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Aug 31

Watch With Father, Prologue: Camberwick Green

Posted on Monday, August 31, 2015 by Paul in Watch With Father

On Monday 3 April 1978, when I was three, the BBC began once again to repeat Camberwick Green, the everyday tale of stop-motion folk.  The chances are good that I was watching.

For one thing, if you wanted to watch pre-school TV in Britain in the late 70s – or, for that matter, if you wanted to put your child in front it – then your options were pretty limited.  There were only three channels. And there were no video recorders. (Well, there were, but you probably didn’t have one.) So if you wanted to watch it, you had to watch it live.

And, relatively speaking, there wasn’t very much of it.  There was the venerable Play School on BBC2 at 11am.  There was Camberwick Green, or something of that ilk, in a 15 minute slot after the news.  (Other occupants of this slot, in the first week of April 1978, were RagtimeBagpussChigley, and How Do You Do?).  And then, at around 4pm, there was the same episode of Play School again. Over on ITV, there would probably have been an episode of Rainbow at lunchtime.

The point being, if you wanted to watch these, you had to build them into your schedule.  The fact that Play School was an oasis in the otherwise non-existent BBC2 morning schedule may go some way to explaining why so many children of the 70s have such vivid memories of the test card.  There were very few shows to watch; they were a landmark in your day; and pretty much everyone of your generation would remember them.

And not just that.  Pre-school TV in Britain was static for a remarkably long time.  The Play School format ran from 1964 to 1988.  The thirteen episodes of Camberwick Green first entertained the toddlers of Britain in January 1966; they continued to be repeated regularly, in essentially the same time slot, until June 1985.  The tiny viewers of 1985 would, in many cases, have been accompanied by parents who had watched the same episodes as toddlers themselves.  This was not unusual.  Bagpuss (13 episodes) was repeated regularly from 1974 to 1986; The Wombles (60 episodes, admittedly) aired from 1973 to 1989; The Clangers (26 episodes) from 1969 to 1986.  The fourteen episodes of Mr Benn first aired in 1971 and were still being repeated as late as 2000.

So we’re talking about a really quite small number of programmes (let alone formats) which introduced generations of British people to television, and started the process of teaching them video literacy.

Things have changed.  Now, there are entire channels devoted to pre-school television.  If you have Sky, you could – potentially – sit your pre-schooler in front of Disney Junior, Nick Jr, Tiny Pop, Nick Jr Too, Cartoonito, or something called BabyTV.  Curiously, as I write this – at 11.20pm at night – most of these channels are still broadcasting.  Who can possibly be watching?  The children of shift workers?

Alongside those is CBeebies, the BBC’s channel for children of 6 and under – older children are gently invited to go next door to CBBC – which is not stupid enough to broadcast at night, but does offer 13 hours a day of television for very young viewers.  And of course, if you really absolutely have to confront your screaming infant with a moving picture of Iggle Piggle at three in the morning, there’s always iPlayer.

CBeebies launched as a separate channel in 2002.  That’s given it enough time to build up a substantial back catalogue, allowing it to fill its acres of airtime without much resort to the archive.  The shift to 16:9 and HD no doubt presents problems with using some older material too.  A couple of hardy veteran shows are hanging in there.  Teletubbies is still shown daily – at 6am, admittedly, but that’s not such a graveyard slot where toddlers are concerned.  The Tweenies is still in regular circulation.  But otherwise, CBeebies is largely full of its own commissions.  After all, being a BBC channel, they don’t rely heavily on imports.  (Co-productions are okay – so no to Sesame Street, but yes to The Furchester Hotel.)  And they certainly don’t go for cartoons that exist to sell toys (though it’s apparently fine for a show to spawn toys).  They’ve got a public service remit, by god.

The resulting channel is an interesting beast, as we’ll be seeing over the coming posts in this series.  Alongside some shows that would sit happily enough on rival schedules, there’s a lot of educational shows, ranging from introductory cooking to basic philosophy; animations ranging from the straightforward to the virtually inexplicable; the one-man entertainment empire of Mr Tumble; and the sort-of dream-like programmes that only get commissioned by channels aiming at the extremely young, for them to look back on as teenagers and wonder – what was that all about?  It’s big on station branding, with in-vision continuity announcers, and regular guest appearances between shows that sometimes give the whole thing a pantheistic feel.  It feels like a station that takes great pride in its mission.  Some of its shows feel like labours of love.

The other thing that has changed since 1978 is that I am no longer a pre-school child.  I’m watching with one.  And of course, about half the assumed audience for CBeebies is adults.  The experience of watching pre-school TV as an adult is very different – though not one that you’re likely to have for the first time as a parent.  Back in the days when it wasn’t ghettoised to a separate channel, children’s programming could probably assume a fair number of bleary students watching.

Channel 4 presumably had that audience in mind when they inexplicably decided to repeat Camberwick Green again in 1994, when  I was a student.  The Windy Miller episode came as a bit of a surprise.  Obviously, you expect it to be dated.  But I was not entirely expecting the narrator to start talking about how Windy Miller’s business is in decline due to the rise of industrialised farming.  Then Windy produces a jug of his home-brew cider and proceeds to drink himself into unconsciousness.  Here it is on YouTube.

The cider thing is particularly strange, not simply because it’s cider, but because it turns out to have virtually nothing to do with the plot.  That plot basically involves the baker urgently needing flour from Windy’s mill, the wind not blowing, and Windy apparently saving the day by enlisting the local army to join him in whistling for the wind in the traditional manner.  Broadly, the story is one of the old-fashioned man being vindicated for sticking to his old-fashioned ways.  Except that the narrator seems sceptical that it’s anything more than a coincidence, and viewed from that perspective, it’s a story about an alcoholic luddite with delusions of weather control.  I’m fairly sure that’s not how it came across on first viewing.

YouTube also has the episode about Farmer Jonathan Bell.  Bell, the modern industrialised farmer – who is portrayed throughout the episode as a perfectly nice, pleasant man – discovers that the local villagers are buying fewer of his eggs.  Investigations reveal that they are buying instead from Windy Miller’s free range operation, because free range eggs are nicer.  Windy points out that he cannot scale up his operation to truly compete and that Bell can still sell all his eggs to the major distribution chains, so they  can both happily coexist.

This discussion of free range farming and industrialised economies of scale complete, the narrator concludes the episode with this address to Bell: “Hello, Farmer Bell!  Are you selling all your eggs now?  I expect you’re sorry that the people in Camberwick Green think that your eggs aren’t as nice as Windy’s.  Never mind!  You are giving more eggs to more people more cheaply than he can.  And that’s a great thing.  And you are the most modern farmer in Camberwick Green.  Goodbye, Farmer Bell!”  I’m fairly sure it didn’t seem so passive aggressive when I was three.

Watching these shows as an adult, with a child in tow, can be an interesting experience in double think.   What you are getting from it is likely to be very different from what he is.  Sometimes you will find yourself making your own entertainment.  But just as often, trying to see it from his perspective – one stripped of all baggage and context, and with no real frame of reference to judge any of this stuff as “weird” – can be fascinating in itself.


Perhaps the first programme you sit down deliberately to watch with your first child will be one aimed at the youngest children of all.  This is logical.  This is the show aimed at your child.  This is a famous, successful show that you had heard of even before you had The Child.  He’s bound to like it.

This is going to be a culture shock.

Next time: In The Night Garden.

Bring on the comments

  1. Odessasteps says:

    Where does Worzel Gummidge fit in?

  2. HR says:

    “There were only three channels.”

    And seemingly only two commercials. I visited Leeds in 1980-ish and I can still remember two commercials that ran over and over and over again, lol.

  3. jpw says:

    This post has made me realize how old I’ve gotten.

    Paul, I’ve been reading your various blogs since 2003, when i was nineteen years old. It’s been a weekly-ish habit for what I’m just now realizing is well over a decade.

    Weird how much this blog has changed over the years. I have a kid on the way myself and, though i live in the US, am eagerly awaiting the upcoming entries.

  4. kelvingreen says:

    My memory of Worzel Gummidge is that it was on Sunday mornings on ITV, around 11ish, but having said that (a) my memory is not the best (b) I suspect that when I was watching it in around 1984 it was already on a second repeat cycle, and (c) I grew up in the HTV region and it was a bit different to ITV proper.

  5. Daibhid Ceannaideach says:

    Wait, the clip where Windy Miller gets blized isn’t from some post-modern 1990s sketch show that somehow got hold of the models?

  6. Martin Smith says:

    As a child of the late 80s/early 90s, I can add that a lot of those 60s/70s stalwarts (Mr Benn, Bagpuss, Clangers etc) were repeatedly extensively on satellite channels like the Children’s Channel well into the 90s (alongside American imports and some original programming).

  7. Si says:

    We had two channels. The next day at school or work or whatever, everyone could talk about a show and everyone would know about it. It gave a sense of community that has been lost in the days of Netflix, where if you’re not playing a computer game instead you could be watching any one of thousands of different things, and it’s likely nobody in the world is watching it at the same time as you. We’ve gained but we’ve lost.

  8. Luke says:

    But that vague sense of community does exist among (pre-school) kids. They all know the CBeebies characters, and whilst they might have favourites, everyone generally likes them all. No one watches at the same time, but there are so few episodes that everyone knows “that episode of Sarah and Duck where they made a cake”.

  9. Paul says:

    There are more episodes of Sarah & Duck than you might think – 61, in fact. But this is something I’ll be talking about with Night Garden.

  10. Zach Adams says:

    Americans of roughly your vintage (I’m 2 years younger) got a few odds and ends of 60s-70s UK children’s TV, usually filtered through Nickelodeon (and generally put together with series from across Europe and Canada as part of “Pinwheel.”) I think the only pre-1980 ones I saw that I have heard actual Britons refer to are King Rollo, Bagpuss and of course Paddington, so I suspect a lot of the others were also-rans).

  11. Omar Karindu says:

    It feels like a station that takes great pride in its mission. Some of its shows feel like labours of love.

    Reading from the US, this is one of the things that seems especially interesting about CBeebies. Outside of a few PBS shows, virtually everything for pre-school children here has the secondary purpose of selling something baked into it.

    But curiously, it’s the PBS stuff that seems to become a multigenerational touchstone; even a show like mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was effectively canceled years ago (well after Fred Rogers’s death) , is still popular on streaming services. (For that matter, Fred Rogers’s testimony to the US Senate arguing for more funding for public broadcasting had a brief moment of virality, even four years after his death.)

    it’s a story about an alcoholic luddite with delusions of weather control.

    One of the six or seven archetypal plots, surely.

  12. Si says:

    The new invention that goes berserk and teaches us that the old ways are best is definitely an archetypal plot in these shows. Which I interpret as the scriptwriters (who are mostly Jimmy Hibbert) harbouring resentment toward the young generation that will replace them, even as they make a living entertain that same demographic.

  13. Taibak says:

    A couple years ago, I had to explain to my students (age 12 to 16) who Mr. Rogers was. Makes me feel old just thinking about that. 🙁

  14. Simmo says:

    Given we’ve always got a massive amount of British tv programming down here in Australia, I’m surprised I have absolutely no memory of Camberwick Green.

    With a 3-1/2 year old and a soon to be 1 year old, it’s going to be fascinating seeing how their viewing preferences differ, particularly as we have the same range of channels you do. The 3 year old loved In The Night Garden for about a year from 18 months old, then refused to watch it. It’s a very niche show.

  15. Zoomy says:

    I’ve always loved the moral of that episode – that battery farming is a great thing because it can supply the unwashed masses in the cities with eggs, although the nice people of Camberwick Green obviously deserve something better.

    CBeebies has some genuinely brilliant stuff on its schedules; Sarah & Duck, Timmy Time and Bing should all be essential viewing for everyone!

  16. Si says:

    I love that Timmy Time is a spinoff of a spinoff. You don’t really get that in preschool entertainment.

  17. I don’t get how Lois doesn’t recognise Justin when he’s disguised as Mister Tumble. It’s just a rubber nose and some sticky freckles!

    Rainbow and Bagpuss were probably my favourites out of the shows discussed here. The episode of Rainbow where Bungle (a bear)’s on the phone to Aunty Pat Coombs and he’s done a picture and he’s so proud of it that he holds the receiver over the pic because he doesn’t realise she can’t see it made 5 year-old me laugh so hard I still remember it at 40. Bagpuss had a rhythm and strictly-adhered-to structure that was lovely
    Gabriel and Madeline are ever my OTP, obvs. Although I still fear turning into Professor Yaffle.

    (Zippy was a baked beans! Teach your children the truuuth!)

  18. Daibhid Ceannaideach says:

    I was a huge fan of Bagpuss as well. It helped that my Mum is a huge folk music fan, so it was the kids’ show she had the most time for, because of Gabriel and Madeline.

    (Having said that, it always bugged me that Professor Yaffle was always wrong, when he was clearly the most sensible person there. In retrospect, though, that taught me the valuable lesson that being sensible and logical doesn’t actually make you right.)

  19. The original Matt says:

    I, sadly, haven’t seen much of timmy time yet. Though i thoroughly enjoy Shaun the Sheep, and watch it with my son on regular occasions. He’s taken more to watching his shows on the iPad where he can choose the viewing schedule. The scary part was one day he was in YouTube, instead of the app he usually uses, and had found, not only his shows in YouTube, but some Russian kids show featuring a bear. He’s 3. I have no idea how he navigated YouTube on his own.

  20. […] Paul O’Brien takes on British kids’ TV of our youth. It’s really, really good stuff. […]

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