Thursday 12 February 2015

Where's Our Jackanory?

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up in an era when there were only the three terrestrial television channels (until Channel 4 came along in 1982) and no satellite/cable TV in the UK. This was a golden age for children's television, and as there were only three channels the emphasis had to be on quality and not quantity. It was a totally different broadcasting world to the one children are growing up with today.

The students at my school shoot incredulous looks back at me when I tell them this. They cannot imagine a world where they have such limited viewing choice. They can't see beyond that number ‘3’. And yet, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, despite there being only three channels, there was huge variety in children's television because the BBC and ITV devoted quality time slots to these programmes. Lunchtimes, late afternoons and Saturday mornings were devoted to children's programmes on both channels, and in the school holidays the BBC would run children friendly programmes through every weekday morning as well. And in many of these stories played a huge part.

The title of this post mentions the most obvious of these – Jackanory – as it was a programme devoted to books and storytelling. But let's not forget the likes of Bagpuss, Mr Benn, Trumpton, Camberwick Green, and Fingerbobs... all had story telling at their heart and a narrator telling us that story. My personal love of stories was born and nurtured through programmes such as these.

However, this post is not a nostalgia piece, and my mention of my childhood and the programmes I remember so fondly is purely to add a degree of context. No, I’m writing this with one big fat question to ask the powers that control our TV channels – why are there no modern programmes devoted to children’s books for middle grade readers? Where is the Jackanory or The Book Tower for our 21st Century children?

Jackanory - a programme whose simple but hugely successful format was initially just a celebrity, sat on a bench or chair reading a story. Surely you can’t be telling us that production costs prohibit the making of such a programme? Even later on, when illustrations by the likes of Quentin Blake were added to complement the story telling, I can’t believe that costs were particularly high in comparison to other programmes. And some of those episodes were so memorable that even now whilst writing this piece I’m chuckling away at my desk at the memory of Kenneth Williams’ many brilliant appearances on Jackanory, and Rik Mayall’s anarchic (and at the time controversial) reading of George’s Marvellous Medicine is as funny today as it was when I first saw it.

The Book Tower was less ‘famous’ than Jackanory, (possibly due to it being on ITV or its scheduled time slot?), but was a great programme all about children’s books. It went through a number of presenters in its time, but my enduring memories are of Tom Baker’s stint (he was, after all, one of my TV heroes at the time - how clever to use Doctor Who to front a programme about children's books). The Book Tower had story readings, kids interviewing authors and kids talking about their favourite books. Again, budget-wise I can't believe it was a huge drain on the finances of Yorkshire Television.

Which again begs the question, in this day and age of big budget programming, where is our 
television programme devoted to children’s books ?

More nostalgia now, but please bear with me as this leads neatly on to my master plan. When I was a child/teen, weekdays at 6pm on BBC2 were geek heaven, and had a huge part in making me the person I am today. We had classic monster and sci-fi movies, Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon, Republic serials such as King of the Rocket MenStar Trek TOS and then TNG (and many other science fiction shows like Battlestar Galactica, Sliders, Quantum Leap), The Adventure Game… seriously, it was a great time to be watching TV, and it was perfectly scheduled to fit after dinner, and before homework (or before bed when I was really young). I personally believe it would be the perfect time slot for a regular children’s book programme today. But no, instead we have to put up with the insufferably smug faces of the Eggheads (oh, how I hate those Eggheads) and, at the time of writing this, The Great Antiques Map of Britain presented by Tim Wonnacott. And you’re telling me that this is money well spent? Is there not enough of this guff on during daytime TV these days? Can we please not go back to a time when 6pm on BBC2 was a haven of wonder and fascination for children and teens?

Have the controllers of BBC2, BBC1, ITV and Channel 4 never been to a book festival like Hay or Edinburgh and seen the excitement and enthusiasm masses of children are showing for books and stories? Do they not appreciate how rapt children become when someone (and especially an author or a celebrity) is reading a story to them? Do they not realise how popular audio books (i.e. listening to stories) are among kids, and especially those who are struggling readers?

The Etherington Brothers at the Hay Festival 2013 (just look at all those excited kids)
I’ll ask again: where is our children’s books television programme? It’s not a huge risk, if TV can these days make hit programmes about ballroom dancing, baking and sewing, and make ‘celebrities’ out of experts in these fields (i.e. ballroom dancers, chefs, auctioneers, Nick Knowles???), then why is no one making a hit programme that turns children’s writers and illustrators into celebrities?

As you can probably tell, I've been putting a lot of thought into this for some time and I've got a long, long list of ideas of what a children’s book programme could incorporate, and these are just a few thoughts:
  • Readings (obviously) – books being read by their authors, and by celebrities that children love, like Cerrie Burnell, Dick and Dom, Matt Smith, One Direction, Sam and Mark, Steve Backshall, top sportsmen and sportswomen, Zoella, Stampy Longnose(?), etc. It’s not dumbing down reading, it’s making it fun and relevant to kids, and they get drawn in by seeing their pop culture idols on screen.
  • Have a mix of celebrity and non-celebrity writers – you can’t have a programme like this and not feature David Walliams from time to time. However, such a programme could quite easily make celebrities out of authors: Malorie Blackman, James Dawson, Laura Dockrill, Joe Craig, Philip Reeve, Chris Bradford, Barry Hutchison, Steve Cole, Curtis Jobling... the list goes on and on, but all would be fabulous on a children’s TV show about books.
  • An illustration and cartoon slot. Drawing workshops are really popular with kids, and over the years there have been many great TV shows that have encouraged kids to get arty. Let's have ‘How to…’ slots on drawing (and writing) manga, comics, characters, illustrations, etc. delivered by the likes of the Etherington Brothers, Sarah McIntyre, Neill Cameron, Emma Vieceli, Chris Riddell, et al.

  • Give it a degree of interactivity and let kids vote for readings, guest authors, guest celebrities. Tie it in with apps for tablets and computers. As John D. Couch, VPE of Apple, recently stated at BETT: ‘We look at technology as a tool, children look at it as an environment’, so any television show about children’s books must embrace their technological world from the start (we’ve all got stories of seeing 2-3 year olds engaging fully with iPads, etc.)
  • Have kids on the show, interviewing authors, and themselves being asked about the books they love.
  • Have occasional special themed programmes that focus on genre (Halloween is the obvious), and makes these specials extra whizz-bang exciting (like Top Gear have their occasional specials)
  • Have authors out in the wild, doing guided tours of the locations that inspired their books. Or why nor splash out on a little CGI and put the writer into the fantasy world that they created?
  • Have a Choose Your Own Adventure story where kids can use social media to vote on the decisions that need to be made.
  • Whatever format is chosen it must be fun, lively, interactive and occasionally anarchic. It must never patronise or bore children.

I have felt passionately about this for several years, but I am but a lowly blogger and teacher with, as I am sure you can tell, no experience in broadcasting, so please bear in mind that these are just the rambling ideas of an amateur. However, I know that many on the Middle Grade Strikes Back team share my frustration and despair at the lack of a quality television programme in the UK about middle grade children’s books. Am I being too hopeful or naive to believe that if enough of us shout then at some point someone in power may sit up and listen, and realise that they are failing our kids by prioritising bland quiz shows for the blue rinse brigade over children’s literacy?

At MGSB we have a YouTube channel that we will start using very shortly. The wonderful Abi Elphinstone is already doing a guest vlog about MGSB over at Bookish Brits tomorrow, and for us it is the start of something we want to be exciting and relevant. We intend to have author readings, interviews, chats with young readers (in fact, much of the above, but sadly without the celebrities, unless any want to get in touch, that is). However, our plans should not be seen as an excuse to those in the TV corridors of power. We do not want to be your ‘someone else has got it covered’ excuse to not commission a new show about children’s books. We want this to be the rallying cry to every adult across the UK who feels that our 8-13 year olds (and older) deserve a programme about books. 

Let’s hear the nation roar: 

Where’s our Jackanory!

by Darren Hartwell from The Book Zone (For Boys) and @bookzone


  1. BRILLIANT POST. I'm roaring big time: 'Where's our Jackanory???!!!!!'

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  3. Brilliantly argued piece, and absolutely spot on. So many things to think about here.

    I wonder if today's TV-makers could learn something from the past, and use Dr Who in a similar way? Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith, David Tennant & Christopher Ecclestone would all be brilliant on a children's books programme - you can imagine it so easily! Maybe we should pitch it to Stephen Moffat...

    1. And Jenna Coleman, Karen Gillan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman.

  4. While I agree it would be wonderful to have a book programme for slightly older viewers, don't forget that there is CBeebies Bedtime Stories, which basically has the same structure as Jackanory used to: a celebrity just sitting there reading a book to the audience. They've had quite good readers, like David Tennant, in the past. It would be good to have the equivalent for middle grade viewers as well though.

    I actually think there's an awful lot of good children's TV out there at the moment, possibly more than there's ever been, but it's a bit hard to come across because there's an awful lot of terrible children's TV as well.

    I do think your idea for the YouTube channel is fantastic, though. I'd definitely subscribe so I could watch it with my sons.

    1. I think it is the middle grade aged children who are being let down by broadcasters in this respect. There are a huge number of incredibly popular shows for pre-school children, and before Bedtime Stories there was Jackanory Junior. We also need something more than just the Jackanory format, a programme for children that really focuses on the books that they love..

  5. Love it. Yes. Every word.
    I think there's even more scope for book-related shows now because performance is so much a part of a children's author's life. We're all attention-seeking show-offs with hours and hours and hours of live performance under our belts. It's perfect.

  6. Great call to arms! My pennyworth - as someone who used to make a living pitching TV ideas to broadcasters, is that "we" do it ourselves first, albeit in a modest way on the MG Youtube channel. They always prefer to buy something tried and tested than off the page....

    Let's get the people you mention, to read, to talk, and to show off, let's include the drawing exercises and the jokes and the beautiful illustrations and show them (or an independent production company) in a nutshell what we mean and how it could work...

    Don't forget that YouTube is in effect a broadcaster which regularly gets far bigger audiences for programmes than the equivalent would on a terrestrial broadcaster like the BBC (eg Zoella). And children don't watch TV in the way we used to. More content is fast being consumed by children online/tablets than watched on set top boxes these days, the notion of schedules and channels is fast becoming an outmoded concept (apart from event programmes like Dr Who). A modern online Jackanory equivalent if it was right, could have both young viewers, parents AND then broadcasters queueing round the block...

  7. Great ideas, Darren. And from Piers, too!

  8. Absolutely agree. I loved the first three series of Bookaboo - I know that was picture books, but I've watched most episodes more than once! It would be great to see something similar for slightly older children. How about a magazine type format with a serialised chapter book?

  9. Brilliantly said! And right with you - and Piers - on all counts!

  10. Just seen this on Twitter. Couldn't agree more! Love to get involved with a programme of this kind.