Television age that led to literacy

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Programmes such as Play School set down traditions that still persist. Diana Hinds talks to the pioneers.

As a pre-school child in the mid-Sixties, I can remember my delight at being asked by a friend of my mother's if I wanted to go home with her to watch Play School. Play School had only just started on BBC2, a channel we did not yet have on our set, and to watch it was an enormous treat.

Just as Play School was opening up a new world of possibilities for children's television, and for children like myself, Bridget Plowden and her team were already at work on their report. The timing was by no means coincidental. Some of the ideas that the Plowden report enshrined - most famously, that children needed to take an active part in their learning - were already beginning, if indirectly, to contribute to a mini-renaissance in children's broadcasting and publishing.

According to Monica Simms, head of children's television at the BBC from 1968 to 1979, Play School was much influenced by contemporary thinking about pre-school education, and the importance of allowing children to find things out for themselves. "That was why we had the presenters talking directly to children at home, and inviting responses from them, rather than simply letting children 'overhear' what was being said."

The belief that the audience mattered had always been central to the BBC's philosophy, says Biddy Baxter, editor of Blue Peter from 1961 to 1988. Children's Hour on the radio and, in the Fifties, Watch with Mother on television laid the foundations for the successes of the Sixties.

But with Play School, and perhaps even more with Blue Peter, the emphasis on involving the viewer had never been stronger. Blue Peter began in the late Fifties as a 15-minute programme incorporating a story; by the early Sixties, it was evolving into the programme still watched and loved today.

"We made a deliberate attempt to make Blue Peter belong to its audience, " says Ms Baxter. "We were saying, this is your programme, your opinions matter - and we didn't underestimate the audience's intelligence. There had never been anything quite like this on television before."

An essential part of the programme's commitment to its viewers was the determination to answer every letter personally. This was a massive undertaking, but one that paid off, as the letters were soon providing around 70 per cent of the programme material.

Anna Home, now head of BBC children's television, moved over from radio in 1965 and within months found herself directing Play School. "Although we were only peripherally aware of the Plowden report at the time, ideas of children finding out for themselves certainly underlaid what we were doing," she says.

She remembers the Sixties as "a very heady time of expansion" in broadcasting. "Television was really taking off. It was a time, unlike now, when there was money around - although not very much in today's terms - the technology was changing, and it was possible to experiment."

Television was viewed at the time with a certain suspicion by the book world, many people believing that if children watched it, they would stop reading books. But the Sixties was also a tremendously fertile decade in children's literature, and enlightened broadcasters such as Ms Home were able to join forces with publishers and librarians, giving rise to the highly successful Jackanory.

Jackanory was a programme devoted to pure story-telling, in which well-known actors were matched with stories from around the world, English classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh, modern classics such as Philippa Pearce's A Dog So Small, and Jackanory "originals".

"At first people were unwilling to participate in this unknown programme, " Ms Home recalls. "But when actors realised it was the opportunity to have 15 minutes' solo experience on television, they began to queue up to get on it, and having done a Jackanory became a bit like having done your Desert Island Discs."

Out of Jackanory, grew semi-dramatised programmes such as Nina Bawden's The Witch's Daughter. Then came a revival of BBC children's book-based drama, unforgettable to anyone fortunate enough to have been a child at the time, including Carrie's War, Lizzie Dripping, The Peppermint Pig, The Children of Green Knowe.

In children's publishing, meanwhile, one woman had done more than most to get the ball rolling. The late Kaye Webb joined Puffin in 1961, taking over from Eleanor Graham, who, though discriminating, had published only a dozen or so new titles a year for the previous 20 years. "The thing about Kay Webb was that she was a supreme marketeer as well as editor," says Liz Attenborough, head of Puffin from 1983 to 1995. "Starting the Puffin Club was a stroke of marketing genius."

The first club of its kind, what the Puffin Club gave children - not unlike Blue Peter in this respect - was the feeling that it mattered to the club what they thought. Letters received funny, personal replies, and there were opportunities to meet Ms Webb, for instance, on a Yorkshire moor.

The Puffin list expanded rapidly, and many more books got published in paperback, making them immediately more accessible and giving children the important feeling of ownership. The mid-Sixties also saw the emergence of the full-colour picture paperback, and such illustrators as Brian Wildsmith and Maurice Sendak were quick to seize on the potential.

"There was an enormous sense of optimism and enthusiasm, which was all part of the climate of Plowden," recalls Margaret Meek, now emeritus reader in education at London University, who was then beginning research on children's reading.

"With the introduction of the tape- recorder, children's language could be captured and studied for the first time. There was a feeling that, if children were going to read, they needed to have texts that would to some extent reflect their life. People began to write seriously for children, with an underpinning of critical assessment. There was a feeling that all this new knowledge was going to make children's learning more pleasurable, and they would read because they liked it."

Much, of course, has changed since Plowden. The Puffin Club was superceded by other clubs, and was closed down by Ms Attenborough in 1983; and while new children's books still crowd the shelves (with increasingly short shelf-lives), there is more budget-driven caution among publishers.

Jackanory is no longer on the air, unable to hold its audience in the increasing battle for ratings with more channels, more cartoons and easier forms of viewing.

But Blue Peter and Newsround (a success from the Seventies) still command a loyal following. And although the costs of making drama become increasingly hard to sustain, there have been recent successes, such as The Borrowers and Little Lord Fauntleroy, and, on a less literary note, The Demon Headmaster and The Queen's Nose.

"The Sixties was a time when we established some important traditions, and these traditions persist," says Ms Home. "But there is constant financial and commercial pressure now, and I think it will become much more difficult to do the big set piece."

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