From 1972, Lewis Rudd, Controller of Children’s Programmes at Thames, takes us through his department’s achievements and plans
“I FIND THAT CHILDREN DECIDE WHAT PROGRAMMES ARE SUITABLE FOR THEM RATHER BETTER THAN THEIR PARENTS.”
Lewis Rudd, Controller of Children’s Programmes
Ace of Wands, Children’s Documentaries – My Brother David and Breaking the Silence, Cliff’s Kids, Do Not Adjust Your Set, Elephant’s Eggs in a Rhubarb Tree, Full House, Happy House, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, Larry the Lamb, Magpie (twice weekly). Once Upon a Time, The Paper Bag Players, Pardon My Genie, Rainbow, Sexton Blake, The Sooty Show, Smith, The Tomorrow People, Tottering Towers, Wreckers at Deadeye, Zingalong.
Lewis Rudd, Thames Television’s Controller of Children’s Programmes, came into Independent Television straight from Oxford, where he edited Isis. He began to specialise in children’s programmes in 1966, and in 1968 his production ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’ was awarded the Prix Jeunesse. Father of two boys and a girl, he is Chairman of the ITV Network Children’s Sub-Committee. (After this was written, ‘My Brother David’ won this year’s Prix Jeunesse UNICEF award.)
Why have a separate children’s department at all? Is it because we treat children as a different race, to be talked to in a special language? After all, our programmes for children include drama, information, comedy: so why not have the programmes produced by Thames’ drama, features and light entertainment departments? One good reason for having a separate department is the sheer volume of children’s programmes we produce. Something like half the children’s programmes made by ITV come from Thames. But it is not the volume of production that is most important.
Making television programmes for children can be pretty awe-inspiring. They are a very perceptive and very enthusiastic audience. And just because of this, television can have an enormous influence on them. Yet although a great deal of research has been done on this influence, nobody quite knows what the effect of any one programme or sequence will be on different individual children. So we feel it helps if there are people responsible for all Thames’ children’s productions, working together on a range of programmes, gaining experience of their effect all the time, and putting this experience to good use.
It isn’t easy to lay down rules about what will be beneficial and what will be harmful to a child, and with a separate department we have less need to do so. All the people in my department are concerned about the effect of the programmes they make, and are constantly aware of the caution with which they have to work. There is sometimes violence, for example, in our drama programmes. But it is not portrayed as the right way to solve problems, and we aim to make it neither terrifying on the one hand nor glamorised on the other. But, without being irresponsible about it, I find that children decide what programmes are suitable for them rather better than their parents. For example my four-year-old son finds our Ace of Wands series, which is exciting and sometimes a little bit scary, far too complicated to follow. So he doesn’t bother to watch, whereas by seven a child can both understand the story and is also old enough to take pleasure in the excitement and scariness.
One important thing we have learned about making programmes appeal to a wide audience of children is that they demand that television is used as a pictorial medium. As most of our programmes are designed for school children who have spent the day studying, it is right that one of our aims is entertainment: through drama series like Wreckers at Deadeye and Ace of Wands, through programmes for younger children like The Sooty Show and Larry the Lamb (which we are transmitting in the Autumn), through quizzes and musical shows and comedy series. In all of these, visual inventiveness is most important. Our current series Pardon My Genie, a sort of modern version of Aladdin, has had its enormous visual comic possibilities realised in full, thanks to the enthusiastic co-operation of our technical staff. It isn’t surprising that more children are watching this programme than any other production on either channel.
Magpie, our informative magazine programme, also calls for a predominantly visual approach. Here, too, we are using pictures to entertain, but also to interest and inform at the same time. Even in something as straightforward as Magpie’s annual Christmas appeal, we try to encourage imaginative activity in the raising of the money and to use the opportunity to create knowledge – not just sympathy. Last Christmas we raised £30,000 for deaf children, not by a heart-rending emotional appeal but by showing children in a simple way what it was really like to be deaf. And it was out of the previous appeal that we evolved the idea of doing a half-hour documentary especially for children, about the difficult subject of mental handicap. The film, My Brother David, which showed a day in the life of a mentally handicapped boy, has been chosen to represent ITV at this year’s Prix Jeunesse in Munich.
Productions like these can be expensive, and I hope they give the lie to a criticism I sometimes hear that companies are unwilling to spend money on children’s programmes. The fact is that to tell your stories in pictures rather than words costs more. You can make a satisfying adult drama with one set, two good actors and a good script. But for children you are going to need more actors, more sets, location film to add action and pace. I was in the Ace of Wands studio the other day, and the sets compared in every way with the finest sets for adult drama which have been used in our Thames studios – and that is saying a great deal. Backing long-running successes with the right sort of money is one aspect of finance, but the Thames Board have also been willing to back our new ideas and experiments. Since the company began in 1968 we have introduced new children’s series every year; some of them, like Magpie and Ace of Wands, earning themselves a regular place in ITV’s national schedules. Others have been conceived as single series. In 1969, for instance, we produced an adaptation of Leon Garfield’s award-winning children’s book smith; in 1970 we filmed another period subject, Wreckers at Deadeye; in 1971 we introduced children to a world of comic writing ranging from Edward Lear to Spike Milligan in Elephant’s Eggs in a Rhubarb Tree. This year, in addition to Pardon My Genie, we are planning Thames’ first science fiction programme for children, The Tomorrow People.
But I have to admit that the most important development in children’s programmes in the last couple of years did not take place at Thames. It happened at the Children’s Television Workshop in New York with the production of ‘Sesame Street’. I don’t want to enter here into the argument about the programme’s educational standards. But Sesame Street did show how entertaining a programme whose objectives are primarily informative can be, given the right amounts of money and talent.
Any future programme in this field of entertainment-cum-education for pre-school children is certain to be compared with Sesame Street. The production team of our own new programme rainbow, which will be transmitted in the Autumn, have learned a lot from it – both from its successes and its failings. I think we will stand up to the inevitable comparisons pretty well.
Rainbow will be seen regularly all over Britain, and Magpie is already shown nationally twice a week. So our responsibility as providers of ITV information programmes for children is greater than ever. Our most important priority at the moment is to make these two programmes as effective as we possibly can. Because, as I said at the beginning, everyone is aware that television can have an enormous influence on children. And Magpie has proved – as we believe Rainbow will also – that in the right hands it can be an enormous influence for good.