the North Byker Grove set at a youth centre, though I confess I found the overly melodramatic plots of Byker Grove and focus on the soap-opera-like relationships between an army of unlikeable stock characters often tedious. I found the characters and plots of Grange Hill generally more enjoyable and less predictable. Rightly or wrongly, I remember the characters of Byker Grove being almost painfully one-note and as stupid as the plot needed to generate the Hollyoaks-style misunderstandings from which the illusion of narrative could be wrung. I consider this ironic as the creator of Hollyoaks (there isn't a circle of Hell deep enough!) Phil Redmond, also created Grange Hill way back when.

Grange Hill

"Grunge Hill" title card introduced in 1994

Possibly one of the advantages both series had was that, being set in a school and youth centre, there were a good spread in the ages of the characters, as well as interesting grown-up characters to write about. So, rather than in a series were all the main characters are a certain age, the audience could get something from the series from about 11 right the way through to 15 or 16 years old. That sort of demographic is pretty rare and, by retaining viewers for such a long period of their TV-watching life, probably contributed to their longevity - Grange Hill ran for an astonishing 30 years and more than 600 episodes, meaning generations of children could grow up watching it, and a few watch their children watch it. I also remember Grange Hill especially did a good job of showing staff and pupils from a wide cultural, ethnic and socio-economic background, integrating them into the story very matter-of-factly without making it an "issue".

There were other shows, too, like Sooty and, while I have fond memories of them, I don't think they would stand up well if I were to revisit them. They were friendly fluff that was an innocent diversion - pleasant, necessary, but not life-changing or inspiring.

I don't remember a great deal of North American live-action programming, beyond the toy-porn that was Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers but their animations were over here in abundance. Though I never really got into Transformers, He-Man, and so on, The Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (no "Ninjas" allowed!) were family favourites. Having seen a couple of episodes of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles on YouTube recently, it confirmed what I suspected at the time, which was that Ghostbusters was the better of the two by far.

A few years ago I bought the first series of Ghostbusters on DVD and was pleased to see that, while the animation and some of the humour has dated, the stories, characters, premise and heart of the series has stood up well. Though I liked the episodes where the heroes battled demons in parallel dimensions, the ones I remember appreciating the most, and still work the best, were the ones where we are introduced to what seems to be a frightening ghost, but when the heroes turn up to investigate, it would transpire that the initially frightening monster was, in fact, either misunderstood or trying to fix a mistake made in their life. At a time when other animated shows seemed very split between good guys and bad guys, the idea that something horrifying was actually trying to help, and just needed help from the heroes to achieve his goal, seemed powerfully sophisticated to me, teaching both tolerance of the unusual, and that there was no need to be afraid of the unknown. Though set in a small part of New York Ghostbusters had a universal feel, and the notion that all you needed to be a hero was an inquiring mind and courage (though an untested, unlicensed nuclear accelerator helps!) was inspirational. This was also a time when science, the scientific mind and method could solve all the worlds problems, before we became afraid of it and turned away to superstition.

The Real Ghostbusters

"I ain't afraid of no ghost!"

Another show, this time from Canada, and one that succeeded in bridging the child-adult divide was ReBoot, a CGI animation set actually within a computer where the characters would enter "games" and battle a mysterious, mythical User from without, and the Virus Megabyte from within for their survival. Looking back, the Tron influence is obvious to the point of insulting. What rescued this entirely plagiarised concept were the fun characters, snappy writing, dynamic action, dry humour and sophisticated (to me at the time anyway) pop-culture references.

For two totally different reasons, my favourite animation as a child is a tie between French-Japanese animation (with Canadian voice actors) The Mysterious Cities of Gold (to which I will return when I discuss it in relation to another show), and Warner Bros' Batman The Animated Series. It's hard for me not to devolve into a babbling mess when describing Batman. Having watched the series on DVD recently, I am pleased to report it is just as I remember it. Dark, moody, psychologically sophisticated, sympathetic and oh, so cool! As I said in Batman Forever?, when I close my eyes, this is the Batman I think of. The mood and tone of the series just feels so right. While still being age-appropriate, it never spoke down to or patronised its audience. The villains were tragic monsters rather than evil lunatics, and the quality of the animation was just amazing. Two especially good episodes I remember featured Clayface, with the voice actor's heartbreaking delivery of the line, "I'm not an actor any more! I'm not even... a man..." still sending a shiver up my spine, and original TV Batman Adam West as Bruce's in-story inspiration for the Batman persona, The Gray Ghost. The characterisations were subtle and the plots sophisticated without being Nolan-convoluted. Batman would have to be a detective and some of the most atmospheric scenes would just be Batman shining a torch around a silent office at night.

Batman The Animated Series

The Darkest Knight

Handling a character as well-known as Batman right after Burton's take on him wasn't a guaranteed success, but it was hardly a big risk either. Though the interviews with the creators are humbling to see how gratified they were by the audience response, it has had a longevity and is enjoyed by both kids and adults, in part because the character remains enduringly popular.

This is why I feel full credit must be given to a number of Australian live-action TV series made for kids, not based on any existing source material. Round The Twist (1989), Elly and Jools (1990), The Girl From Tomorrow (1990), Ocean Odyssey (called Ocean Girl in its native land) (1994-97), Escape From Jupiter (1994), and Spellbinder (1995) were, with the exception of Round The Twist, ongoing dramas broken into parts. Often only a single season of 12 to 13 20-30 minute episodes, these series had a story to tell and told it, rarely overstaying their welcome. Often set in the sci-fi genre, it was clear a lot of effort had gone into producing what must have been fairly niche programming. The stories were engaging, the characters relatable, the production design sumptuous and executed to the best of the budget's ability. As with Batman I never felt patronised watching these shows. They were completely serious about making a quality show, it just happened to be for kids. The shows managed to be both very Australian and universal at the same time, displaying intelligence, sensitivity, imagination and an emotional core that many shows for grown ups would benefit from. They managed action, excitement, drama and character development with a deft hand. That so many of these shows seemed to come within a few years makes it even more amazing.


Zbych Trofimiuk and Gosia Piotrowska in Australian/Polish co-production Spellbinder

There were a number of live-action British series, too, mostly adapted from or inspired by already-classic children's books. The Demon Headmaster, The Queen's Nose, and Earthfasts being some that come to mind, and while I appreciate they were probably dealing with smaller budgets than their Australian counterparts, these series lacked the energy, inventiveness and competence of their Antipodean cousins. The writing, acting, art direction and even the directing in general had more than a whiff of the school play about it. That many of the titles adapted were on the English syllabus reading list for 11-to-14-year-olds also makes me suspicious of the motives. There were original series that came after the Australian blossoming. Aquila (1997) is the story of two boys who discover an alien escape pod in a Roman archaeological site which can fly, turn invisible and had other amazing properties. I enjoyed it at the time, but the scope of the story was too narrow and, dare I say, childish to be as interesting as what had come out of Australia several years earlier. Seeing how they handled other stories, it would be interesting to see what would have come of the premise had it been produced there.

It was about this time, 1997-98, that I moved away from children's TV. The Simpsons had been on BBC2 for coming up to two years, and I was watching shows like Star Trek and Buffy The Vampire Slayer in the post-6pm slot. The tone and quality of Grange Hill had moved away from the day to day lives of pupils in school to become more focused on the private lives of the pupils and teachers, always a bad sign in a long-running series.

So it was until the next century when, as an A-Level, then college student, I found myself with more free time, a flexible schedule and days off during the week. Evenings when I would have watched shows like The Simpsons were taken up with socialising, so my TV viewing shifted more towards daytime...

Holy shit! What the fuck happened? I turn my back for a few years...

Grange Hill, once a leading light in children's entertainment had been moved from North London to Liverpool and rather than concentrating on character and social issues of a variety of pupils became, more or less, a sitcom about first year pupils.

Ace Lightning

The terrifying and horrendous Ace Lightning

Budget-constrained, but often thought-through series had been replaced with international co-productions like the baffling, irritating and charmless Ace Lightning. With cash to splash on pointless visual effects writing was now only a way to advance from one action set-piece to another. Suspense and drama were replaced with trite kid-friendly CGI shoot-outs. Presumably in an attempt to sell the rights to the series in more than one territory, these series now invariably featured English characters moving to America or vice versa. It also seemed to mark the beginning of the BBC attempting to get into the merchandising game, selling toys of their creations that, when examined closely, probably were toy concepts before they were, and I use the word advisedly, "characters".

The little purely American programming I saw at this time was in animated shows that singularly failed to leave an impression.

Needless to say, my stay was brief.

Towards the end of the Noughties I did come across a few specific series, namely Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, and a series based on a book series called The Roman Mysteries. Happily things had improved a bit. After the embarrassingly awful Torchwood, which creator Russell T Davies seemed to treat as his own personal forum for erotic fan fiction, I was curious to see how he would adapt what was already supposed to be a kids' show, into even more of a kids' show. The answer is farting aliens.

Okay, that is slightly unfair. There were a couple of episodes that actually managed to hit the mark, such as when Sarah Jane was transported back in time and given the option to avert her parents' early death at the expense of her current future with her adopted (I think...?) half-alien son, Luke. It was an emotional subject that managed to tell a story that had no right answer, and was far better than the repetitively wangsty gurning of David Tennant in Doctor Who proper at the time. More often than not, though, it was bland monster-of-the-week fare, that clearly had money to spend, but elected to do it on VFX rather than writers.

The Sarah Jane Adventures

Elisabeth Sladen, Anjli Mohindra, Daniel Anthony and Tommy Knight in The Sarah Jane Adventures

I was actually sent to The Roman Mysteries by William Smethurst's book How To Write For Television. Aired within a year or so of HBO's acclaimed Rome, the production values were undeniably high, and it was clear a lot of time and effort went into the show. It is probably unfair for me to judge this show too harshly, as I probably would have enjoyed it as a kid - though using known adult-friendly actors in cameo and bit-parts makes me think this was an attempt to please parents, too. With an oddly ambiguous mood, though, the series featured some acts of quiet shocking violence, such as branding one of the young heroes, set against an attempt at an "it will all turn out alright in the end" tone that could make viewing both confusing and distressing. I know violence was rife in the Roman world, to slaves and non-Romans especially, but I don't know if a kids' TV show is the forum to explore that.

The Roman Mysteries

Rebekah Brookes-Murrell, Harry Stott, Francesca Isherwood and Eli Machover in The Roman Mysteries

Skip ahead a few years to the present, and a number of events conspired to bring me back into the kids' TV fold. Several new additions to the extended family have provided excuses to buy DVDs of old series as presents, and I have got to watch some of their contemporary shows. Working with young actors has introduced me to their pop-culture, and a few friends who have persistently refused to grow up and act their age have brought more to my attention.

After having M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender inflicted upon me, several of the reviews I read lamented its poor quality compared to the cartoon it was based on. After watching a few culled scenes on YouTube, I decided to spring for the complete series on DVD, only to discover everyone was right, it was brilliant.

Like The Mysterious Cities of Gold 25 years previously Avatar, The Legend of Aang, tells a sprawling story across dozens of episodes and many hours of screen time. Both have stand-alone episodes but there is always a forward momentum towards an established goal. Both feature three young heroes more or less making their way alone to their destination, and both have complex character relationships. Whether the creators were influenced by The Mysterious Cities of Gold I don't know, but what they managed to create was an on-going, finite series with a sense of narrative drive, featuring likeable, humane and relatable characters, setting their story in a fantastic world, beautifully animated, that managed to be funny, charming and, when it wanted to, moving. How it inspired Shyamalan's emotionless pillaging of the source material is a matter of enduring and infuriating mystery.

Avatar, The Legend of Aang

Aang, Sokka and Katara in Avatar, The Legend of Aang

Also in the animation camp, and again from America is Adventure Time, favourite of drunk students everywhere. From my admittedly limited experience of it, I can't say it is sophisticated, but the bizarre and charmingly non-sensical characters and events coupled with the breathless pace gives the impression the whole series was written as a single stream of consciousness by an insane six-year-old. And I mean that in a good way. The only bounds the series seems to have are the bounds of imagination, which seems to have found a place in the heart of child and adult viewers alike as with the similarly anarchic Spongebob Squarepants several years before.

Adventure Time

"Mathematical!" Adventure Time in all its lunatic glory

My latest introduction, though, actually happened within the last couple of weeks while doing post-production on Transmission Interrupted. Looking for content 20-30 minutes long on BBC's iPlayer while footage would render, export or convert, I came across a show called Rocket's Island. Based on the confidence of the characters and tone of the setting, I was convinced it must have been based on a series of books. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover it was dreamed up out of the mind of one Nick Leather.

The series is set on a fictional island (which references and accents seem to place somewhere in the Irish Sea) at a farm called The Knot where the eponymous 12-year-old (I guess) Rocket lives with his sister and parents, and periodically fosters other kids too wild for anyone on the mainland to take responsibility for.

Discovering this was the second of two series, and with several allusions to events in the past that were not thoroughly explained, I was pleased to find that the so-called "pilot series" (in reality three half-hour episodes telling an on-going story) were available on YouTube. Compared to the nuanced writing of the second series, these three episodes suffer from what felt like well-trodden characterisation of the two foster kids, albeit with a decent payoff at the end.

All three episodes of Rocket's Island "pilot series"

Yes, the second series is where Rocket's Island really takes off (excuse the pun). The first episode suffers from having to reintroduce old characters (several of whom have been recast from the pilot series) and introduce new ones, but the second episode is very strong. Episode three I consider to be the least-strong of the series, but thereafter the show delivers more than half a dozen hits one after another. As it is still such a new series and still available, I am reluctant to give away anything that may constitute a "spoiler", so scroll on a bit if you are planning to watch it.

Two episodes that were particularly moving were one entitled The Mermaid's Song, where Shada, a refugee from an unnamed Middle Eastern country, currently a war zone, who has been staying for several episodes is reunited with her mother after fearing her lost. The other was Rocket's Return, in which it appears Rocket, now an old man, has travelled back in time. While it is eventually revealed that, though the old man has travelled in time (in a manner of speaking), he is not Rocket, the climax is no less emotional and both managed to leave me with a lump in my throat.

Rocket and Alli

Rocket (Joe Gallucci) with sister Alli (Helen Daniels)

Spoilers end here!

As with Grange Hill years ago, there are characters ranging in age from 11 or 12 to mid-to-late teens and into adulthood, who are all written more or less age appropriately, speaking and behaving the way they should while remaining in the PG realm.

While tackling subjects like parental separation, death, and violent anger it manages to keep the overall tone light, without undermining the genuine moments when it needs to be serious, and does all this without ever feeling like it is talking down to its target audience.

Throw in a good dose of exploring, adventure and a whimsical touch of magic realism and this is exactly the sort of thing that would have turned me on as a kid. The island setting provides a compact universe of varied locations and allows the kids' unsupervised adventuring to stay the right side of parental responsibility. The series seems to operate the way the mind of someone's Rocket's age does. Reality is more established than it would be for, say, a seven year old - actions have consequences - but there is that residual magic at the periphery and even when all is said and done, there are some questions left hanging. While I may call this sloppy writing or a plot-hole elsewhere, here it feels like a deliberate choice to keep some of the magic of childhood intact and is always handled in such a way that it may either be genuine magic, or Rocket's own projection of magic onto something that may have an ordinary explanation, as seen in his final encounter with the mythical Tancath.

Rocket and Tancath

Rocket confronts the Tancath with friends Brandon (Samuel Bottomley, left) and Jade (Sydney Wade)

The characters are complex while being consistent, and tackle interpersonal relationships well. They constantly develop, though subtly and believably. The parents manage to be both competent yet fallible that puts them as near to any real parent as I have seen committed to screen.

More than anything, though, what I appreciate about Rocket's Island is that it doesn't feel like a kids' TV show. It's well acted, well written and well directed. And that is something that unifies all the shows I remember fondly - no allowance was made for the fact their target audiences were children, corners weren't cut. In Australia especially, there seemed to be no embarrassment around the idea that the production you were working on was for kids. Everyone took it completely seriously; cast, crew, writers and directors. And as a result of telling good stories about interesting people, they hit a wider audience than the demographic would suggest.

While one series does not constitute a trend, and does not undo years of lacklustre programming by the BBC, it is encouraging to see that Rocket's Island already has a third series in production, and that it doesn't resort to special effects. They are present, but more often than not are what Jean Pierre-Jeunet called "invisible effects" as opposed to shape-shifting aliens or laser shoot-outs.

The Time Traveller

Michael Byrne as a low-key time traveller

I like to think that, as video games become more sophisticated, visual puff and heart-pounding excitement will have to be sidelined in narrative in favour of telling emotional stories about people you grow to love. Certainly the main advantage of the series I've cited was that they weren't locked in a monster-of-the-week stasis where characters had to remain identical from one episode to the next. They grew, changed and developed as people. The events of their lives effected them. They seemed like real people.

So was TV better in my day?

To be honest, it's hard to tell. Despite my attempts to be rational I associate happy memories with the TV of my childhood when things seemed simpler and I had less responsibility, though for every Spellbinder there was a Bodger and Badger or some other god-aweful thing that had been excreted into existence.

I do think there is gap opening up around the 10 to 14 age range of quality programming. As adult content becomes more childish, kids come on board earlier, and there seems to be no shortage of cheaply produced filler for dribbling toddlers.

Worryingly, though, it is those crucial formative years of older childhood and young adolescence where there seems to be a desert of age-appropriate material. Shows that can be entertaining, morally sound, and spark the imagination. Shows that can feature a physical fantasy but an emotional reality, expressing some of the complex and often conflicting thoughts and feelings that are rife at that age, refracting them through an exotic prism to keep us safe.

Just when I was growing to despair at the what I could see on HMV's shelves it was encouraging to come across Avatar and Rocket's Island as, while they both do it very differently, both respond to a need. It may be Rocket's Island will never generate the cultural hysteria that, say, Pokémon did, nor will it benefit from merchandising revenue ("Mum! Buy me that Oldest Man In The World action figure to go with my The Knot playset!"), but it tells a story about people that addresses childish concerns without resorting to killing your opponent.

I don't think kids can get all they need from one source. Inventive, exotic locations, characters and situations can nurture a child's imagination, while character stories deal with emotional issues, but sometimes it is fun to throw all that out of the window and fight monsters. It may be that, while the quality was not necessarily better when I was a kid, the balance was more even.

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