TV Cream: For Schools and Colleges

For some reason schools' television programmes, while intended as nothing more than teaching aids to complement the textbooks, worksheets and slide-tape presentations in the teacher's armoury, have lodged themselves in the memories of thousands of ex-pupils 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, before the internet reduced the significance of the old daytime slots even further..

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 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 would 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 butercup 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 'no-frills' schools format was the model for all early educational programming, and lasted well into the '80s. Essentially 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.

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.

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.

The straightforward, impersonal touch - Experiment takes 'hands on science' literally, and Maths Topics brings the textbook to brown and orange life.

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...

An injection of charisma is another 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 formet 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, lattery 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 Econonomics-related series).

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. 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 buble-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?

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'). 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, 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 grand-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.

James Earl Adair and Louise Hall-Taylor filled their friendly-yet-responsible roles to a 't' on much-loved topic workathon Watch!

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), or a piece of human puppet interaction 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).

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. 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 fidgetty 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." 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 fenicular railway) and the abstract maths concepts were put over in a simple way, with a bit of comedy and adventure to sugar the pill.

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, a 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. 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.

It wasn't just maths that got the 'adventure' format. 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, It's Your Choice et al) by dramatising the lives of various school leaving types 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.

The Edwardian series of How We Used To Live, and the story-interrupting Wordy in full flow.

At its 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 Word 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.

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 The Boy From Space and Sky Hunter 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). Alex Glasgow (among others) 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 'Maths File' Hughes' well-loved Who parody Dr Where) and recurring characters (the ditzy mathematician Des Cartes). 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 (marching squares, base 2 counting, elegant gemoetrical ballet) usually set to the spooky, off-kilter blues electronica of Ron Geesin, with in-studio investigations. Mathscore One and Two, which numbered Nuts In May star Roger Sloman among its presenters, adopted a vague footballing theme, with presenters slipping in and out of coustume to enact demonstrative comic vignettes about square numbers, tesselation and so forth.

"Looks like I'm going to need a bigger chessboard!" Mathscore has fun with the age-old doubling rice problem, while the Good Health kids take over for a raucous production about germs.

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, and sometimes even documenting the rehearsal and construction of the show, this bitty little programme managed to throw up a fair few memorable moments - a bizarre play about germs, a huge, revolting, working model of a human digestive system built from scrap materials, the Good Health 'talking feet', and, from the same chiropody-themed edition, the cautionary Blockaboots sketch. 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 does - it made the pupil feel as if it wasn't being taught at all.

 

Links

Most of the shows discussed here are listed in TVC's main index. Pending the launch of www.mathsinabox.com, here are a few other dot-shooting pages for your core curriculum.

Programmes

Look and Read is certainly the best-represented schools programme on the internet, but this site is the essential one -
http://www.lookandread.fsnet.co.uk/

The BBC have even cottoned onto this phenomenon, and slung some files up here -
http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/ilove/tv/lookandread/

The venerable Paintbox gives a few old school favourites the once over -
http://www.bluejam20.freeserve.co.uk/three/stoplooklist.htm

George Handley takes a rambling trip down memory lane (to the resources room) -
http://www.webspawner.com/users/televisionnostalgia/schools.html

Transdiffusion goes back to the classroom -
http://www.transdiffusion.org/emc/halcyon/school/

And last but not least, some info on Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz's masterful Jack Smith Films pastiche (with added Nigel 'You and Me' Lambert), Look Around You -
http://www.bbc.co.uk/lookaroundyou

Continuity

ITV schools continuity and history gets a thorough treatment at this engrossing site -
http://www.itvschools.co.uk/

There's a plethora of schools-related continuity RealVideo files here -
http://www.users.totalise.co.uk/~simon_luxton/bbcschoolsprogrammes.html

The BBC schools diamond is before our time, but Sub-TV not only recall it, they can explain its mysterious workings, along with a myriad other continuity-based files -
http://www.sub-tv.co.uk/schools.asp

RealVideo bonus
schools.ra [Realvideo file] mono
schools2.ra [Realvideo file] mono
schools3.ra [Realvideo file] mono
Some footage of the ITV Schools clock in action, introducing first EXPERIMENT (qv), then Max Mason's Ron Geesin themed STARTING SCIENCE (with the animated robot titles), and then a marvellous motorised cock-up wherein the countdown clock (little more than a few scrappy pieces of blue and white cardboard with a camera plonked in front of it) began to spontaneously rewind on air.

Thanks to Jill Phythian, Alex Payton, Lord Scotland, GNC, and the TV Cream Ask the Family family.