A few weeks ago I was watching television with my seven-year-old niece, and found myself saying the following words: "When I was your age we had a television set that ran on valves."
"Valves?" said my niece.
"Yes, and it was wooden. Except for the screen, of course."
My niece frowned. "I thought you said it was made out of valves."
"It ran on valves," I explained, "but it was made out of wood".
Our conversation lapsed into silence. We were watching a programme called Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! The Super Robot Monkey Team were visiting a planet with the annoying name of 'Shuggazoom'.
"Children's television programmes were much better in my day," I observed. "I mean, doesn't this strike you as a bit childish?"
"I don't really mind," said my niece.
I went into the kitchen, where Jennifer was cooking dinner. "What are the five greatest children's television programmes of all time?" I asked her.
"It's a subject about which I have absolutely no opinion," said Jennifer. "But something tells me that you already have strong convictions on the question. Perhaps you can write an article about it, and then I can study it carefully when it gets published. I probably wouldn't comprehend the full brilliance of your analysis if you told me right now," she added.
"Or better yet," I suggested, "I could write the article, and read it aloud to you at the same time." I took out my notebook and cleared my throat.
1. The Tomorrow People
The first Tomorrow People episode was broadcast on ITV in 1973, but it wasn't shown in New Zealand until the late 1970s. It was so good that I used to run home from school so that I wouldn't miss it. The opening credits were brilliant, and featured alternating images of an unfolding hand, the Tomorrow People's faces, and a sliced capsicum.
The ingenious plot involved a group of teenagers who had somehow ascended to the next step of the evolutionary ladder. They could send telepathic messages to one another, and had developed the handy trick of teleporting (or 'jaunting' as they called it) to any location in the galaxy. Despite their evolutionary superiority, they practised a form of political correctness in terms of their self-description: "Properly speaking, we're actually Homo Superior. But we don't think it's polite to call ourselves that -- so we prefer to use the name Tomorrow People."
The Tomorrow People lived in secret laboratories in London, and helped protect the earth from invasions by hostile aliens. Invariably the aliens would turn out to be controlled by Adolf Hitler, which meant that much of the dialogue consisted of the phrase: "Adolf Hitler -- not you again!". The brain-work for these alien-fighting endeavours was carried out by a computer called Tim, who seemed to have been built with a few Canadian transistors. This gave a distinctive lilt to his otherwise impeccable Oxford accent: "Warning: Enemies are waiting oot-side", "Warning: Adolf Hitler is wandering ab-oot our secret laboratory."
A major attraction of the Tomorrow People was Elizabeth. According to perhaps the saddest and most tragic site on the web she was "beautiful, smart and... a natural leader". It is testimony to the enduring legacy of the Tomorrow People that -- even today -- Elizabeth has inspired websites such as this, and beautiful 'ASCII artworks' such as this.
The opening credits of UFO say it all. The year is 1980. Aliens with pink contact lenses are invading the earth. And the only thing that stands in their way is SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation).
It was a television series that was long on acronyms, and short on acting ability. The producers of the programme, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, took the successful formula they'd employed for Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Stingray, and Supercar and turned it on its head. Rather than using puppets that looked like real people, UFO used real people who bore a strong resemblance to puppets.
A major premise behind the series was that -- by the year 1980 -- Britain would have a fully operational moon-base, and that string vests and fake-looking wigs would have become standard garb for female members of the military. Sadly, however, neither of these predictions have eventuated.
In its day, UFO was often criticized for its depictions of violence, but -- in retrospect -- it also had educational value. The first time I heard the word "mutilate" was on UFO. Later that same day I used my expanded vocabulary to threaten my little brother.
Brother [holding dictionary]: Mum! David says he's going to excise, maim, or otherwise deprive me of my bodily organs!
The series also had important educational value in terms of what our school euphemistically referred to as 'health studies'. Even Elizabeth paled in comparison with the uninhibited charms of the UFO cast.
3. Time Tunnel
"The exciting past! The breathtaking future! The Time Tunnel!". Most of my knowledge of history comes from this television series, which featured two atypically photogenic scientists travelling through time.
As the opening credits explain, the time tunnel was a huge scientific project that cost "billions of dollars". Despite its breathtaking price-tag, the machine spent most of the time either broken down or exploding. This meant that the hapless scientists were perpetually trapped in the worst kind of good news/bad news cycle:
"The bad news is that the machine has exploded again -- so you're trapped on Krakatoa island in the year 1883! But the good news is that we've managed to turn it on again just seconds before the volcano erupts! But the bad news is that we've transported you to the deck of the Titanic just before it hits an iceberg!"
The educational aspect of Time Tunnel was slightly diluted by its admirably post-modern approach to chronology. As a consequence, the order of certain historical events is confused in my mind. Did the Napoleonic Wars really come before Pearl Harbour? Weren't the pyramids built by dinosaurs?
In some ways, however, Time Tunnel was superior to conventional approaches to education. For example, how many of the so-called history books reveal how the human race will eventually die out. Clue: The earth's oxygen will be stolen by aliens.
"Lidsville is the Koo-Koo-Kookiest,
Lidsville is the Ki-Ki-Kickiest,
Lidsville is the Groo-Groo-Grooviest
Lidsville is the living end, friend."
Like other television programmes from the same production company (which also documented the adventures of Proto-hiphop-speller Pufnstuf, and angst-ridden crustaceans Sigmund and the Sea Monsters), Lidsville featured such protracted opening credits that it barely had time to cover its weekly storyline.
The plot was typical of 1970s hippy television. Boy visits circus. Boy climbs into giant hat. Boy is transported to magic island populated entirely by sentient headwear. Boy becomes a pawn in an epic battle between politically incorrect bad hats, and groovy free-thinking good hats.
The programme promoted such worthy messages as "be nice to people" and "it doesn't matter if you're different". Wayne Mapp would have a fit if it were shown on telly today.
Lidsville was -- if I am to be completely honest -- quite annoying. An appreciation of the well-meaning preachiness of the whole Lidsville/Pufnstuf/Sigmund oeuvre can be gleaned from this clip, which features guest-star ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot singing about the difficulties of being a witch.
5. It's Academic
When considered purely as a television programme, It’s Academic was unspeakably awful. It only played for half-an-hour, but -- to me at any rate -- each episode seemed to last an entire afternoon. Its dullness was absolutely astonishing.
But somehow Lockwood Smith's smirking presence transcended the normal conventions of television. There was a strange fascination in watching him at work -- as he unashamedly greased-up to the kids from posh schools, and blankly cold-shouldered the kids from trashy schools (like the one I attended). It's Academic was clearly the pinnacle of Lockwood's career, and it's been quite depressing to see his subsequent slide into politics.
I actually knew the kids from my school who went on the show. They never scored a point, but I have always treasured this exchange between Lockwood and their opponents, which -- I swear -- I am not making up:
Lockwood: What's the average of these five numbers: 1, 3,...
Posh kid: Three!
Lockwood: I don't know quite how you did that. But three is the correct answer! Well done!
Of course, a possible explanation is the market economy at work. I have often wondered how many of the posh kid's parents were also contributors to Lockwood's campaign fund.
I paused for breath. "So what do you think of my analysis?" I asked Jennifer.
"Mmmm..?" she said. "Well, perhaps your accusations of corruption on It's Academic are going a little too far..."
A thought suddenly occurred to me: "Hey, do you think Alice in Videoland might have any of these on DVD?"
It turned out that -- miraculously -- they did.
Later that evening I switched off the programme my niece was watching, and inserted a DVD of the Tomorrow People into the player. "Now pay close attention," I instructed her. "I don't want to raise your expectations, but what you are about to see is the greatest children's television programme of all time."
Alas, it was pearls before swine. As the opening scenes played, a series of extremely bemused looks passed across my niece's face. She was nonplussed by Tim the talking Canadian computer. Adolf Hitler's appearance failed to generate any excitement at all. She was even un-moved of the terrifying hordes of polystyrene aliens. At the end of the first episode she turned to me, and said: "Uncle David, can we please watch something else?".