Patrick Freyne: Kids TV just ain’t what it used to be ... thank God
Worried by RTÉ’s cessation of children’s TV production, I look back at the kids shows that shaped the man I am today. Who, now, will scar our children for life?
Bosco: “Uafásach . . . Even the dogs on the street know it’s uafásach”
Cometh the hour cometh the judgmental ginger hand puppet. Bosco was typically Irish in that he was explicitly defined as a home owner (he lived, like many of the rest of us, in a cuboid bungalow) with a dour outlook: (“Uafásach” he’d cry. “Even the dogs on the street know it’s uafásach.”)
He also had a fetish for order (“Tidy up, goodbye, goodbye, put everything back in its box,” he would sing authoritarianly), a penchant for surveillance (via his magic door he observed the cultivation of animals – the zoo – and local industry – the bottle factory) and an iron will, which he demonstrated by playing “Bosco says” with his terrified retainers (“When I say Bosco says to do something, you do it”). And he also kicked out the Brits. Probably.
Playschool (aka, the Brits)
While Bosco was advocating self-sufficiency and the benefits of home-ownership on RTÉ, the BBC’s Playschool largely advocated collectivism and diversity via the medium of adults playing with toys and reading stories. This activity was overseen by a quintet of terrifying dolls and stuffed toys who glared out of the screen and judged us with their button eyes: Humpty, Jemima, Hamble, Big Ted and his diminutive but no less frightening companion, Little Ted.
A “youth” magazine show developed by liberal RTÉ in the permissive 1980s and overseen by frizzy-headed anarchist Aonghus McAnally and plucky make-and-do survivalist Mary Fitzgerald. Although “anything” did not in fact “go” on Anything Goes, it was still an advance on previous RTÉ shows like Stop It, That’s Forbidden and No!, which ran in the 1970s and were largely hosted by priests and angry farmers.
In Rainbow, a man named Geoffrey catered to the whims of a sort of hippo thing, a man with a zip for lips (I assume Zippy is a man, I mean what else is he?) and a large misshapen bear. Given that they often referred to Geoffrey as their “uncle” they must have been human once but I try not to think about it.
Dilín Ó Deamhas
A grey-haired woman plays the harp and tells stories in Irish to an array of small children gathered at her feet. It took some convincing before I believed this was something that had been on television and not just something that happened to me as a child (this sort of thing was common in the 1980s) but I checked the internet and apparently it was a television programme.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
A men’s rights activist in furry underpants battles a hunky skeleton with rage issues. Basically it’s the internet. He-Man had a pageboy haircut and a camp pussy-cat sidekick and he fought Skeletor for dominion over a planet, country or possibly just a club night (it’s unclear) known as Eternia.
In private, He-Man wondered if his branding was masculine enough. “Perhaps the logo could feature penii,” he thought, “or I could go further and call myself Male-Manly-Man-Chap and His Intergalactic Swordsmen.” His friends were Orka, a floating figure of fun who wore a big floppy hat, and Man-at-Arms, whose power was having a moustache and being good around the house. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe does not pass the Bechdel Test.
Fortycoats & Co
A child-friendly vagrant, or possibly a member of a 1970s prog rock band, commandeers a flying shed full of sweets accompanied by a prissy butler named Sofar Sogood and a schoolgirl named Slightly Bonkers. Nowadays, Slightly Bonkers would have received a proper diagnosis, a less offensive name and a more proactive social worker, but they were different times.
“By my forty coats and my fifty pockets,” Fortycoats would exclaim as he undertook another aerial joyride spreading child obesity with his inappropriate chums. He regularly battled the Whirligig Witch, whose only crime, it appeared, was a surfeit of ambition.
In retrospect she was a feminist hero and might have been a positive role model for Slightly Bonkers, if the poor girl hadn’t been so famously mental.
I always found it sinister the way Sooty the bear would whisper into Matthew the human’s ear much like an ursine Iago or, if you like, a more human Steve Bannon. What was Sooty muttering? We had to take Matthew’s word for that (so much for transparency) but Britain is out of Europe now so I think we know.
Sooty, if that was his real name, was a small bear with a lot of influence – an iron fist in a velvet glove puppet. He was usually accompanied by his politburo: Soo, a lady panda who talked like a human; and Sweep, a squeaking dog who, for his own reasons, did not.
Skippy, Flipper and The Littlest Hobo
Here are more programmes in which beasts get mixed-up in the affairs of man. In these instances the programmes featured actual animals, and not animal impersonators like Sooty and Sweep. These shows revolved around, respectively, a kangaroo, dolphin and dog who spent an inordinate amount of time warning humans about adorable mites stuck in wells* and didn’t, as would be the case in real life, simply wait for them to die of exposure before feasting on their succulent, well-fed corpses (that’s what my cat would do).
I learned a lot of misleading information about animals in these programmes. It led to heartbreak later in life but I don’t want to talk about it (look, if you ever happen upon an emergency don’t tell a passing dog to go get help, for God’s sake, just call 999).
*Flipper, of course, did not concern himself with wells, for he was a dolphin. The sea was his well.
Pob was a wooden man who lived in the television and would regularly breathe at the screen and write his name in condensation (he reminds me of Nigel Farage a bit).
He was a vile babbling monstrosity and it’s good that Channel 4 burned all the tapes and buried the ashes.
In many episodes of Pob, a guest celebrity would follow a thread of yarn to Pob’s unravelled jumper. Then Pob, the fiend, would imprison the guest and make them read to him, much like the old man at the end of a Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh.
In the upcoming remake Pob is played by Benedict Cumberbatch and he is now a war veteran with a secret sorrow.