Takin’ a squint at the print in a new children’s TV programme from Thames
Notice anything different about Tuesdays last month? Kids rushing off from school a bit faster? A desire to avoid detentions? If you did I wouldn’t mind betting it had something to do with Smith and Goody, the new Thames TV series about books. Kids rushing home to watch a programme about books? (I hear you cry incredulously). Ah, but this is a book programme with a difference. For a start it makes you laugh. Mel Smith (of Not the Nine O’Clock News), Bob Goody and Peter Brewis have put together a show which takes books out of the clean-hands-have-some-respect-for-culture-this-is-special league and puts them firmly in the arena of everyday life: material for sketches, parodies, jokes, just like pop music, politics, TV and the royal family.
Programme three, for example, started with Mel in dressing gown stuffing himself with toast and reading bits out of the Puffin Crack-a-Joke Book. A book pops out of the toaster and is duly buttered and bitten. Doorbell rings. It’s Bob, carrying a pile of books and clearly visible beyond the glass of the ‘front door’. ‘Answer the door, Bob.’ yells Mel, still intent on book and breakfast. ‘Bob, the door.’ (Implication: when you’re stuck in a book you don’t want to be disturbed.) Eventually Mel goes to the door, but won’t believe it’s Bob and makes him post the books through the letterbox. ‘The TV Kid, Tyke Tyler, I am David.” I thought you said your name was Bob.’ But the book is not in the programme just for the joke -there’s a moment at the end for telling us it’s about refugee camps and trying to find your family.
Bob is still outside. Suddenly Mel and the set are transformed. He is a besequinned TV quizmaster and if Bob wants us to ‘Open the Door’ he has to tell us everything he can remember about his favourite book (Tyke Tyler) in sixty seconds! The timer spins, Bob struggles to tell us about Tyke and Danny, the eleven-plus test, the stolen watch, the hideout … Mel prompts, hectors, bullies. Bob pants on, ‘And, and, and … there’s an amazing twist at the end.’ Gong! ‘Sorry, Bob, your time is up.’ ‘But can I tell them about this really fantastic twist?’ ‘ Sorry, Bob, we’re out of time. They’ll have to read the book.’ (Leer, leer.)
There’s also a running argument about This is Ridiculous (Donald Bisset stories) which starts with Mel interrupting Bob’s straight Blue Peter-type presentation to say he thinks the book’s a load of rubbish. The debate continues at home with Mel in the shower. (Implication: it’s okay to disagree about books: it’s even fun to argue and discuss preferences.)
And that’s only the half of it.
The series is aimed at nine to fourteen-year-olds, and Smith and Co. hope to ‘encourage reading among that section of the children’s audience which does not habitually borrow, buy, or have access to books’. It’s fast, anarchic, and very funny. It recognises that its audience is made up of sophisticated viewers, it doesn’t condescend and it doesn’t preach. It’s the most imaginative thing TV has done for books in a long time. Smith and Goody are in the business of changing attitudes. If they succeed. we’ve got to be ready to take advantage of it with the right books and the right approach.
The first series of six programmes finished at the end of October. A Christmas show is in preparation and a further series is planned for early 1981.
Details from Thames Television, Television House, 306 Euston Road. London NW1 3BB.
Frankenstein, Dracula and friends – back where they started
Monsters, vampires, werewolves – they have come a long way since writers like Mary Shelley and Brain Stoker captured then between the covers of books which, so delightfully horridly, chilled the spines of our nineteenth-century ancestors. This century they burst out of books into films which have now inevitably turned up on our TV screens. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Hammer Horror, now raise a smile as well as a shiver; and with that smile back our old friends come into books.
In Frankenstein’s Aunt, Allan Rune Pettersson, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 24933 1, £3.95, cigar-smoking Hanna Frankenstein returns to her nephew’s castle to tidy things up and restore the family name. Igor is still there, so is the monster (lifeless as yet). Talbot, the werewolf, pays a call, and Count Dracula drops in. Hanna and her secretary Frans remain rational, unruffled and determined to sort it all out. It’s a nice idea, and there are some funny moments, but for the most part it just tries too hard. The story is also available on cassette tape read by Valentine Dyall, with music and sound effects. Valentine Dyall is an incomparable reader, but even he can do little to give life to such turgid prose and, for the most part, the jokes fall flat. The effects are good though – and the novelty might just appeal to a reluctant reader.
Dracula – Everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask, Victor Ambrus, Oxford, 0 19 279746 8, £3.95, has got pictures and comic strip (a la Briggs), puns, ‘Dreaded wheat with spookghetti’ for supper, and tells what happens when Dracula hounded by insistent creditors (Dentist: five sets of fangs) has a ‘fangtastic’ idea and opens up the castle to tourists. It’s quite funny. Not a rich source to be returned to again and again like Fungus – but good for a passing giggle.
More successful are two recent titles which pass up the joke in favour of thrilling the reader or scaring him/her stiff.
A Walk in Wolf Wood, Mary Stewart, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 25291 X, £3.50, is a timeslip fantasy set in the Black Forest. Two children meet a werewolf and help him fight his enchantment and regain his rightful place beside his friend the Duke. A gripping tale, well told.
The Hell Hound and Other True Mysteries, Peter Haining, Armada, 0 00 691745 3, 75p contains tales of vampires, abominable snowmen, Egyptian mummies – all your favourite horrors.
Promised soon: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, adapted in comic strip form by Alice and Joel Schick (Heinemann, £3.95) and The Eerie Series (Harper and Row) stories of film characters in easy-to-read chapters. First titles, Meet the Vampire by Georgess McHargue, and Creatures from Lost Worlds by Seymour Simon. Both £3.95.
Grange Hill Forces BBC re-think
The success of Grange Hill as an early evening BBC2 programme has encouraged the BBC to consider putting out material with the 13 to 16-year-old audience in mind.
This month we are promised Spine Chillers – a sort of Jackanory-plus with actors reading stories by Saki, H G Wells and M R James. Early next year as an early evening serial comes Maggie, the story of a 16-year-old Glasgow girl and her problems. Scripts by Joan Lingard from her novels The Clearance and The Resettling (in paperback from Beaver).
The last series of Grange Hill gets a repeat run this month as a run-up to a new series beginning on 30th December (twice weekly, Tuesdays and Fridays).
Lions announce a new Bob Leeson, Grange Hill Goes Wild for December.
Return of The Book Tower
Having carried off the Prix Jeunesse in Munich for the best children’s TV programme, The Book Tower starts a new eight week series on 22 December (ITV). Watchers’ Guides will be available with details of all books featured in the programme week by week – and a message from Tom Baker. Apply to The Book Tower, Yorkshire TV, the TV Centre, Leeds LS3 IJS. (Limited numbers available, so apply now.)
Long, Short and Tall Stories
A six-week series from the BBC Adult Education Unit, with the aim of getting parents more familiar with children’s books. Presented by Aidan Chambers with film of and interviews with authors and illustrators including Quentin Blake, Alan Garner, Nina Bawden. Starts on BBC2 (early evening) on 16 November.
Spin-offs for Christmas
If books are not tying-in to TV, then they are spinning-off, especially at this time of the year. There are old institutions like the Blue Peter Seventeenth Book (BBC, £1.85) devised and written by Biddy Baxter, Edward Barnes and John Adcock, and managing to look and sound exactly like the other sixteen. Which is just as it should be. At least the book hasn’t gone down the drain like the programme’s presenters. The Match of the Day Soccer Annual (BBC, £ 1.80) pops up in predictable form too, with comments from Jimmy Hill, John Motson, Tony Gubba and the rest of the gang. Kevin Keegan (who else?) also appears and so does (you’ve guessed it) Lawrie McMenemy. Lots of photos, facts and figures. Good value for a footballer’s stocking.
New this year are compilations from the two Yorkshire Johns – Noakes and Craven.
Noakes at Large, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10465 3, £3.25, consists of sixteen pieces (and some bits) only about half of which are accounts of ‘going with Noakes’, and have any sense of personality behind them. The rest are factual pieces on things like heraldry or festivals, which pale sadly beside accounts of Noakes walking in the Grand Canyon or going on the footplate of an express steam train. Most of the photographs, too, are from picture libraries; few feature Noakes (he ‘appears’ in Toni Goffe’s cartoons) and somehow it doesn’t really feel like his book.
John Craven’s Newsworld, EP Publishing, 0 7157 0733 1, £3.95, in contrast seems very much his book. He reports ten stories – sensibly not immediately topical – from around the world, with a style, language and viewpoint just right for young readers. He describes, explains and comments, so that the reader ‘feels’ each situation – whether it be an earthquake in Guatemala, a soccer match in America, or animal rescue in Panama. Glossy paper, coloured photographs, many of them featuring the author on location, and clear layout and design all help to make this my choice of the two and well worth the extra 70p.
John Noakes seems diminished by his book, John Craven in his, more substantial than he is on screen. Perhaps it’s because one is an actor and the other a journalist.
In View Soon
The Good Companions,
J B Priestley. Alan Plater’s serialisation in nine hour-long episodes starts on Friday, 14 November (Yorkshire)
Walter Scott, is the BBC Sunday serial. Starts 7 December.
Barry Hines’ story of a year in a gamekeeper’s life (Penguin). Adapted as a ninety-minute play, directed by Ken Loach. 16 December, 8.30 (ATV)
The Bagthorpe Saga,
Now due to start end January. Six half-hour episodes, with Dandy Nichols as Grandma (BBC)
The Bells of Astercote,
A fifty-minute play from Penelope Lively’s novel Astercote. Due around Christmas.
Coming Next Year
Sense and Sensibility,
Jane Austen – January (BBC1)
Sons and Lovers,
D H Lawrence – January (BBC2)
The Little World of Don Camillo,
Giovanni Guareschi – (BBC1)
F Anstey – (ATV)
P J Kavanagh – (Southern TV)
Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,
Douglas Adams – (BBC)
Just as BBC TV is serialising A Tale of Two Cities, there is news that yet another film version of Dickens’ novel is in progress. Cast includes Peter Cushing, Dame Flora Robson, Kenneth More and Billie Whitelaw.
Roman Polanski’s film of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is due to be released in London in January. Granada, we hear, are planning a TV version to be transmitted in 1982.