Dialogue-shunning artistic hotchpotch that took the most unpromising of briefs and created a nostalgia monolith. Commissioned by BBC children’s department head Ursula Eason to jazz up worthy but unremarkable longstanding monthly 15-minute magazine FOR DEAF CHILDREN, producer PATRICK DOWLING slung out the faintly patronising, “does he take sugar?” elements (lots of smiley slow talking to camera), gave presenter PAT KEYSELL a bigger role, and let the visuals do the talking. It wasn’t an overnight revolution, but after a couple of years on air, which saw the recruitment of lanky mime artist and all-round suspenders-wearing adrenaline factory BEN BENISON and laid back paint-and-pastel polymath TONY HART, the newly styled Vision On began to outstrip its meat-and-potatoes educational origins.
By 1970 the format, taking its cue in part from SESAME STREET, had evolved into the familiar loose assemblage of bits of film surrounded by studio business, which comprised a big Tone-based painting, a bit of mime with Benison and Keysell, a running gag (usually involving a contraption created by venerable straw boatered inventor and missing link between Vivian Stanshall and Mike Harding WILF LUNN running amok) and of course that non-returnable vibraphone tinged viewer showcase The Gallery. And, if all else failed, they could always bring on The Woofenpuss: a feather boa being pulled about the set on a string accompanied by a Swanee whistle, which Dowling borrowed from Charlie Cairoli and would recycle on his summer holiday suggestion box WHY DON’T YOU..?
If the studio business was merrily oddball, the film segments punched their way straight into the febrile junior subconscious. The jazzy montage of hand held 16mm abstract shots of buses and manhole covers was easy enough to swallow, and Tone’s alfresco attempts to paint a giant elephant with a football pitch line marker were positively therapeutic stuff, but after that the weirdness mounted. DAVID CLEVELAND’s maniacal Prof put the wind up a few infants when his undercranked demonstrations of bad science ended in stylised self-mutilation. But it was the plethora of cartoon shorts, coming from as near as David Sproxton and Peter Lord’s pre-Aardman set-up just down the road and as far as darkest Czechoslovakia, that played a game of Russian roulette with the vulnerable child’s mind.
Some of it was fine. Humphrey Umbrage, a photo-montage tortoise, served up pure whimsy, and The Burbles, chatty unseen creatures who initially dwelt within a grandfather clock but later moved into tins of paint, were guilty of nothing more mentally wrong-footing than the occasional puzzling half-joke. But what of the poor cubist-headed city gent who was forever harassed by a malevolent cuckoo clock with a penchant for shedding its numbers? Or the bizarre lightbulb-headed pipe cleaner duo Filopat and Patafil? All were soundtracked with some judiciously selected avant garde instrumental workouts, which if anything amplified the sense of inexplicable unease. (Even the off-kilter supper club stylings of Gallery theme Left Bank 2, which went on to become a ready-made signifier of retro-sophisticated tweeness to a generation who weren’t even born when Pat signed her last goodbye, was, in context, an aural incubator of mounting disquiet. Listen to it again, and note its woozy tendency to slip in and out of tune at random. Then imagine an endless row of macaroni acrobats and cotton wool sheep slowly gliding past. See what we mean?) Topping the nightmare stakes was Grogg, an ingenious frog-cum-bug made from the programme’s cursively written title reflected in a mirror, which provided older children with hours of frustration trying to replicate it on pencil cases, and their younger brethren with nights of sleepless horror in anticipation of it coming up the stairs to eat them. See, this is what happens when you unleash the imagination, you impetuous fools!
As the years wore on, Benison left to be replaced by SYLVESTER ‘Sylveste’ MCCOY, who couldn’t compete in the gangliness stakes but made up for it with a nice line in trouserless masochism. Twelve years and plenty of international televisual gongs later, Dowling sensed a format running out of fresh ideas, and canned the ‘On in favour of the marginally less bizarre and much less frenetic Tone showcase TAKE HART, which corrected Vision On’s one major flaw by allowing Tony some proper vocal contact with the viewer at home, thus tapping into a well of breezy avuncularity that would power the children’s department for a quarter of a century. Imperial phase ‘On director CLIVE DOIG, meanwhile, took McCoy and Lunn with him to the fresh pastures of JIGSAW, doing for words what Vision On had done for pictures. All fine stuff, but nothing, save perhaps the odd psychologically progressive schools maths programme, has since come near the levels of faintly sinister queasy confusion that Dowling and gang put out on a weekly basis for nigh on seven years. Please, don’t have Audrey the Dinosaur-shaped nightmares.