Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Can we imagine the sort of people that might live on a star like this? Let us go very close. Let us look and listen very carefully and perhaps...

I was a little disappointed a few weeks back when the Independent newspaper decided to turn a quote from Anne Wood in The Rise and Rise of the Independents into a item in its media gossip column, trying to make some of her comments about the way Michael Grade has historically dealt with children's TV into something which I felt belittled her grievance at the confused priorities of a market-driven yet nominally public service broadcasters. The item didn't take her or her argument seriously, concocting a frothy jokey piece based on a clash of personalities rather than ideologies- silly story teller versus pragmatic business man. As it happens Wood is a very pragmatic and successful business operator herself, you have to be to survive and thrive in the kids' TV environment we have now.

Parliament will be discussing children's TV again shortly, I fully expect to see that painted in some quarters as a heated debate on whether the right honourable member opposite remembers the names of all the Animal Kwackers, or that one with the ghost who... etc.

Well let's personalise this one as well. There's a reason why we should be taking the future of Children's television seriously, and that was illustrated by the fact that Oliver Postgate is being mourned today by people from at the very least their twenties to their fifties who know him only through his TV creations. His shows helped create the world views of a good two generations.
That's important stuff, and if, as at present, survival in the kid's TV world relies on producing programmes at a loss hoping that a profit might be turned on associated merchandise and global sales I fear the programmes that we see in future will suffer, and there's a danger that the imaginary worlds that are created for our children, and which help shape them, will be cheapened and commercialised by the process.

Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's Smallfilms was a cottage industry, with the personalities of its founders writ large in all it did. In those days merchandising meant books, annuals and comic strips (written and illustrated by Postgate and Firmin themselves). If you wanted a Clanger doll you knitted your own. Those days are long gone.
The series Clangers and Bagpuss are merchandised now as they never were in the years they were first screened and are now part of the brand management company Coolabi PLC's catalogue of properties. They are making money like never before, the sad truth is that the characters and stories they featured would certainly not have developed as they did if we'd had the children's TV market of today 50 years ago.

In short, if in future the sector can only support the heavily market researched, big money backed shows with a battery of associated merchandising that can be bought cheap, the individual creativity of people like Postgate and Firmin will be squeezed out and have its rough edges knocked off. To give another example- Wallace and Gromit (currently fronting the Christmas Radio Times) were not created by a committee second guessing what might prove most acceptable to the biggest worldwide audience but by one man (a Postgate and Firmin fan too, I should add) making a student film.

Postgate and Firmin offered surprise and delight, quirky tales from a favourite pair of quirky uncles, part of a diverse rage of voices that Children's TV supported then. Would you rather your child was read bedtime stories by real people or a committee? Committees produce some very good things, obviously, but I'd like to see them invent a Soup Dragon.

The Animal Kwackers were Bongo, Rory, Boots and Twang, I think the one with the ghost was either Come Back, Lucy or Nobody's House, you've not really given me enough to go on.

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