Since the announcement that Danger Mouse (1982-1992) is to return to TV screens, this time on the BBC, I have had several conversations with people about whether this ‘remake’ will be any good. Most of these conversations have been with people from my own generation, who watched Danger Mouse—and its spin-off Count Duckula–back in the day but the BBC clearly intends this remake for a child audience. The decision to remake this, and several other ‘old’ children’s TV programmes seems to have been motivated, at least in part by CITV’s Old Skool Weekend in January 2013, when the channel marked its 30th birthday celebrations by ‘presenting a selection of “Old Skool” shows.’ While Danger Mouse was not picked out by ITV as one of the ‘highlights’ prior to the broadcast, it was later reported to have attracted the largest audience. Whether this audience was composed of adults or children, or both, is less clear. Victoria Byard noted, in her CST blog on CITV’s rebranding, that while ‘the 20th anniversary Children’s ITV Celebration Special in 2003 was far more oriented to a child audience; the “mums and dads” were secondary viewers,’ with the 30 Years of CITV programme, shown on ITV1 at 6.30-7.30pm on a Saturday evening, the balance seems to have shifted. The programme appeals to adult audience’s nostalgia and loyalty and emphasises entertainment and popular culture, creating a wider history and historical audience for ITV.
Some reports of the Old Skool Weekend certainly focus on its attractions for adults: Charles Madison on Film Divider suggested that it ‘stoked up warm, fuzzy nostalgia, and set fire to social media’ as adults relived their childhood, while Kate Welham on Sabotage Times described the ‘joy’ of ‘watching it all together, just like we used to, only with more people on Twitter than your parents would ever have allowed you to invite for a sleepover’.
The Old Skool Weekend is certainly indicative of nostalgia for children’s TV, which often acquires cult status as its viewers move into adulthood. The BBC’s now-defunct and ‘left… here for reference’ Cult TV site listed several children’s programmes including The Clangers, Bagpuss, Battle of the Planets, Crackerjack and Rentaghost alongside the likes of Quatermass, Kenny Everett, and The Prisoner and Tat Wood wrote on Bagpuss in The Cult TV Book, edited by Stacey Abbott. The television we watched as children has a powerful place in our memory, whether we categorise it as ‘cult’ or ‘classic’. Both Hazel Collie and Helen Wheatley have written in previous CST blogs about how the ‘History of Television for Women in Britain, 1947-89’ project has researched those memories. Such memories are not always just about the content, the programmes actually viewed, but also about the process or experience of watching television, often—in the case of children’s television—with others. Collie reports that for many of the women she interviewed ‘childhood memories were about watching with the family, particularly mother, and describing the routine and comfort engendered by the activity’. The intimacy of viewing with children is also touched on by Su Holmes in another CST blog, where she recounts how watching with her daughter encouraged her to teach children’s TV in university classes. I decided myself that children’s television should be part of an introductory first year television module some years ago, but felt unqualified to teach it given that I have no children and therefore had minimal contact with it, and Holmes account echoes some of my own feelings. She admits that it ‘raised some interesting questions about how I navigate my identity as a viewer, a scholar, a lecturer and a Mum’.
In the introduction to our forthcoming collection on time in television, David Simmons, Kevin Robinson and I suggest that
nostalgia creates is a space in which viewers can reminiscence and recollect a ‘lost’ sense of themselves from the past, in the process, often establishing imagined communities of taste and experience that are comforting even if highly subjective constructions.
In this sense, nostalgia for children’s TV is tied up with notions of innocence and protection that continue to surround it. Recent revelations about Jimmy Savile’s and Rolf Harris’ sex offences suggest a rather different picture for some, however, and bring a whole new set of associations for much-loved British children’s TV programmes.
Not all children’s television is ‘comforting’ in terms of its content, of course, in line with expectations that it might teach children about their world and help socialise them. Battle of the Planets made a lasting impression on me as a child viewer by incorporating serious storylines into a ‘cartoon’, and it was not until years later that I realised it included more ‘adult’ material because it was a sanitised, edited version of a Japanese animé series. More recently, my sister recommended The Sarah Jane Adventures to me because she and her two younger daughters all enjoy how its storylines sometimes deal with loss, death and abandonment, with some of their favourites being ‘Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?’ and ‘The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith’. Children’s dramas can and do include hard hitting social realist storylines, as the long-running school series Grange Hill demonstrated.
Likewise, controversial genres like horror have often been part of children’s programming, as Stacey Abbott and I discuss in TV Horror. The recent popularity of fantasy and horror across popular culture and media continues to raise some interesting questions about how horror is negotiated for children or young adult audiences. This year for the first time the annual Mayhem horror festival at Broadway cinema in Nottingham includes a strand specifically focusing on young adult horror—Teen Mayhem—which features the popular CBBC series Wolfblood alongside cinematic material.
The festival’s co-director Chris Cooke notes, ‘We all fell in love with horror, science fiction and fantasy when we were younger and Teen Mayhem is a chance to really indulge their passion,’ suggesting that viewing tastes created when we are younger persist into adulthood.
The addition of Teen Mayhem indicates an awareness of children as consumers and audiences, and naturally the television industry seeks to engage this audience, often through the same strategies used with older viewers. If Welham rhapsodizes over twitter offering a whole new community sharing nostalgic affection for programmes featured in CITV’s Old Skool Weekend, channels and companies continue to develop transmedia and multiplatform elements for children’s television. These might include ‘learning’ games attached to family entertainment series like Doctor Who (as Elizabeth Evans has explored in her chapter for New Dimensions of Doctor Who) as well as more obviously ‘educational’ programmes like Horrible Histories. CBeebies offers dedicated wesbites for each of its major audiences: the landing page is addressed to child viewers but the ‘Grown-ups’ tab at the top directs parents and carers to their own site, which outlines the educational benefits of programmes and offers support and resources for adults watching with children.
As reported in the Guardian following the children’s TV industry conference in Sheffield this year, CBBC has been developing ‘playalong’ apps which allowed child viewers to answer questions alongside on-screen contestants for Ludus and for Horrible Histories’ Gory Games in 2014 and these seem to have been even more successful than expected. New smartphone apps, more iPlayer (as opposed to broadcast) premiers and iPlayer playlists are also on the agenda. Su Holmes recounts in her blog observing first-hand how her daughter acts as a ‘digital native’, and notes that contemporary viewing practice enhances key features of children’s TV. ‘Repeatability often seems central to the pleasures of children’s television, both within episodes (i.e. the same structures or phrases are used), or in terms of re-viewing material. But the dispersed accessibility of contemporary television culture clearly accentuates this pleasure,’ she observes. Remakes of ‘Old Skool’ TV shows can presumably be expected to reach all kinds of screens with the advantages of HD image quality and—apparently—more equal gender representation (recent press articles note that more female characters will appear in Danger Mouse 2015).
Studying children’s television has historically been inflected by concerns about protection, educational value and consumerism, areas which continue to provoke debate. Henry Jenkins has championed ‘teleliteracy’ in the USA and a project such as the DARE Collaborative (Digital Arts Research Education) in the UK focuses on the digital arts in education and aims to promote collaboration between researchers, educators and the arts sector. The area of children and television has much to contribute to television studies. Television still evokes slightly contradictory responses in people, who might value ‘quality’ television but see some TV viewing as a ‘guilty pleasure’, and perceive television as ephemeral and disposable rather than a part of cultural life and memory. These concerns are as important in the study of children and television as they are to other areas of television studies and mobilising nostalgia for our own childhood viewing, or enthusiasm for current kids TV can help engage interest in television studies and television culture generally.
Those interested in the areas touched on above are welcome to attend the upcoming On TV festival in November. On TV is a space to celebrate and explore all things television and this year the inaugural festival takes children and television as its theme. The festival programme includes both public events and an academic conference track, with a range of academic, expert and industry speakers (including some of those mentioned here) talking about programmes as varied as Words and Pictures, Wolfblood, Newsround and My Little Pony, to name just a few. On TV begins on the evening of Friday 14th and continues all day Saturday 15th November at the Showroom cinema, Sheffield.
Lorna Jowett is a Reader in Television Studies at the University of Northampton and coordinator of the Cult TV: TV Cultures Network. She is the co-author with Stacey Abbott of TV Horror: Investigating The Dark Side of the Small Screen (2013) and author of Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan (2005). She has published many articles on television, film and popular culture, and is currently working on a book about gender in the Doctor Who franchise.
On TV is a collaboration between the Cult TV: TV Cultures Network and the Showroom cinema. The Cult TV: TV Cultures Network is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council.