The changing face of kids’ TV

Hot on today’s/yesterday’s news that Grange Hill is going to be revamped (free registration required) to focus on younger kids and return to the original comic strip titles and theme tune, I thought I’d focus a little on the misery of old age.

As you may – or may not – know, I’ve got one of those door stops aka Apple TVs that sits connected to my now somewhat senile television and serves up, among other things, all manner of goodies from Bastard, my Mac-based PVR.

I say “among other things” because it also has an Internet connection that allows it to stream YouTube videos directly to the TV as well.

Initially, I thought this was about as useful as a Marxist analysis of Katie and Peter Unleashed. But it’s actually turning out to be quite fun, now that YouTube is slowly digitising all its old vids into an Apple TV-compatible format – assuming you can get over having to use one of those old arcade game-style on-screen keyboards to type out “prestidigitation” or whatever you happen to be looking for. Much better than crouching over a computer typing stuff into a web browser anyway. And some of the vids are almost crystal clear.

Being of a certain age, once I’d got over the excitement of the “Will it Blend?” guy, immediately started looking for clips from old kids’ TV shows.

Tell you what – not only have times change, everything was a lot more sinister then.

Mr Benn seems timeless at first. Man goes into a fancy dress shop, gets a costume, goes out through the wrong door and ends up going on an adventure related to the costume. Originally made in 1972 and 1973, it was only 13 episodes long, but has been repeated enough that everyone thinks it lasted for about 500. Here’s the first half of the first episode.

The thing to note – apart from the fact that Ray Brooks is clearly immortal – is the first few lines: “It was Saturday morning in Festive Road. Coal was being delivered and boys were playing with wooden swords. Everything was very ordinary.”

Suddenly not so timeless is it? Anyone seen coal being delivered to a house ever? Boys playing with wooden swords? They’d be ASBOed in seconds these days.

Starting to feel old now.

“At number 52, a postman arrived with a letter.” Blimey. Postie’s delivering letters directly into people’s hands. He’s not rushing back to the depot so he can clock off early.

Anyway, Mr Benn, who seemed so benign and innocent when I was growing up, suddenly takes a more sinister, “serial killer in waiting” turn in the next few line.

“It was an invitation to a fancy dress party. Mr Benn didn’t really like parties, but he did like fancy dress.” Mr Benn the loner who loves dressing up in strange outfits. Not all disturbing nowadays, hey?

It then becomes a typical bit of early 70s leftwing agitprop – Mr Benn visits the shop for the first time and then travels back to medieval Renaissance Faire times in a knight’s suit of armour to help a communist dragon who provides fire-lighting services to the local community at no charge. The poor dragon has been slandered by a capitalist match-maker who wants to make people buy his matches instead so has burnt down houses and blamed it on the dragon. As I said, typical early 70s anti-business propaganda.

So then we moved on to Ulysses 31. Now I always remember this as being a little dark, but I’d forgotten quite how dark it could be.

Of course, the clues were there:

  1. It was Franco-Japanese, and the French have always delighted in producing mental kids TV (cf Wattoo Wattoo) as have the Japanese (cf Science Ninja Team Gatchamen aka Battle of the Planets, which had genetically engineered orphans and a hermaphrodite bad guy/girl who took orders from a giant shimmering bird)
  2. It was based on Homer’s The Odyssey as well as various Greek myths, which weren’t exactly bundles of light and joy

All the same, flying around the universe in a ship that looks like a giant eye, trying to avoid the eternal punishment of gods, and with a hold full of all your friends in a coma: could you get clearance on that these days? I think not. Much as The Sarah Jane Adventures, for example, has its moments of darkness, Sarah Jane doesn’t have Harry Sullivan’s cryogenically frozen body in one of her cupboards, waiting for the day he can be restored to life. The show, like the rest of its ilk, is just a little bit too wholesome for that.

Am I imagining things, or were the shows of old that we think of as timeless in fact anything but? And have we now started to cosset kids too much with our TV, when all they want is a bit of nastiness?