Watch with mother - the joys of retro television

Despite the march of modern TV wizardry, classic British children's programmes still retain a place in hearts big and small. We explore why...

Published: February 21, 2016 at 4:00 pm

A pair of wibbly-wobbly flowerpot puppets speaking gobbledegook, a flamboyantly moustachioed jack-in-the-box with a nightly “Time for Bed” sign off, or a troop of pink mice living on the moon… There is something about the programmes of our childhood that inspires a nostalgic glow. The stories may be surreal, the sets held together with tape, a wing and a prayer, yet just a few notes of the familiar tinkling theme tune and we’re transfixed.


If the popularity of a retro weekend to mark the 35th birthday of CITV earlier this year is anything to go by (where old episodes of Rainbow and Button Moon had Twitter in raptures), the technological advances and big budgets of modern shows simply cannot compete with the old favourites.

Not only do these classic gems transport parents back to their own childhoods, but the younger generation can also experience the innocent joy of timeless tales. But in contrast to the big productions of today, their output was very much a family affair.

Artist and puppet-maker Peter Firmin is one of the people behind these magical shows. Together with the late Oliver Postgate, he founded Smallfilms and transformed children’s television into an enthralling – and sometimes bonkers – land of teatime adventure, with cult classics like Ivor The Engine, Noggin The Nog, Clangers and everyone’s favourite cloth cat, Bagpuss.

A barn at Peter’s Kent home doubled as a studio and his wife, Joan, knitted the Clangers cast, while their six daughters helped out on set. The show became an instant hit when it first aired on the BBC in November 1969, possibly helped in part by the moon landings four months earlier, and they went on to produce 32 episodes over the next three years.

Not only do these classic gems transport parents back to their own childhoods, but the younger generation can also experience the innocent joy of timeless tales.

Forty years later, their enduring popularity has led Peter’s grand-daughter, set designer Ruth Herbert, to collaborate on a craft book so families can recreate the sets and characters at home.

So why do Peter’s creations still inspire such warm affection? “It’s a cosy place for children. As soon as the music starts, the familiarity is comforting,” says Peter, now 84. “These shows bring back memories of when parents were allowed to let their imagination run wild,” adds Ruth. “It’s uplifting to be able to share and bond with your children over that.”

The pair believe that individuality is the key to creating a show that endures. “If you’re too trendy, things die,” says Peter. “Everything I’ve done may be a bit old-fashioned, and some may have thought my ideas mad, but the logic was to entertain children.”


Grandfather and grand-daughter are concerned the focus on educational goals in many modern shows, while worthy, are somehow missing the joy of their older counterparts. “Shows today are beautiful, but so loud and fast and bright,” says Ruth. “I worry that children’s attention spans will become too dependent on that level of interaction. Simplicity is missing."


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