12 terrific kids’ TV programmes

Andy Stevens / 18 October 2017

Brilliant kids’ TV from the 60s and 70s that had us glued to the box, when we were barely tall enough reach the dial on the windowsill to change channels.



The Herbs

There’s a mollifying childhood lull of subtle spices and gentle herbilicious scents coming from the serene, colourful courtyard garden which was the 1968 story-time setting and home of much-loved children’s TV series, The Herbs.

Parsley the Lion was a loveably comical dear old stick. A kindly-faced sweetheart with genial avuncular genes (despite being in reality a toy lion), who always saw the funny side.

Parsley didn’t do much considering his agent had bagged him top billing on this Michael ‘Paddington’ Bond-created children’s classic – but he didn’t have to. Parsley’s dramatic mien was just being sweetly laid-back and suitably, restfully leonine, while matey boy fellow cast member Dill the Dog was in contrast more of a boisterous canine scamp.

And there, looking back on it, rests much of the timeless appeal of The Herbs; something magical for both quieter and more gregarious children, and for cat and dog lovers alike.

Among The Herbs’ other memorable main characters were gruff Sage the Owl, haughty Lady Rosemary, habitual knitter Aunt Mint, Constable Knapweed the old school harmless stock rozzer, and in a brief Sixties nod to diversity Indian snake charmer, Pashana Bedhi, who slept on a bed of nails. Well, don’t forget, The Beatles hadn’t long been back from their ashram.

Trumpton

Briefly indulge some youthful reminiscences on this one if you will, dear reader.

The toy Trumpton fire engine was a rare and absolute must-have spin-off TV merch down our way, among certain three-year-old boys around 1970-ish.

Now whatever happened to it, with Captain Flack in charge and “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub” aboard? Who knows. You can probably still find one in the hen’s teeth section on eBay, I guess.

Anyway, the Trumpton firemen probably got tired of wrangling with management in endless disputes about pay and working conditions, and now eke a living in a hi-tech logistics fulfilment barn on the outskirts of Chigley.

Trumpton was the archetypal English fantasy town of gentility, social cohesion, moral certainties, innate modesty, care and community, before people started frightening the lives out each other writing tiresome blogs about the apparent demise of such stuff.

That certainty and fortitude is encapsulated at the start of each Trumpton episode, when the late, great Brian Cant pronounces: "Here is the clock, the Trumpton clock. Telling the time, steadily, sensibly; never too quickly, never too slowly. Telling the time for Trumpton”.

Wirral indie band Half Man Half Biscuit once neatly alluded to the Trumpton paradox in their feted track “The Trumpton Riots”. But in Trumpton, of course, a riot would never, ever happen - even if Chippy Minton’s carpenters had been turned into a nail bar, and all the tearooms closed down when everyone in Trumptonshire started eating at out-of-town chain restaurants.

Either way, Trumpton’s fire brigade would have saved the day - as well as keeping milliner Miss Lovelace’s yappy Pekingese pooches Mitzy, Daphne and Lulu out of any unnecessary scrapes – for Trumpton. 

The Clangers

There are far too few shrill, synthetic, moon-faced busybodies on primetime television these days, the judging panels on TV talent shows notwithstanding.

Along with the loveable old yawning shaggy-cat-storyteller Bagpuss, the whistling moon-dwelling meeces of The Clangers are in the top two of the great Oliver Postgate/Peter Firmin firmament of children’s classics.

Like so many of the classic children’s telly shows of its vintage, it’s a bit trippy - and not a great deal of consequence happens. The imagination was simply permitted to fill in the gaps, and let the magic reign.

But the surprise appearances of The Soup Dragon in the original – and incomparably the best – incarnation of the series always provide a madcap moment of spoon-banging delight. 

Pipkins

Pipkins was a curious one. First incorrect inklings to the young early ‘70s mind, trying to make head and tail of the unfolding goings-on in some ramshackle faux workshop at ATV studios, was that Pipkins was a kind of children’s Steptoe & Son, with moth-eaten puppets in the lead roles instead of the incendiary luvvie twosome of Corbett and Brambell.

There was, of course, considerably less to it than that. Pipkins was, however, among the first kids’ shows to have characters – albeit a puppet pig, hare, ostrich, monkey and tortoise – happily mangling their regional accents.

Nowadays you can’t for the life of you get a job on mainstream telly unless you’re a pontificating puppet with provincial patter.

Mr Benn

Over what everyone always says are a surprisingly small number of episodes – a mere 14 – marvellous Mr Benn managed with huge kudos and an always cheery demeanour to perfect the art of pulling a sickie from his humdrum office job.

Plus, Mr Benn always made it back home to 52, Festive Road, before getting stuck in rush hour, and with a little gift for himself nabbed on his adventures to boot. Nice work, fella.

What’s more, in this timeless 1970 animation creation Mr Benn was habitually led into a side-room by a strange man in a fez for a spot of dressing up, to emerge as a spaceman, a cowboy, a Red Indian or the like.

This thrill-seeking, lead-swinging City gent in the pinstriped suit and bowler remains a class act.

Bagpuss

Bagpuss still consistently eases into number one spot in those occasional poll-of-polls type things, when people are pressed into naming their most beloved children’s programme of all time. And it’s easy to see why.

There’s the gentle banjo twang of the musical refrain at the start and finish of Bagpuss, which resonates with the same kind of Victorian parlour gentility of the music box credits on Trumpton’s stablemate, Camberwick Green.

Modish mid-’70s love of Victoriana and a hankering for times past tug the heartstrings in all the right places, for all ages, on Bagpuss. And that along with the old-fashioned virtues of good storytelling, and the magical realism of all Bagpuss’ friends in the funny old shop springing into life when the narcoleptic old moggy wakes from his slumbers.

The old cloth cat may have been saggy, and a bit loose at the seams, but the legend which is Bagpuss (and this animation merits that overused epithet) still taps into deep, primal childhood feelings of warmth and nurture. No wonder Emily - and the rest of us - loved him. 

Rainbow

Post-series mythology about fondly-remembered lunchtime kids’ TV mainstay Rainbow was - at one time - abundant. There was the mildly-notorious double entendre-laden outtake of the Rainbow team - Geoffrey, Bungle, George, Zippy, Rod, Jane and Freddy - playing a standard screen skit seemingly straight, until you actually listen to what they’re saying. Potty-mouths. Pop culture-wise, it’s an ooh missus moment that’s almost Pugwash-esque.

It’s one of those clips – yes, it does exist - where you’re convinced you’ve watched it, and actually heard what you think you’ve heard, but still can’t quite believe it. And, what’s more, the passage of time and built-in cynicism eventually makes you doubt its veracity in the first place. It would probably go viral these days, for about ten minutes. But it was fun at the time.

But to summon up proper nightmares from the Rainbow vaults, brace yourselves for a be-Googled gawp at the quasi-demonic first series incarnation of Bungle from 1972. My eyes, my eyes…

This ursine interloper didn’t last long, however. Thames Television bigwigs coaxed the original bad Bungle with the promise of Dewhurst’s vouchers back into his rocky catacomb, and made the new high-pitched, child-friendly beast more bear-like, and less of the startled, staring man in a hairy suit. Far less problematic for the long-term mental health of Rainbow’s junior demographic, you’ll agree. 

Rentaghost

Pop down town tomorrow and try to sell this dream to your bank’s in-branch IFA – and good luck with that.

A ghost-rental business – yet, that’s the one – would be unlikely to secure sufficient venture capital to get off the ground these days, such is the volatility of the modern high street. We don’t reckon they’d give the funding pitch haunted house-room on Dragons’ Den, either.

But in 1976, albeit in TV’s parallel universe and not your average far-fetched boardroom, someone was prepared to take a punt.

Rentable ghosts is an unlikely premise, whichever way you look at it. I mean, you just can’t trust the slippery spectres. But this children’s drama series resonated in the TV tea leaves and has nostalgically endured.

Put much of Rentaghost’s sustainability in popular TV culture down to breezy dialogue, perky plots and an ensemble of accomplished farceurs in the cast, including that great panto dame Christopher Biggins, the late Michael Staniforth as Timothy Claypole and Audrey Roberts out of Corrie (the real-life Sue Nicholls). 

Magpie

Kids’ magazine show Magpie had a patchouli whiff of Kensington kaftan about it, in contrast to the practical Wright’s Coal Tar tang of Blue Peter’s essential guide to building a shoebox jungle lean-to for your Action Man, to help your moulded plastic hero survive the mortal dangers of a night on the landing.

With Magpie – groovy opening credits and theme tune as-standard – you just knew that their Action Man would be a loon-panted art school dropout shacked up with Sindy in a Cromwell Road squat, with Stretch Armstrong as the square lodger paying all the bills.

Leo Sayer-ish hairbear presenter Mick Robertson brilliantly perfected the weary demeanour of a polytechnic student activist, only half-bothered about the interminable common room debate about America’s Castro sanctions and just waiting for the bar to open.

Magpie’s spaghetti-hoops-on-toast teatime slot also featured former Hammer Horror films ingenue-turned-presenter Jenny Hanley. Her brother was that famous Tory boy, you may recall, detail-fans.

Another long-term Magpie frontwoman was Susan Stranks. She carried an almost Panorama hauteur in her presenting style, despite moving sideways across the schedules after Magpie to lunchtime origami-for-kids vehicle, Paperplay

Crackerjack

Hooray. We all have shouty kids’ Friday funtime telly riot Crackerjack to thank for the sadly unrepeated feat of making cabbages essential primetime viewing.

Crackerjack’s genius chiefly comprised sustaining the attention of a hangar-full of shrieking schoolchildren, at a pitch which makes a modern day soft play centre on half-term week feel positively Trappist.

A Crackerjack remake today would, of course, substitute the big, dumb, veg-as-big-as-your-head cabbage for kale or kohlrabi. 

Crackerjack’s Double or Drop slot was where the aforementioned people’s greens came in to their own. This was the quizzy bit where you’d either win something utterly brilliant like Ker-Plunk or a powerball to ping against your mate’s bonce at Cubs, or drop all the goodies and end up feeling more stomped-on Savoy than Little Gem.

Add to this the high-level slapstick gaggery of Don ‘No Not That One’ Maclean and owlish skylarker Peter Glaze pranging each other with a ladder and crash, bang, wallop - you’ve got yourself 29 years’ worth of knockabout hit children’s TV programming.

Tiswas

It was no surprise that the-then more maverick than mainstream Chris Tarrant and his renegade gang’s talents, showcased in the madcap buffoonery of Saturday morning Tiswas, was eventually cast out onto the distant shores of the late-night watershed in the form of spin-off, OTT.

OTT was a place where Tiswas’ overgrown tearaways could finally down a few Brummie Ansells in front of a live and alternative adult audience, and not rely on spitting puppet dogs, Trevor McDoughnut skits and songs about buckets of water for their anarchic kicks.

Tiswas had a resolutely secondary modern rough-and-tumble appeal; ITV’s break-time bog-wash, flicking the Vs at the fee-paying, low-temperature spin-cycle of Noel Edmonds’ elaborate knitwear and Cheggers’ chortles on the other, other side: BBC1’s Multi-Coloured Swap Shop

Monkey Magic

A good half-decade after Bruce Lee’s thrilling kick-’em-up flicks sparked a mega Kung Fu craze in the West, the likes of the comically-dubbed Water Margin and then Monkey (also known as Monkey Magic) kept the yen (sorry about that) going for the all things oriental.

Films like Enter the Dragon were Hong Kong-American, and Monkey was predominantly Japanese. But to us square-eyed ’70s telly kids, no matter, and all lines were blurred. Carl ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ Douglas was from Kingston, Jamaica, not Kowloon, after all.

What mattered more was that Monkey was all uproarious, fantasy fun, outrageously over the top, impossibly exotic and deeply loopy.

Were we turning Japanese? We really thought so. 

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