‘Do you remember… [insert classic kids TV series here]?’ Once a staple four-pints-down-the-line pub conversation, this brand of modern nostalgia for the bygone television shows of our youth has now spawned entire industries: think of the shelves of reissued DVDs, the coffee-table books, and I Love 19-What-Have-You. Perhaps surprisingly, BFI Books have decided there’s still a gap in the market, and as it turns out, they’re dead right (just try and ignore the truly awful cover). The scope here is extremely specific: it’s a chronological encyclopedia of British children’s TV drama. Hence, there’s no place for The Clangers (1969-72), Blake’s 7 (1978-81) or Degrassi Junior High (1986-89). But the result is that it illuminates a whole under-appreciated field. The tone is just right: nice and light, without undue reverence and yet generous in praise and detail where it’s deserved.
The nostalgia-hounds have actually done a disservice to such programmes, which the authors gently but firmly put right. Although memories do indeed run the risk of being rose-tinted, in certain cases, bygone children’s dramas didn’t simply seem good because one was knee-high and uncritical at the time: rather, they were actually good, well-made, memorable pieces of TV drama. Of course, the ‘it’s only for kids’ remit invites much sub-standard work, but equally it’s a territory in television where inventive, fresh approaches can flourish, precisely because the audience demands it. Hence it’s no surprise to realise that many of today’s most acclaimed television writers are graduates from the pre-teatime slot. Andrew Davies was the creator of anarchic 80’s tomboy Marmalade Atkins (1981-1984); while Granada’s Children’s Ward (1989 – present) has proved to be an excellent training ground of the like of Paul Abbott, Jan McVerry and Kay Mellor – as well as Russell T Davies, who first began his career writing Children’s BBC dramas such as Dark Season (1991) (starring a young Kate Winslet), not to mention scripts for the erstwhile Chuckle Brothers…
It’s tricky to pull off, but what McGown and Docherty manage here is something both informative and immensely readable, treating the subject seriously without being humorous or lapsing into undue affection. The perspective it lends to the whole genre in question shows a field of television that’s developed over the years, and is far less scattershot than you might at first think. Besides the expected warm and fuzzy ‘I remember that!’ reaction to long-forgotten gems, fascinating patterns begin to emerge: for instance, over the decades, perennial favourites such as Just William, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Secret Garden have been repeatedly remade for new young audiences. (Perhaps it’s down to laziness on the part of commissioning executives, but one hopes that the appeal of a rollicking good tale simply continues to prosper down the ages).
It’s odd to see just how many children’s series – especially from the 1970s – are now acknowledged as copper-bottomed classics of ‘telefantasy’; for instance, The Owl Service (1969-70), The Changes (1975), and Children of the Stones (1977). Perhaps most remarkably, Dramarama (1983-89) – a cross-network ITV drama anthology that ran for seven seasons – now stands as the last long-running strand for original one-off dramas on British television. In its own neat way, this volume spells out the fact the fact that British children’s television drama has a genuinely rich and extraordinary heritage that well deserves its turn in the spotlight. In days when our ‘grown-up’ output rarely offers anything more sophisticated than Bad Girls and Footballers Wives, we clearly have a lot to learn from the halcyon days of youth.