One of ITV’s best-known and most popular networked series for children, Magpie (Thames), has now been running for more than nine years. The programme’s informative magazine format allows for the coverage of a wide range of diverse topics, the boundaries of which are stretched even further by extensive use of outside broadcasts. But the most notable feature about Magpie is that unlike most television programmes – which, being steeped in the sophisticated technicalities of modern television, are often pre-recorded – it is still transmitted live from its studios in Teddington.
Tim Jones, Mogpie’s producer, reflects that: ‘Back in the good old days of black and white when to edit you needed a pair of scissors and a secret fluid, which I never knew the name of, the one thing all studio or outside broadcast based programmes had in common was that they were live and the viewers saw everything, including all the fluffs.’ Today, however, no TV station exists without its sophisticated video-tape operation and few programmes are, in fact, planned to be live.
Not so with Magpie. Twice a week, every week, for nine months of the year, the red light outside Studio 3 at Teddington means ‘On Air’. Of course, the whole programme isn’t live – recorded studio and outside broadcast inserts and film are used, but the presentation is live and, quite often, the whole programme has no recorded material at all.
Magpie consumes 42 hours of original material each year so, since it started on the ITV network in 1968, it has gobbled up over 350 hours of original thought. Being a programme for children there is no way of getting away with ‘making do’. Children are the most discerning of viewers, and maintaining the high standard of the series demands the involvement of many dedicated and specialised production team members.
Magpie is first and foremost an entertainment and the programmes always aim to be as lively as possible. However, most items are designed to provoke more than just a passive response and where possible children are stimulated into doing things for themselves. For example, cookery has become a very popular subject and the programme has recently taken an interest in the local fare prepared in different parts of the country.
There is also scope for dealing with current topics of interest in the news and Magpie has been able to relate to children the significance of such national crises as the 1976 drought or the deteriorating economic situation.
The presenters, Jenny Hanley, Mick Robertson and Tommy Boyd, get very involved in the studio activities and they also regularly travel with film crews to locations of special interest to the programme’s networked audience. Apart from the summer trip each year, which provides film inserts for a number of editions of the programme, the team also manage to fit in other occasional visits abroad and have already explored such countries as Egypt, USA and Kenya. These films show young viewers cultures and ways of life different to their own and give them a chance to see places they may themselves be fortunate enough to visit one day.
Competitions always create a favourable response from Magpie viewers, but here again they are designed to stimulate the child and to increase his interest, knowledge and general awareness. A road safety poster painting competition, organised in collaboration with the Department of Environment, not only encouraged thousands of children to be creative with a paint brush but also made them think about the whole question of road safety. Magpie then took things one stage further and, instead of offering a prize of material value, invited the winners to see their entries pass through all the processes of printing. Naturally, the camera team were there to record the event and a further film was made to show the printed posters being hung on hoarding sites all over Britain.
Of course, linking all these items together with the live presentation from the studio does present problems. But, as producer Tim Jones points out, ‘when that “On Air” light goes on the pulse moves a little faster and one is that much sharper’.