Concerned that at times this blog risks being too serious, this time I’m going to look at something more light-hearted. Children’s television has continued to provide me with almost infinite pleasure long since I put away other childish things. I grew up on Postman Pat and Charlie Chalk and Bertha and Fireman Sam (in the days when it was made with care and charm and stop-motion, and not the cheap-looking computer-animated travesty it has become – but that’s a rant for another day). At school we watched BBC programmes like Music Time with Jonathan Cohen and Helen Speirs and Look and Read with its serialised stories like Badger Girl, Geordie Racer and Through the Dragon’s Eye, now the cult classic it always deserved to be. When I got home there were programmes of the quality of the peerless Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, Simon and the Witch with the wonderful Elizabeth Spriggs and Joan Sims, or the unfairly maligned ChuckleVision, which in its glory days was not unworthy of comparison with Laurel and Hardy, I maintain, though it has gradually tailed off over the last fifteen years.
There was also Playdays (formerly Playbus), in the era when Friday meant the Tent Stop, where one could see such luminaries as occasional chatline publicist Ricky Diamond and polymath Trish Cooke demeaning themselves in the name of entertainment. I have not forgotten the frisson of excitement that ran through my Year 8 class when several of us recognised the Roundabout Stop’s Mr Jolly in a touring production of Macbeth that came to our school, though my friend Josh was more worked up about the prospect of Lady Macbeth taking her top off when she reached the line “Come to my woman’s breasts”. I reassured him this was not likely, as later proved to be the case. I’m not sure where the idea came from – perhaps the Polanski film, which had somehow been sanctioned for use in English lessons, Keith Chegwin, nude sleepwalking and all.
I could write reams and reams about these gems, and about the older series I came to know from videos – Captain Pugwash, for instance, or Noggin the Nog – and perhaps I will expatiate upon these weighty balls, if I may invoke Brian Stimpson for a historic moment, at a later date, but for the moment I will dwell on a programme from rather later in my childhood. A benefit of having brothers four and eight years younger than myself was that I had the excuse to keep watching television intended for pre-school children far beyond the age at which it was socially acceptable, with my relative maturity allowing me to bypass most of the dross rather than feasting on it unquestioningly as I would have in my infancy. So I shunned Teletubbies but revelled in the joys of Storytime, far superior in 1994 to what it had been in the late ’80s, featuring the unlikely but irresistible pairing of John Ringham as bumbling eccentric Mr Banglebede and Siân Reeves as his indefatigably chirpy sidekick Jess.
But I meant to write about Pingu, of which my brother Tom was a devotee when he was about two or three. The BBC brought out several videos, which we owned. One was called “Pingu the Chef”, which Tom would pronounce “Pingu Shay”. I didn’t realise it at the time, but now it seems obvious that he was intentionally using the French pronunciation of the word as it is in the context of compound nouns like ‘chef-d’oeuvre’. It’s the least one would expect from a child so precocious that one of his first words was ‘boobies’, though I must take some credit for that myself. I’ve been revisiting some of the early ones recently, and am delighted to find their appeal enhanced by the years rather than dimmed.
Permit me to be facetious for a paragraph. It must be a difficult thing to produce a programme ostensibly for children which is nevertheless equally appealing to adults. Many programmes achieve this feat through oblique sexual innuendo. Take Mr Jolly’s repeated singalong invitations to “Roll up and ride on Rosie” (Rosie being the roundabout). The Postman Pat theme casts Pat subversively in the comic stereotype of a randy milkman, servicing the housewives of Greendale. “Maybe, you can never be sure, there’ll be knock, ring, letters through your door” (dirty chuckle). The symbolism of his bright red van is so blatant that it’s a wonder the censors didn’t intervene. The stories about Captain Pugwash featuring characters called Seaman Staines and Roger the Cabin Boy are apocryphal, though Pugwash’s nasal twang makes his occasional ejaculations of “Really, Master Mate!” open to misinterpretation. A recent episode of ChuckleVision shows the depths to which the brothers have sunk. Running a B&B, they welcome a guest who wishes to take a telescope up to his room. “I’m an astronomer,” he explains, “I’m hoping to sneak a look at your anus later.” And the less said about Rainbow the better.
There is none of this filth in Pingu. It’s a simple story of Pingu, a penguin, living with his parents. In one of the early episodes a baby sister, Pinga, is born, and their play and bickering forms a major part of the programme. Its appeal lies partly in its design – claymation is always endearing because the care that has gone into it is visible on the screen – partly in its ingenious language-transcending soundtrack, and partly in the occasionally fraught but always loving relationship between Pingu and his friends and family. One of my favourite episodes shows what happens when Pingu and Pinga’s parents go out to a concert, leaving them alone for the evening. Children watching it love the havoc they create in their parents’ absence; adults find humour in the contrast between the chaos at home and the concert hall scenes where, during a sedate performance of the Unfinished Symphony, their mother, oblivious to the state of her igloo, produces an angelic portrait of Pingu and Pinga. It’s a delight. Great music too.