Posts Tagged With 'Alan Rothwell'

Hickory House

Posted in H is for... by TV Cream | 2 Comments »

LONG-SERVING domesticated whimsy cavalcade and major player in ITV’s 1970s children’s lunchtime slot from Granada. The titular cottage, distinctly wonky of gable and mildly psychedelic of decor, with chilling grinny-faced doors and giant candy-coloured polyurethane flora out front, passed through the hands of a series of coquettish female tenants, to wit: AMANDA “Alma” BARRIE (1973), NICOLETTE CHAFFEY (1974), LOUISE “WATCH” HALL-TAYLOR (1975-7), and JULIE NORTH (1977-8). Dwelling at the never-visited house down the road and perpetually popping over for a bowl of sugar was the one constant human figure, ALAN “PICTURE BOX” ROTHWELL (“Hello!”), whose Beckinsalian shaggy locks gradually transformed to a less raffish short back and sides as the series played out. Evidently higher up the pecking order were the house’s permanent occupants, namely the saveloy-nosed Dusty Mop (“a very houseproud fellow”), forever berating the slovenly habits of his female housemates in time-honoured ‘grumpy cockney janitor’ voice; the dozy, obscenely-schnozzed¬† Humphrey Cushion (“who eats too much and collects everything”) and the Handle Family, woolen gloves plus knitted heads who lived on the Welsh dresser. All came courtesy Barry Smith’s Theatre of Puppets.

The format was standard Children’s Live Action Short Type A: an object would turn up at the house, or a character would start to exhibit a troublesome trait, which would lead to a Lesson Being Learned, and a bit of paper-craft being made. Along the way there was a story, some rudimentary animation, and the obligatory grainy 16mm montage of “real life” kids engaged in relevant activities. What set the programme slightly apart from its highly similar stablemates was the loose, ad-libbed style of Rothwell and friend’s banter, which came about by accident due to the inevitable lack of rehearsal time available for the low-priority show, but enlivened proceedings considerably, especially compared with the earnestly stiff dialogue of, say, Rainbow. Said digressions remained – just about – on-message, though Barrie in particular was forever earning stern rebukes from the watchful representatives of the Lancashire Education Committee for recklessly jumping off low walls, referring obliquely to Edwardian shipping disasters, making vague double-entendres etc. A flutey theme tune completed the lunchtime cosiness. Pianist: Derek Hilton.

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Picture Box

Posted in P is for... by A to Z | 8 Comments »

NO-NONSENSE BRAN TUB of films from around the world selected to “stimulate the creative imagination of children” initially produced by BRIAN COSGROVE and presented by DOROTHY SMITH (first outing: “A Calm Country River in Holland”). In 1969, the friendly-but-dull ALAN ROTHWELL (catchphrase: “Hello!”) took over, kicking off with hardy perennial THE RED BALLOON, and remained in the driving seat for the duration. Shortly after that, the trademark opening blurred footage of a rotating jewelled casket was installed, accompanied by those timeless off-kilter strains of ‘Manege’ by Structures Sonores’ Lasry-Baschet. The Little Match Girl, The Forth Road Bridge, Amelia and the Angel and Czech animator Karel Zeman’s Mr Prokouk films (a sort of sub-Prof off of VISION ON pork pie hatted inventor) were regular visitors to the hypnotic world of Rothers. Alan took a breather in the spring of ’72 as BARRY SMITH and his theatre of puppets – then also doing sterling work with Al’s other kids’ show, HICKORY HOUSE – took over. In ’74 came activity pack back-up and programme advisers, as the education got serious. Marcel Marceau cropped up a lot, as did cartoon opera The Bricklayers Built a Crooked Chimney, Niko: Boy of Greece, that Canadian cartoon wherein one Dr. Philip Square tunnelling into the Earth’s core and propelling himself back again via the evaporated piss of his pet dog, and “a close, unusual look at the cow”. Survived into the late ’80s, though the move to Channel Four with the rest of the ITV schools’ output brought a new, brasher title sequence and a significant reduction in that queasy wonder quotient.

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Programmes for Schools and Colleges

Posted in Schools and Colleges by TV Cream | 5 Comments »

They’ve been with us since 1951, since the heady, closed-circuit days of Living in the Commonwealth and Frisch Begonnen. They were never big news in the world of entertainment, or epic works of the imagination. They were progammes with a job to do, and they got on with it, quietly, sensibly and, above all, cheaply. But for anyone between 25 and 45, these simple daytime knowledge boosters, just another element alongside textbooks, worksheets and slide-tape presentations in the teacher’s armoury, have lodged themselves in the memory decades after their humble mission to explain base eight and the apostrophe ended.

The ’70s and early ’80s were the heyday of ITV and BBC schools’ television. From basic beginnings, they had begun to explore new ways to teach dry maths and English principles, evolving into some downright odd forms that challenged anything in the ‘civilian’ telly world of weirdness. By 1980 each channel was making around 50 series for schools and colleges a year. 84 percent of primary schools and 69 percent of secondary schools were making use of daytime TV programmes in lessons, and 75 percent of secondary schools also had access to the mysterious and magical “television recorders”, which would later be the undoing of the daytime schools programme service, as programmes which were to be taped could be broadcast at three in the morning, freeing up the daytime slots for valuable Quincy repeats. Then the advent of Cash in the Attic and the Internet (and the two go in that order of importance, as indeed they always should) reduced the old daytime slots to a big fat zero on the ratings number line.

Some, er, kids watching a telly. ... and, um, ditto

One of the main reasons these programmes are so well remembered is that ritual that surrounded viewing them – either a huge Ferguson TX television, complete with sturdy metal stand, veneered protective swing doors and an odd sticker bearing the legend “Push from this end only”, was carefully wheeled into the classroom and chairs arranged around it, or the class was marched en masse down to the “television room”, which may have been a hall, the staff room, or the duplicating fluid-scented resources room, and sat cross-legged on the floor (or those splintery wooden chairs, if you were at Eton or somewhere recently patronised by an oil sheik) as the blue caption clocks counted down the final minute to transmission of Over To You, inevitably accompanied by the sounds of mock gunfire from trigger-happy pupils.

Other programmes could be viewed in solitary confinement, tucked up in bed on a sick day off school with a stack of Monster Fun comics, a bottle of Lucozade and ‘something eggy on a tray’ , the combination of school-missing joy and buttercup syrup making the likes of Maths Topics take on an otherworldly dimension. Here we’ve broken the programmes down into five rough formats, to help demonstrate how these most practical of programmes managed to evolve from the no-nonsense to the supremely bizarre.

 

This was very much the entry-level format for educational programming, and although its basic ‘point and shout’ dynamics looked out of date even by the time the first educational broadcasts were cranked out on closed-circuit systems, it still lasted well into the ’80s. Essentially it was a simple, straight-ahead illustrated talk, presented much as a straight-ahead teacher might conduct a lesson. Science and maths were the main subjects to receive this treatment, where a basic, no-nonsense dissemination of facts was the order of the day. Ties will be worn by all pupils.

ITV’s Experiment and the BBC’s Chemistry (and Biology and Physics) in Action are textbook examples of the genre, in all senses. Experiment was so down-to-earth it didn’t even bother with such frivolities as a theme tune or in-vision presenter. Instead, for the most part, educational film producer Jack Smith’s disembodied voice guided the class through some on-screen chemistry experiments, conducted in a plain studio by a faceless white-coated experimenter, the equipment forever shot in impersonal close-up, with periodic silent pauses as Smith instructed the class to “write that down!” when a result or measurement was shown. Smith took his 16mm cine camera and array of close-up lenses outdoors, too, for programmes like A Place To Live, which explored the fauna subsisting in hostile environments like industrial estates, and the self-explanatory Pond Life, still keeping that economical line regarding presentation.

Brown was the colour Write that down, Popper.

The BBC’s Maths Topics, meanwhile, went a stage further into abstraction by dispensing almost completely with live action footage in favour of luminous orange and white animated diagrams which explained the likes of trigonometry and probability while the slightly more avuncular tones of Fergus ‘Bit part as a priest in the Henry Sellers episode of Father Ted‘ O’Kelly filled in the details. All these programmes were “designed specifically for recorded use”, and, while a chore to sit through in school, were strangely mesmerising to the flu-addled off-school child of a mid-morning.

“Look! Can You See the Suffocating Tedium?”

It’s the dullest possible format nevertheless (geographical efforts in this vein, in particular, such as Landmarks and The Geography Programme, numbered among the square-eyed pupil’s most-hated programmes), so how could you spice it up a bit? Sex? That wasn’t the thinking behind Grampian TV’s Living and Growing, obviously, but this ‘personal growth and development’ series took the young adult through the basics of puberty via the same deadpan voiceover method, although here the visuals were more likely to prevent any dozing off at the back of the class…Facts for Life: Brian Trueman, some indeterminate 'nature', and some very, very bored children. (Thousands more not pictured.)

An injection of charisma is a way to pep things up, and many middle school English programmes – particularly ITV’s Middle English and The English Programme - reeled in the likes of Roger McGough, Michael Rosen and Phil Redmond to give a bit of authority to the subject. This sober format is often labelled as the most forgettable, dull type of secondary educational telly, but on well-remembered primary school programme, which is still around today, took the disembodied voice-over format straight off.

Chris Tarrant, at the time still a little-known regional DJ and jobbing local presenter, added his matey tones to ATV’s Stop, Look and Listen, an extended version of Playschool‘s ‘through the arched window’ look-at-life filmed inserts aimed at ‘slow learners’, who no doubt grooved along on the resources room carpet to its succession of jaunty theme tunes, latterly a well-remembered Focus-type flutey number. Similar treatments served for the forgettable likes of Look Around and Look, Look and Look Again, all of which led to the ‘lecture’ format being parodied, some twenty-odd years later, by the BBC’s Look Around You.

Still aping the average school lesson, but at least trying to be a bit more inclusive and welcoming, were shows that filled the studio with kids of the same age as the viewers, with a main presenter or two taking the surrogate teacher’s role. One thing they carefully avoided, however, was recreating an actual classroom set. Many were filmed in the plain studio limbo familiar to children from ‘civilian’ programmes such as Blue Peter and Playschool (some even used familiar presenters from those shows, such as Leslie Judd in Let’s Go Maths and various Home Economics-related series such as, er, Home Economics).

“Now, Let’s Hear That Again.. and This Time, Without the Music!”

Heading the faux-classroom charge were shows that encouraged audience participation while the programme was airing – we’re talking singalong, and we’re talking Music Time, The Music Arcade, Into Music et al, the televisual reworkings of the BBC’s old Time and Tune radio/cassette programmes. In a studio full of cross-legged kids, their faces betraying confusion, boredom and just a hint of toilet-related discomfort, two presenters, their demeanour and attire attempting to straddle the gulf between your slightly hippyish Magpie presenter and your uptight coffee-abusing music teacher, perched themselves on the regulation backless block seating and led the singing of simple tunes with the minimum of frills and fuss.

Clap along with me... Now let's hear that again... WITHOUT the music

A slightly warmer, less formal affair, certainly, but the looks on the in-studio kids’ faces as Ian Humphries, straight-laced soprano Katherine Harries and bubble-permed Peter Coombe (plus an in-studio band of session musos inevitably led by the redoubtable Jonathan Cohen) for Music Time, Lucy Skeaping and Tim ‘Mike and Angelo‘ Whitnall and an unlikely Rob ‘Turnabout‘ Curling for Into Music, hurried them from one glockenspiel practice session to the Guess the Instrument game said it all – apart from one immensely popular trip to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to watch Peter Howell remix the Dr Who theme, anything resembling fun was nowhere to be had.

Broadly speaking, the same class and teacher dynamic was adopted by such forgettable efforts as ITV’s general primary school ‘look at life’-ers Finding Out and Seeing and Doing, the BBC’s science and maths junior show Thinkabout, and the basic English literacy programme WaLRUS (the rather forced acronym stood for Writing and Listening, Reading, Understanding, Speaking), which started up to Jethro Tull’s ‘Living In the Past’ – just what was it with schools programme makers and flute-driven prog-folk?

“Oh Charlie, Really!”

Taking a bit more effort to lift this fake class situation out of the doldrums, primary school reading BBC show Words and Pictures, which was, at least in its post-1974 format (more on its origins later) ostensibly set in a hazily defined children’s library-cum-activity-centre, jazzed up the otherwise prosaic scenario with Charlie, the faintly anarchic, bow-tied blue-screen superimposed 2-D sponge puppet assistant to Henry Woolf, Vicky Ireland and co. (to help the informal air, they were always ‘caught by surprise’ by the camera at the start of the programme as they were ‘waiting for the children to arrive’).

Thus the meat-and-potatoes task of learning about ‘-ing’ words could be largely palmed off on animated inserts, often with the lyrical talents of a Derek Griffiths (Look and Read‘s almost-too-celebrated ‘Magic E’) or Fred Harris (Words and Pictures‘ seminal ‘Brave, Brave Mouse’), while the ‘original odd couple’ in the studio could clown around… within pedagogically acceptable limits, of course.

Charles Collingwood's severed torso discovered How was Charlie animated, exactly?

Now you had a bit of legit irreverence – you couldn’t show a child wantonly getting the wrong end of the stick, goofing off or mucking about, and the teacher-substitute certainly couldn’t get away with it, but a cartoon/puppet could easily come capering on for a spot of mucking about when the pace flagged, then simply leap off screen with a high-pitched ‘wa-hey!’ when the time came to practice those letter ‘m’s. The puppet-stooge format even crossed over with its showbiz roots with the likes of Reading With Lenny the Lion and Let’s Read with Basil Brush, where the business of going over a simple storybook on screen was enlivened with a bit of celebrity glove-operated crosstalk.

Filming with a studio full of distracted six-year-olds can be a time-consuming business, of course, so it’s not surprising most schools programmes ditched the classroom approach and aped the bog-standard presenter-to-camera format familiar to kids via the likes of Play School et al. Watch!, to take one of the fondest-remembered examples, provided junior pupils with a weekly dose of ‘topic work’ on a different subject each term – Darwin and evolution, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (who was, as we all recall, all alone, and all on his own), various overseas cultures and assorted historical periods (the Romans, feudal Britain) were among the areas covered by a smiling man-woman duo (most famously the graWhat's this? 'You and Me' branded carrier bags? In 1978? Someone call Jack Jones!nd-sounding yet relentlessly chummy Louise Hall Taylor and James Earl Adair).

As well as the informal clothing (open-necked shirt or bright polo-neck for the ‘boys’, floral prints and roomy blouses for the ‘girls’), the trick used here was to have the presenters appearing to learn along with the viewers, rather than declaiming facts and figures straight at them. They didn’t have all the answers, but could find them out, thus (hopefully) spurring the children on to further study after the programme. ITV got in on this junior general studies act with the less well-remembered Over To You, with Wendy ‘Zoe off Dr Who‘ Padbury and friend conversing in an all-black studio, which proved less memorable than the titles, in which a Yellow Submarine-style animated hand/face creature in a woolly hat rushed around the screen to a burbling synth theme.

This sort of relaxed approach helped make the weekly (if you were lucky) TV session more engaging than a simple excuse to doze off in the darkened resources room. When it worked, at least. But for every My World (a notoriously dull moralising magazine-ish morning programme which had two strands, “Stories” and “Real Life”, hosted by an over-earnest pullovered chap who bade an emetic “take care!” at the end of each show), or Near and Far (geography-based projects, of which the rather alarming Radiophonic theme tune and zoomy-out title sequence is the only part that made much impression), there was a Merry-Go-Round or a Zig Zag (themed general investigations similar to Watch! but aimed at the middle school crowd).

The Brave, Brave Mouse (of 'marching round the house' fame) See what you do with me...

Human-puppet interaction was happening all over the shop, in the Wordy segments of Look and Read (of which more later) or the dialogues between Duncan the Dragon and human interlocutors (such as Michael ‘No 73‘ Maynard, Anton ‘Space 1999‘ Phillips and the great Derek Griffiths) of You and Me, which also used puppet double-headers (the animated Crow and Alice, who spoke to live action figures via intercut film (with voiceovers from the authoritatively avuncular Nigel ‘Shillingbury Tales‘ Lambert), the slightly annoying Purrfector, and later the traditionally-operated market stall monkeys Cosmo and Dibs, minded by the likes of Kate Robbins and Gary Wilmot).

“Let’s See How Malcolm’s Been Getting Along in That Flooded Cemetery.”

The best example of this ‘aunts and uncles’ approach is probably the BBC’s early ’80s middle school science show Science Workshop. From a vaguely Blue Peterish studio base, a trio of friendly adults launched investigations into phenomena such as colour, mass, and that old dependable, the materials kit. Not dissimilar to a raft of other schools’ shows (eg the Max Mason-fronted Starting Science), but there was a little personality dynamic worked up among the protagonists that owed something to Purves/Singleton/Noakes-era Blue Peter, and which proved very popular with the kids. Taking the ‘fatherly’ role was the redoubtable Derbyshire-born character actor David ‘Mr Juliet Bravo’ Hargreaves, who marshalled the proceedings in a kindly sort of no-nonsense manner.

The posh, sisterly one The big, sensible one

Former How! presenter and vocalist with The Ladybirds Marion Davies took the glamorous Singleton/Judd position, acting as a ‘softer’ voice of reason, and mediating between the serious Hargreaves and Malcolm McFee, an ex-Please Sir! pupil, who took the mantle of the ‘Shop‘s ‘roving reporter’ and, more importantly, clown. Children settled down in front of the bouncing cartoon elephant titles safe in the knowledge that at some point Our Malcolm would be guaranteed to fall in a canal, get covered in paint, or have some other humiliation heaped on him. A simple enough bit of ‘jazzing up’, really, but when it comes to the notoriously ‘difficult’ subjects of maths and science, anything that’ll keep a fidgety kid looking at the screen long enough to grasp the concept of areas and gravity is desirable to say the least. Perhaps that’s why it’s these subjects that have produced some of the oddest schools’ programmes of all…

It’s 1979, and you’re landed with the task of writing a series of television programmes for the BBC teaching primary school children about basic mathematics. You’re given a comprehensive dossier, drawn up by the Beeb’s educational experts, detailing precisely the topics that should be covered in each programme – the number line, basic geometry, volume and mass, and so forth. One proviso – “Make it interesting,” says a commissioner. “Something children can enjoy, not a boring maths lesson.”

It's that man again It got worse from here on in

This was the task that Alex Glasgow, famed socialist Tyneside folk singer-songwriter and long-term children’s programme contributor, was faced with. He came up with one of the best-remembered (albeit in a “what on Earth was that?” way) educational programmes, namely Maths-In-A-Box. The premise was one that’s been used many times since – an alien lands on Earth, and, befriended by two children, is taught the rudiments of science. Powka, the ET in question, took the form of a genial-but-batty old man in op-art overalls, a Dr Who/Johnny Ball type, who travelled around in a TARDiS-like black and white box the size of a die (on the outside). The “ship” had a talking computer, which conveniently filled in some of the educational gaps, and supplied memorable if (intentionally) awful-sounding songs at the end of each episode. Throw in the occasional bit of location work (eg. ‘mass’ explained by a trip to a West Country funicular railway) and the abstract maths concepts were put over in a simple way, with a bit of comedy and adventure to sugar the pill.

“Can’t Stop – Got to Round Up These Figures Before the Council Get Here!”

Many other maths programmes went down the drama route. The BBC’s mid-’80s series Maths File followed the capers of police inspector Fred Newton (Tony Hughes again), a moustachioed bumbling fool of Clouseau-esque proportions (albeit with a Surbiton accent), who managed to solve his maths-related cases only with the clandestine help of long-suffering WPC Susan Jones, while Hilda Braid shambled about in the background with a mop as the archetypal ‘charwoman who knows more than she lets on’. Such a triumvirate of arithmetical diagnostic talent pitted their wits against villains whose elaborate felonies always involved multiplying areas, number lines and conveniently elementary stuff like that – the existence of a late-night, Sweeney-esque task force that dealt in trigonometry trafficking and calculus assault was a tempting possibility never realised.

Imagine boggly electro backing and you're there Jack 'n' Arfur round their figures the wrong way... again!

Wondermaths, another sci-fi show, featured another singer, Christopher Lillicrap, working out mathematical conundra in an outer space environment with a dim-witted robot sidekick. More down to Earth were the likes of Maths Counts and Everyday Maths, two largely location-based shows that followed the everyday lives of a group of working class adults (Roy Kinnear in the former, and Jack ‘Pufnstuff‘ Wild and Arthur English in the latter, were among the casts at various times) grappling with estimating bills, pocket calculators and timber measurements. Although these were made as adult education programmes (in the manner of On The Move or Make It Count) they were just at home being aired in the schools’ timeslot.

At the other end of the scale, Capricorn Game, a rather odd series for the very young, introduced concepts such as pairs and rudimentary counting via the odd device of a middle-aged couple being set a treasure trail series of real-world problems by the titular gnomic animated wizard and his talking goat-headed umbrella, by way of yet another cringe-inducing song – “I’m Mr Capricorn, and I’m a clever fella/I wear a coat that’s torn and I found a magic umbrella,” vouchsafed our host in the title ditty, without a care that the evidence for his supposed genius pointed rather to scruffiness and blind luck respectively. But when you’re a gnomic educational cartoon character (albeit one who, due to budgetary restrictions, appeared in the programme introduction played by a bloke in a freakish full-sized costume), you can get away with murder.

“Mam! The Mineshaft’s Just Caved In! Dad’s Trapped! Oh, and Someone’s Invented the Wireless.”

Excuse me, is this the series on the Edwardian era>It wasn’t just maths that got the ‘adventure’ format. Every damned dull-as-Abzugsgrabenwasser foreign language programme, from Encounter to Tele-Journal to Kontakte had little stilted scenes of miniature crisis played out by third-string Equity types who ‘had a bit of Italian’ on their CV, but enough about those. Before it settled down to the ‘library’ scenario detailed above, Words and Pictures ran a series called Sam On Boff’s Island, starring Tony Robinson as an everyman marooned on an island populated by a society of weird puppet fauna (the titular Boffs) with their own range of linguistic quirks and obsessions.

Going to the other extreme of school life, Central’s Starting Out bested the usual drab lecture-style “get a job” programmes (Going To Work, Job Bank, Making a Living, A Job Worth Doing?, It’s Your Choice et al) by dramatising the lives of a family who’d moved from the recession-stricken north to London, and the tribulations they faced (the dole, low-wage supermarket jobs, further education, money management) with considerable aplomb, rather in the manner of a more practically-minded Tucker’s Luck, complete with a punked-up theme tune and a title sequence that took about three minutes explaining the convoluted situation.

At their best, dramatised schools’ programmes succeeded in drawing in an inevitably distracted audience, often taking them into areas of drama they wouldn’t look at twice in the context of non-educational TV. Yorkshire TV’s How We Used to Live, a series of period dramas revolving around the lives of family members, and set in various eras from the Victorian age through Edwardian and Second World War series to the 1960s, is probably the best of the lot.

On a fairly low budget, reasonably authentic settings and costumes were conjured up, and the fictional ups and downs of the protagonists dovetailed very neatly in with the historical events and issues that were covered (early shows included a ‘breather’ segment of narrated showreel footage at the start of each programme and halfway through, to impart some solid facts). Yorkshire showed the series after News at 10 at one point as it had proved such a popular programme in the schools slot.

Joe and the Sheep Rustlers! LOOK! RARE! And so insufferably on... Your actual boy from actual space, teleporting, no doubt

But mention schools drama and most people will think of Look and Read, the literacy-boosting series of adventure dramas (written by such noteables as Richard ‘Catweazle‘ Carpenter and Andrew ‘Peculiar Practice‘ Davies) reminiscent of the old Children’s Film Foundation matinees. Here the drama was of a more basic standard, and the aspects of grammar and punctuation were obviously shoehorned in, but it was all put together capably enough for stories like Joe and the Sheep Rustlers (basic early-doors Famous Five-ish rural crook foiling); The Boy From Space (well-loved and ‘reversioned’ sickly-looking junior alien espionage with reversed writing gimmick); and Sky Hunter (modish ‘save the Peregrine Falcon’ Welsh egg collecting inrigue with yet more backwards business) to linger in the minds of viewers for years afterwards.

Other shows offered drama for drama’s sake, to stimulate classroom discussion (the long-running, acclaimed ‘junior Play for Today‘ umbrella series of plays for secondary schools, Scene) or, at the other end of the spectrum, a bit of good old PVA-glue-and-spatula topic work (the ragbag of international, often entirely silent and quite mesmerising, short films introduced by Alan Rothwell in Picture Box).

Lastly, there are shows that decided to take the main problem of teaching kids – their attention spans are easily stretched to snapping, especially in a school situation – and decided to throw a little bit of everything into the mix, never letting the pace slacken, in the manner of a Kenny Everett Show (or, more realistically, a Johnny Ball programme such as Think of a Number, one of the best after-hours educational kids’ programmes there ever was).

Producer David Roseveare was one of the first to hit upon this idea in the ’70s, with the arithmetical hotch potches Mathshow and Maths Trail, which combined animated geometry skits with real-life pastiches. Tony Hughes adopted a copyright-dodging mix of the Baker and Troughton looks with Jon Pertwee’s voice and a prop yoyo (though they used the original music) for the well-loved Who parody Dr Where.

Your generic spoof titles Tony Hughes goes for the Baker-Troughton mash-up

The Doctor and assistant Sally-Ann (Jacqueline Clarke) were called in by The Brigadier (Charles Collingwood) to solve such esoteric phenomena as a hillside where people disappeared when crossing a certain line (solved by placing of paper plates and ‘learning about symmetry’) and a roulette wheel always coming up 23 (solved by cutting up a newspaper and reading out random words, Bowie-style, till they stopped making sense and probability was restored). Hughes was also the loud-suited, Jewish mathematical entrepreneur Des Cartes, full of crummy schemes such as kitting out his singing sensation charge Jet Astro (‘Zoom, baby!’) with ‘a few new numbers’. All this was linked, as if there wasn’t enough visual confusion, by explanatory animations narrated by a talking square and triangle.

“What These Kids Need is a Dick Tahta!”

A series of shows featuring redoubtable kids’ presenter and science enthusiast Fred Harris – Leapfrog, Basic Maths, Junior Maths and later Video Maths - again mixed animated segments. The man to blame for these weird audio-visual assaults were producer Paul Martin, mathematician Dick Tahta, and his colleagues at the Leapfrogs Group – those brainy educationalists who, round about 1972, ensured blackboards full of long division were replaced in junior schools by coloured blocks, bright wallcharts and the phrase ‘ten-ty’ to mean ‘one hundred’.

Shadow education secretary Margaret Thatcher was not impressed, but Dick didn’t stop there, collating all the most ‘progressive’ ideas in junior maths teaching – especially the hypnotic self-drawing-line geometry films of Jean-Louis Nicolet – into Leapfrog, a sort of mad, child-friendly jamboree of animation (marching squares, base 2 counting, elegant geometrical ballet) usually set to the spooky, off-kilter blues electronica of Ron Geesin, and in-studio investigations into shapes, patterns and whatnot from the estimable Harris and Sheelagh Gilbey (with help from ‘Sylveste’ McCoy).

It all followed one Professor Caleb Gattegno’s ‘psychoanalytic’ approach to teaching maths. Or to put it another way, it was downright weird, and got under your skin after a few episodes whether you were mesmerised by it, or repelled by the weird clangy noises and shapes that moved on their own. As to its effectiveness at teaching its chosen subject, well, God knows – we watched them all and we still can’t count.

Pedagogic visual tomfoolery... ... of a wacky yet educationally sound vintage

More in the ‘normality zone’ of mathematical lecture were Mathscore One and Two, which numbered Nuts In May star Roger Sloman among its presenters, adopted a vague footballing theme (‘Your Mathscore is now one!’), with presenters slipping in and out of costume to enact demonstrative comic vignettes about square numbers, tessellation and that old favourite, the Chinese emperor with the ever-doubling amounts of grains of rice on his chessboard, which turned up on many programmes, always following the same pattern. ‘One, two, four, eight… hmm, this is a bit dull’, then: ‘Oops! Look’s like I’ll need a bigger board!’ leading up to the inevitable studio-sized checkerboard with two-ton crates of rice being lowered from the ceiling, ‘and we’re not even half way through!’

This quickly became the schools maths equivalent of My Old Man Said Follow the Van, wheeled out to the joyous applause of recognition on a regular basis. ‘If in doubt, get the rice out,’ was the familiar slogan up and down the corridors of the West Tower in Television Centre.

“No, He’s Having Some Nice Brogues, and That’s That.” “But Muuuuum…”

Many other shows used the ‘bits and bobs’ approach to flesh out their basic format – Words and Pictures with their animated animals, Look and Read’s illustrated songs, etc. One sketch show even took the idea of kids getting involved to an extreme – ITV’s Good Health played like a cross between Why Don’t You..? and You Must Be Joking!, albeit more informative than the former and much less abrasive than the latter.

Taking the amorphous form of a revue put on by a class of children (often, quite reasonably but inexplicably, from a Wolverhampton junior school), and sometimes even documenting the rehearsal and construction of the show, this bitty little programme managed to throw up a fair few memorable moments.

Amazing how inventive this seemed... at school Dunno what these are

There was a bizarre play about germs of the ‘don leotards and polystyrene ‘antibody’ headdresses, then run around the school hall rugby tackling each other’ variety. There was a slightly – only slightly, mind – more organised production in similar vein about dental decay, with white-coated kids manhandling a giant toothbrush with which to ‘scrub’ their dentally-acting peers. There was also a huge, revolting, working model of a human digestive system built from scrap materials, which was surely condemned by the council the moment the credits had finished rolling.

Most significantly, however – although this may just have been because the programme in question happened to be repeated ad infinitum – was Good Health Talking Feet, a chiropody-themed laugh in hosted by two feet with faces drawn on them, and featuring the cautionary Blockaboots sketch. This mini-epic, satirising the early 1970s trend for uncomfortable platform shoes at the expense of ‘some nice, sensible brogues’, was at once a health education film and a touch of cheeky anti-capitalist satire. A shoe company boardroom, presided over by a junior Adrian Chiles figure, ruthlessly rejects a variety of shoe designs until the titular six-inch soled sandals are decided upon, the Brummie mini-mogul’s eyes twinkling gleefully at the magnificent simplicity of the cash-generating folly. ‘They’re in fashion today!’ Needless to say, someone falls over, and all hell breaks loose. There’s a moral there, possibly.

Dental Decay - the Musical! It gets better in act 2

Neither achingly funny or particularly well-made, Good Health was nevertheless a much enjoyed and well-regarded show (the Blockaboots edition was still being syndicated well into the 1980s, long after its fashion satire had ceased to be relevant), simply because it showed some kids, mucking about – which was just what its audience wanted to be doing instead of being stuck in a black-shuttered room at 11AM on a school morning. In other words, it did what all successful educational TV did – it made the pupil feel as if he/she wasn’t being taught at all. Admittedly, that’s because, quite often, he/she indeed wasn’t learning anything at all, but you can’t have everything, can you?

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Highway Robbery

Posted in Play For Today by TV Cream | No Comments »

John Collin fights the council when they plan to demolish his home to make way for a bypass in Michael O’Neill and Jeremy Seabrook’s drama. With June Brown and Alan Rothwell.

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