Peaks and troughs in the schedules

21st February 2003 at 00:00
The Hill and Beyond: children's television drama - an encyclopaedia. By Mark J Docherty and Alistair D McGown. BFI Publishing pound;55 (hbk), pound;19.99 (pbk).

There is a temptation, in looking back at children's television, to see it as being in continuous decline from a golden age. The authors of this compendious study are aware of the dangers of such nostalgia. "Let's not forget," they warn, "that children's drama died altogether in the 60s on the BBC, and the production values, budgets and pacing of much early 70s programming left a lot to be desired." The story of children's television drama is one of high points and troughs, timidity and experimentation, a bit of new ground and a lot of old hat.

Freda Lingstrom, followed by Owen Reed, shaped the BBC children's department in the 1950s. Lingstrom was hostile to Enid Blyton and to American imports; Reed liked classic serials. By the end of the decade, the two channels had more or less mapped out their territory: ITV did Biggles (Granada, 1960), while the BBC did The Railway Children (for the second time, 1958). It is in the nature of such neat divisions, however, that they are unlikely to survive for long once they are perceived to exist. The turning point came with the arrival of Stuart Hood as controller of television at the BBC in 1962. Hood saw the department as hopelessly unadventurous and, in 1964, abolished it. He more or less abolished children's drama on the BBC at the same time.

When it resumed, it did so in force. If there was a golden age, for the authors, it came in the 1970s, with Grange Hill (1978), the programme that gives this book its title and earns the longest of the 250 or so articles in the reference section. All have an introduction outlining the programme, followed by details of cast, production team, transmission and, where applicable, a breakdown of each episode: all invaluable for writers on television history.

Grange Hill represents the high point, but Docherty and McGown insist it was neither the first children's drama to depict working-class characters nor the only one to tackle controversial themes. They also point out that "too many gritty, realistic contemporary pieces would quickly become as boring as a constant stream of Blyton adventures". Later, they regret the tendency for the drama serial to be replaced by soap opera, which means a once innovatory series can outlive its usefulness.

Today, they see Grange Hill and Byker Grove "hogging the limited drama slots available" and proving a disincentive to innovation. On the whole, the audience is best served by variety, but the increasing pressure of market forces over the past 20 years has not encouraged this, despite the proliferation of channels; the contribution of satellite television to children's drama has been nil.

And if reading this book reminds us of some of the highlights of our own childhood viewing, then all the more reason for us to demand such programmes for today's children, from realistic drama to fantasy, comedy and literary adaptations.

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