DOES CHILDREN’S TELEVISION MATTER?
when we started in 1957, the TV Company I was hoping to work for clearly
didn’t give a toss about children's television. Well, no, it did, just. It
tossed about a hundred pounds a programme to spare programme directors and told
them to cobble something together. So when Peter Firmin and I made our first
film series about a Welsh railway engine who wanted to sing in the choir, we
received about ten pounds a minute for the finished films.
Today, on the rare occasions I watch children’s
programmes on television, many of which cost more than a thousand times as much
to make, I can see how profoundly lucky we were.
for two reasons. One was that because the TV Company looked on children's
television as small-time stuff, it sensibly gave a free hand to the very
sensible head of the children's department whose sole purpose was to get
programmes that were fun, interesting and cheap. The second reason was that
because we didn't have the money for elaborate equipment we had to rely on the
basic hand-writing of animation, laboriously pushing along cardboard characters
with a pin. Thus we were thrown back on the real staple of
television: telling and showing a good story, carefully thought out and
delivered in the right order for stacking in the viewer’s mind. Come to think
of it I must have produced some of the clumsiest animation ever to disgrace the
television screen, but it didn’t matter. The viewers didn’t notice because
they were enjoying the stories.
we were lucky enough not to have time or money for lengthy conceptual Meetings.
All we could do was try to turn out two minutes a day of film that was fun to
watch – and hope to pay the bills. It was a happy time.
in 1987 the BBC let us know that in future all "programming" was to be
judged by what they called its "audience ratings". Furthermore, we
were told, some U.S. researchers had established that in order to retain its
audience (and its share of the burgeoning merchandising market) every children's
programme had to have a ‘hook’, ie, a startling incident to hold the
attention, every few seconds. As our films did not fit this category they were
deemed not fit to be shown by the BBC any more. End of story - not only for
Peter and me - we had had a very good innings - but also for many of the
shoe-string companies that had been providing scrumptious programmes for what is
now seen as 'the golden age of children's television'.
Those days are long gone. Today making films for
children’s television has become very big business requiring huge capital
investment, far beyond the reach of small companies, and that has inevitably
brought with it a particular poverty from which we never suffered.
Yes. In our time we had been able to found great
kingdoms of mountains, ice and snow in our cowsheds. In Peter’s big barn we
commanded infinities of Outer Space, starred it with heavenly bodies made
from old Christmas decorations and made a moon for the Clangers.
Now, today, burdened with the search for the millions
of pounds which they have to find to fund their glossy products, the
entrepreneurs have to lead a very different sort of life. They must
hurtle from country to country seeking subscriptions from the TV stations to
fund the enormous cost of the films. Each of these stations will often require
the format of the proposed film to be adapted to suit its own largest and
dumbest market. They have to do this because, for them, children are no longer
children, they are a market.
so many millions at stake the entrepreneurs know that the bottom line must be
'to give the children of today only the sort of things that they already know
they enjoy'. They have to do this because they fear that if they don’t
the little so-and-so's might switch channels and the Company could lose a bit of
its share of the lucrative merchandising market.
do have another difficulty. Because originality can’t be bought off the shelf,
(and even if it could it would be too risky to consider with so much money at
stake), the competition for quality-of-content, has gone by the board. In its
place there has evolved what could be called a competition for quality-of-method. This requires small armies of technicians and
artists to spend their time seeking ever more astounding ways for the heroes to
zap their foes. That is where the huge money goes: on high technology and on the
clouds of pundits who confer at length in costly comfort about motivations,
targeting and market strategies.
them, in the manner of mass-market publishers, the nail-biting money-people peer
anxiously over their shoulders to try and locate some content, some past
sure-fire formula that they can re-vamp and use again.
this is perfectly ordinary - the demise of small companies and with it the
elimination of integrity is just the predictable result of trying to turn a
small craft into a massive industry. It is sad of course, because crud is always
crud, however glossily and zappily it is produced, but maybe that is just how
things are today.
does it matter?
it does! The Head of Acquisitions at the BBC outlined the Corporation's policy
in a recent radio programme . She told us: “The children of today are more
used to the up-market, faster-moving things” and that “in today’s hugely
competitive schedule we are up against about another twelve to fourteen
children’s channels and we have got to stand out.”
a policy that is, in my considered view, almost criminally preposterous.
because it isn't true. There is no such thing as 'the children of today'.
Children are not 'of today'. They come afresh into this world in a steady stream
and, apart from a few in-built instincts, they are blank pages happily waiting
to be written on.
because it simply isn’t true that children have to have what they 'are used
to'. They do want programmes that are
new to them, programmes that are original and mind-stretching. They just
aren’t being offered them.
me give you an example. As part of the same radio programme one of our old film
series: Noggin and the Firecake, was shown to a primary school. It was heavy
stuff, clumsy and slow by "today's standards", but my goodness how
eagerly the children followed and enjoyed it! At the end they could gleefully
recount whole sections of the story, and when asked if they would like more they
shouted with one voice: “YES!”
the policy is tragically preposterous because there is simply no need or reason
for the BBC to “compete and stand out”. It is a publicly funded body and it
should know that feeding the minds of young people is a serious loving
responsibility. We ourselves have passed this responsibility on to the BBC and
it has no business leaving it to the mercies of a money-grubbing market.
let me offer you the following serious thought.
if you will, that I am part of a silent Martian invasion and that my intention
is slowly to destroy the whole culture of the human race. So where would I
would naturally start where thought first grows. I would start with children's
television. My policy would be 'to give the children of today only the sort of
thing that they 'already know they enjoy’
– like a fizzing diet of manic jelly-babies. This would no doubt be
exciting, but their hearts and their minds would receive no nourishment, they
would come to know nothing of the richness of human life, love and knowledge,
and slowly whole generations would grow up knowing nothing about anything but
violence and personal supremacy.
that a fairy-tale? Look around you.
Oliver Postgate February 2003
Ps. This article was commissioned by the Daily Mail immediately after
the radio programme mentioned in the text. It was approved enthusiastically and
would have been published but, unfortunately, more important subjects turned up
and the Daily Mail had to concentrate all its attention on suspicions of
burglary and buggery in high places.
More recently I was approached by a “free-lance commissioning
editor” who offered to have it published in the Mail on Sunday providing I
interpolated snide material of his own into it as if it was my own work..
That is something to beware of!