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BBC's TV tuck shop gives way to real life

Mention children's television and you are as likely to think of a school soap dealing with drugs, teenage pregnancy and bullying as you are of edifying Sunday afternoon serials based on the classics of English literature.

As the BBC celebrates 50 years of children's television this week, it can look back on earlier times when the landscape was very different. In the days when Reithian principles dictated a steady diet of respectable entertainment for well-behaved children, just about the only sign of rebellion was when Billy Bunter raided the tuck shop at his public school in search of cream buns.

Through the 1950s and 1960s the mix continued largely as before with such programmes as Blue Peter, which began in 1958, Animal Magic (1962) and Jackanory (1965).

But things changed quite suddenly in the 1970s when a serial portraying children at a London comprehensive hit the small screen. Grange Hill marked a breakthrough in children's television.

It showed schoolchildren involved in shoplifting and drugs and dealt with problems such as dyslexia. "The kids loved it," says Anna Home, now head of children's television at the BBC, who commissioned the programme. "But it caused outrage among adults. Parents hated it. But teachers were the most vociferous. They saw it as anti-teacher because it showed children behaving badly in class. They thought it would encourage them to play up."

The reaction is not surprising given, for example, one episode showing children standing on their desks in a protest against school uniforms.

But the critics misunderstood, says Ms Home. As with all responsible drama, the underlying message was a moral one showing that bad behaviour was wrong.

"Grange Hill was very much an attempt to relate to the world children were living in," says Ms Home. "Most drama until then had been based on traditional children's books. I felt that we should be doing something much more reflective of contemporary life.

"We showed kids in a realistic setting getting up to the kind of things they really did get up to rather than the kind of jolly japes Billy Bunter went in for."

The programme ushered in a more open attitude towards children's problems. "We give children a voice much more than we did when I joined the BBC in the 1960s," says Ms Home. "It's very healthy because children have every right to be heard and they have a lot of very interesting things to say about the world which can be very enlightening to adults."

But despite the change in climate, some things remain the same. One of the most popular programmes in the last year on children's BBC has been The Queen's Nose, based on the book by Dick King-Smith.

"It's an absolutely archetypal traditional children's programme," says Ms Home. "But it was hugely popular. Despite all the modernity, children still love a good story."

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