Why we tuned in during the golden age of children's TV
Iconic kids’ presenter John Noakes died earlier this week. Here, two writers recall the shows they loved in their young days.
‘I’m proud to say I was on Romper Room’
Tony Macaulay, the author best known for his memoirs of growing up in the Troubles, had a childhood hero in John Noakes, while his granny had concerns about UTV's Romper Room. He says.
This week I shed a wee tear at the passing of a man I never met. When I was a child he taught me how to make an Apollo spacecraft from a toilet roll, silver milk bottle tops and sticky back plastic. He inspired me to be brave when he climbed to the top of Nelson's Column without a safety net and he showed me for the first time that a dog really could be man's best friend.
John Noakes was one of the iconic Blue Peter presenters of the Seventies. As a boy growing up in Belfast, I wanted to be a daredevil hero like John with a faithful dog like Shep.
It was the golden age of children's television, with only three channels to choose between and millions of us tuning in to Blue Peter and Magpie on weekdays and then the Multicoloured Swap Shop and the Banana Splits on Saturday mornings.
The opening titles and the theme tunes are imprinted on my memory. Of course, in those days it was safer to stay inside than to go out onto the troubled streets, so I think Belfast kids are even more attached to 1970s children's television stars than our contemporaries from other places.
I remember when Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead came on I genuinely couldn't think of something to go outside and do that would be more exciting than watching science fiction adventures through time and space on Doctor Who and The Tomorrow People.
But then the kids presenting Why Don't You showed me how to play marble football and how to make art work with staples and pipe cleaners. While fear and violence dominated the streets outside many of us Belfast kids were safely inside with Valerie Singleton showing us how to make a Christmas decoration with your granny's old wire coat hangers, tatty tinsel and a box of candles left over from lighting your house during the Ulster Workers' Strike.
Every child at school knew Noel Edmonds and Keith Chegwin as if they were your friend. Every day we heard a story on Jackanory from Bernard Cribbens and then John Craven explained what was going on in the world in a way we could understand on Newsround.
Roy Castle and his trumpet inspired me to have dedication if I wanted to be a Record Breaker and I aspired to break the world record for eating the most tins of cold beans ever. On Fridays at five to five it was time for Crackerjack! In an era before computer games the most prized possession for a child was a Crackerjack pencil or a Blue Peter badge.
In Northern Ireland we had our very own Romper Room on UTV when Miss Adrienne and then Miss Helen taught us how to 'always do what's right' and 'never do anything wrong' and 'to be a Romper Room do bee all day long'. If only more of the adults around us in 1970s Belfast had been listening! I'm proud to say I appeared on the programme and even got a Romper Room badge for balancing a plastic plate on my head.
At the end of each show every child in Ulster would be transfixed to our screens to see if Miss Helen would see us through her magic mirror. My granny kept a tally of Irish sounding names to check if Helen was seeing more Catholics than Protestants.
Apart from Romper Room most of the people on children's TV were nice, English and posh but then Grange Hill started and we found characters at school like us, who dressed like us and that we could relate to, teenagers such as Tucker Jenkins and Tricia Yates. The cast of Grange Hill became our new more realistic heroes once we had outgrown Sesame Street and that soggy old Bagpuss.
Perhaps it was the beginning of the end of our innocence. Sometimes when I'm feeling bored and nostalgic I do a search on YouTube and feel a familiar warmth and happiness when I see Robinson Crusoe still stuck on that beach, Nellie Olson pulling Laura Ingall's hair on Little House on the Prairie and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo saving yet another poor Australian kid who has fallen down a mine shaft.
And best of all, watching John Noakes in the Blue Peter garden shouting 'Get down, Shep!' to his best friend in the world.
Tony Macaulay's new book Little House on the Peace Line: Living on the Other Side is available from Amazon from June 9, £9.99
‘Clangers were peaceful ... yet charmingly subversive’
Linda Stewart is a freelance journalist. She says:
Peer out into the night sky and what can you see? A small blue moon-like planet dotted with dustbin lids and inhabited by strange little creatures resembling mice. Or armadillos. Or maybe pink pigs.
The show may have been inspired by the space race, but The Clangers were about as far away from the notion of headlong technological progress as you can imagine.
Their tiny planet was a peaceful haven set in the dark of the night sky, populated by the Iron Chicken floating in her metal craft, the Soup Dragon tending her Soup Well and the family of Clangers themselves, garbed in Roman-style armour to protect them from space debris and living on a diet of blue string pudding and green soup.
Since I was a child in the Seventies, the shows that have stuck with me are usually slightly off beat — things like the gloriously surreal Magic Roundabout, with a host of eccentric characters, but also a major villain in the form of the Blue Cat.
Then there was Ivor the Engine, ploughing a lonely trail through the heights of the Welsh mountains, and Bagpuss with the mouse organ and the benign clockwork presence of Professor Yaffle.
The Thames TV logo still elicits some kind of weird Pavlovian reaction after years of watching Rainbow, although I can’t quite remember why I loved George, Bungle and Zippy so much.
And I’ve never stopped questioning why modern technology still hasn’t caught up with Rentaghost. I’ve given up counting the times when I’ve been stranded in a torrential night-time Belfast city centre, teeming with hallions, and I’ve longed to be able to just squeeze my nose like Timothy Claypole and get home in an instant.
I was never completely convinced by Blue Peter, which seemed suspiciously worthy and possibly even — whisper it — “educational”.
As for Grange Hill, I was never allowed to watch it beyond the intro with the sausage in case I picked up any bad habits, like being cheeky to a teacher, or trying heroin.
But the one programme that was closest to my heart was The Clangers, which introduced us to a mouse-like interstellar family, who communicated in burbling echoes created on a Swanee whistle.
The pink-knitted characters pottered about on the surface of their tiny planet, before retiring beneath their dustbin lids into a glowing network of caverns populated with cotton wool trees and froglets.
The Clangers were born from an episode of Noggin the Nog, in which a space mouse landed in Noggin’s court and needed help to get back off the ground, but when the space mice evolved into Clangers, they lost their tails, apparently in case they fell in the soup.
Looking back, it seems I was attracted to the sheer escapism of those contented little creatures living in a world of their own, pottering across a bleak horizon against the blackest of night skies.
I remember their asteroid as being comfortingly silent, devoid of the canned backdrop of other shows — yet it wasn’t so.
Eerie snatches of music echoed across the surface of the Clangers’ little planet, and the comforting voice of creator Oliver Postgate would muse philosophically on the existence of the space mice and their small world.
In fact, alien invasion from Earth was a major theme, with the Clangers forced to retreat into the shimmering depths of their planet and protect themselves with metal lids to escape the space junk sent into their orbit by the Earth’s space programme.
When an Earth astronaut lands to lay claim to the territory, Mother Clanger made off with his planted flag to use as a new tablecloth.
The curious Clangers weren’t immune to the space bug themselves, building their own rocket with a plan to visit our planet — until they caught a glimpse of Earth’s ugly skyscrapers through a telescope and decided they were better off where they were.
It’s testament to Postgate’s attention to detail that he wrote full scripts for all the Clangers before their speech was rendered into swooping whistles, even though the words would never be intelligible to viewers.
Hilariously, the BBC once objected to a line by Major Clanger — even though it couldn’t be made out in the show — saying: “Oh, sod it! The bloody thing’s stuck again.”
And that’s what I love about it — the peace, the otherworldliness, the charming subversiveness of that little rock in the sky.
Now my own six-year-old is equally fascinated with that little world in the BBC’s relaunched version of The Clangers — “because they’re funny,” she says. But I think it’s because they’re like nothing on Earth at all.
Postgate’s son, Daniel, who has written some of the new episodes, says they retain that sense of “not sadness, exactly, but sweet melancholy”.
He’s hit the nail exactly on the head.