Children’s TV: you watch it for about ten years, then you spend the rest of your life sitting in the pub reminiscing (in fact, if your passport lists your occupation as ‘bad stand-up comic’, you might even make a living making cracks about it).
The BBC’s Children’s department is now bedded in at Salford’s MediaCity and they’ve collaborated with their quay-mates over at The Lowry to created this special exhibition. Here’s One We Made Earlier is a celebration of getting on for 100 years’ worth of BBC children’s broadcasting, dating back the the radio days of Children’s Hour.
The key question is, though, who is this all for? Dewy-eyed 40-something dads (hi!) experiencing a sharp Proustian rush at the sight of the original Basil Brush? Or yer actual children, the intended audience of these programmes in the first place? It’s a bit of a balancing act but this show attempts to do both, and pulls it off too, pretty much.
Sprawling across several rooms, The Lowry’s exhibition is, much to its credit, not arranged chronologically but rather it’s clearly set-out by subject – puppet shows, factual shows, pre-school shows, drama and ‘the future’ (fittingly we’ll come to that later). Individual programmes therefore appear in context alongside their forebears and descendants. Overall the emphasis is perhaps more on what in modern parlance we would call CBBC shows rather than CBeebies ones. There’s a lot of text – too much, one suspects, for younger visitors – and a wide range of displays such as props, small recreated sets and screens showing archive clips or interview material with writers and producers, accessible via headphones. So while the stars of children’s television from Annette Mills to Helen Skelton are covered, many remarkable programme makers – Biddy Baxter, Anna Home, Phil Redmond, Oliver Postgate – also get a turn in the spotlight, which is a hugely satisfying state of affairs if you have an interest in peeking behind the scenes.
Evidently a great deal of thought and effort has gone into this, and it makes for an enticing, colourful jumble which rewards a good session spent exploring. It covers a lot; possibly too much. The result is sketchy rather than detailed. In truth, it’s such a vast subject that it deserves an even bigger exhibition one day, or even a whole range of them. Salford Quays might be the obvious home, but other family-friendly venues could produce shows which tell other sides of the whole story, for instance Seven Stories in Newcastle or Bradford’s National Media Museum, which ran a grand, bewitching exhibition last year on children’s books being adapted for film and television (the BBC’s fine, now lost tradition of weekend teatime dramatizations of children’s classics doesn’t get a look in here, but then, you can’t have everything).
There’s the odd moment here – a vast wall of puppet characters’ catchphrases that doesn’t amount to much; a ‘future of the medium’ section which succeeds only in making the future look a bit empty and boring – when the exhibition as a whole falls short of the inspiration and verve that propelled the programmes it’s intended to honour. But it’s certainly a fun, if hasty jaunt through the history of the medium, and it manages to offer something to engage all ages (but watch out for those tricky moments when any offspring you might have could ask, for example, “What is Jackanory, anyway?”).
And yes, it does raise a lingering wider question about the future of children’s television. One display notes that the target audience is almost as likely to watch a BBC show online as it is on television when broadcast, and that shift is increasing very rapidly. It’s perhaps a shame: one of the joys of children’s TV is exactly that sense of a mass, shared experience, and while it’s undoubtedly still being shared, it’s now happening in a more fractured, less obviously sociable fashion. According to the ‘future’ section here, what we’ve got to look forward to is a new range of apps.
So what does this exhibition really tell us about the current state of children’s television? Blue Peter makes a heavy-duty showing here, and rightly so, but its ratings are said to be dangerously low these days. Earlier this week, Anne Wood, creator of modern favourites including Teletubbies and In the Night Garden, offered the opinion that the field is in “long-term decline”, the schedules riddled with repeats and imports. Only days later, though, a Radio Times poll revealed that the nation’s all-time favourite children’s TV character is none other than Shaun the Sheep, very much a modern addition to the glittering firmament.
The fact is, though, that an increasing number of children’s TV characters from yesteryear are being metaphorically dusted down from their appearances in museums and exhibitions such as this and brought back to TV. Morph has just been revived. New versions of The Clangers, SuperTed and Danger Mouse are on their way. CBeebies’ forthcoming Furchester Hotel will feature some old Sesame Street favourites. Now, a good idea is a good idea, but there’s an argument that fresh inspiration, rather than apps, are what the medium needs to stay healthy. There are some great new shows out there these days – ask any passing fan of Old Jack’s Boat, The Adventures of Abney and Teal, Wolfblood or Strange Hill High – but surely that’s where the emphasis should be, rather than on endless play-it-safe revivals.
Current Children’s BBC executives should probably be forbidden from wandering across to this exhibition on their lunch-breaks. Warm and fuzzy nostalgia is all well and good, and for us laymen this is a lively, well-delivered treat, but it’s not necessarily conducive to the wondrous and inventive future broadcasting that young viewers deserve.
Where: The Lowry, Salford Quays
When: until October 12, 2014
More info: www.thelowry.com/event/heres-one-we-made-earlier
To read Chris Payne’s interview with Alex Winters from CBeebies, click here