I’m back from holiday. With exhaustion and a cold, which feels unfair. Anyway, back to the chart rundown that’s dragging on so long you’ve lost interest.
(Shown 2977 times, 1997-2009)
It’s funny how, once a product of a genre becomes truly massive, most people completely forget what had previously seemed to be the go-to example from that genre. For example, before Street Fighter II came along, what was the go-to-reference for a one-on-one fighting game? Yie Ar Kung-Fu? Punch-Out? Frank Bruno’s Boxing? Good as they seemed at the time, nobody’s clamouring to pump out 2023 sequels to those, are they? Meanwhile, Channel Five aren’t about to throw together (and almost immediately shelve) a documentary series on The New Wave of New Wave, are they?
And, similarly, in the mid-1990s it seemed like TV for pre-schoolers wasn’t about to get any bigger than Tots TV. Produced by Ragdoll Productions and Central, this started in 1993 and the title certainly made no bones about who the target audience was. Despite the generic title that, at least to me, sounds more like a programme strand than something with an actual premise, it had… an actual premise. Basically, following the lives of three puppet housemates: Tilly, a flame-haired French girl (with her nationality changed accordingly when shown in other countries), blue-haired smartarse Tom, and green-haired youngling Tiny.
Tots TV became a major hit, at the time becoming the nation’s most popular pre-school TV programming and shifting VHS compilations by the truckload. Admittedly, at this point, the bar for pre-school telly didn’t seem particularly high. A Sunday Telegraph article on Tots TV form June 1996 mentions that the most popular pre-school video in the USA at the time was called Baby Mugs, and basically featured close-ups of babies’ faces set to music. And, to help market the videos, parents with especially attractive babies were given free copies of the tapes in return for allowing their own children to be taped for a future volume. So, several degrees more disquieting than Kiddystare from The Day Today.
All of which might explain the easy pickings for Ragdoll Productions when it sold Tots TV to the US television market. That wasn’t enough for Ragdoll, however. Around the time Tots TV dominated the under-fives market, Ragdoll carried out research at nurseries and family homes around the UK, filming the reactions of toddlers to their Tots TV follow-up. The company’s producer of programmes Anne Wood stated at the time “we want to make a programme for the under-fives that will make them laugh and increase their thinking skills”. To help secure the attention of the toddler audience, Watch With Mother-style ‘proper’ pronunciation was trimmed back, replaced with the indistinct speech patterns the audience would be familiar with. If you were under three, these weren’t more adults telling you what to do, these were friends you wanted to spend time with.
That research led to a different approach for the new programme. Gone was the manic energy of shows like Pob or Chorlton and the Wheelies, and in came a gentler pace, specifically to give the audience a little more time to stop, listen and consider the action. And, quite crucially, key elements of the programme would be repeated. Nails on a blackboard for parents, but a key tool in understanding for the show’s real audience. Plus, test audiences actually loved the scary baby-face sun, confirming that toddlers really are Very Strange.
DRUM ROLL: and that programme was… you know what it was. A show described in a later Telegraph article as “four technological babies are linked to reality via televisions in their stomachs”. And so, on 31 March 1997, Tinky Winky, Laa Laa, Dipsy and Po arrived on the BBC for the first time. And to show just how much faith the Beeb had placed in the series, it seized the slot then held by pre-school stalwart Playdays. No pressure.
It was something truly at odds with the trend at the time. While Teletubbies was being developed, Sony were churning out videos such as ‘Dirty Diapers Dancing’, ‘Gurgles and Giggles’ and ‘Multiple Madness’, where infants performed an approximation of dancing to cheap-to-licence pop songs. Sure, the adorability quotient will have been high for a certain type of parent (y’know, fellow parents you regret accepting Facebook friend requests from), but that’s really offering little more than a distraction for the audience.
Anne Wood’s different but carefully considered approach soon won over audiences when the programme first appeared in the BBC schedules, but that did little to sway journos looking for an easy way to fill column inches. Hey, it’s popular with a generation different from yours – your instinct will be to immediately distrust it, yeah?
The big phone vote debate in the following weekday’s Daily Mirror was on abortion, just to you know the level we’re on here.
Tabloid outrage factories put in extra overtime in July 1997 when Tinky Winky actor Dave Thompson was withdrawn from the series, producers citing his ‘interpretation of the role [being] not acceptable’. A frenzied dig into Thompson’s past uncovered (at least according to the Daily Mail, so have a pinch of salt ready) his habit of relaxing in the nude while out of costume on filming days.
Even the broadsheets were easily coaxed into the pile-on, with The Times coupling a story on less than healthy licenced ‘Tubbies-branded snacks with a footnote on research from Paris on increased risk of heart attacks for overweight children.
Even the Telegraph, the newspaper that had highlighted the research and reasoning that went into the series months before it launched were happy to jump in.
Also in the UK, and even in the USA, right-wing hacks found plenty to cram into their outrage pipes about the notion that Tinky Winky was promoting a gay lifestyle because handbag. Once everyone with an ounce of sense had finished rolling their eyes at the manufactured furore, LGBT activist David Smith offered an assurance to the parents of the world that “your children will not become gay due to the subversive effects of the colour purple, triangles and magic bags.”
And yet, it was Tinky Winky et al who’d have the last laugh. The Fleet Street furore died down, and Teletubbies became one of Britain’s great television exports, going on to air in 120 countries and in 45 different languages. It seeped so far into the public’s consciousness on both sides of the Atlantic, it was go-to reference-fodder for everything from Have I Got News For You to Harry Enfield and Chums over here, and for The Simpsons to Family Guy over there. It was even jostling with the likes of Irvine Welsh, Kathy Lette and J G Ballard in the bestsellers list at one point.
The original run of the series only saw new episodes produced between 1997 and 2001, but that didn’t prevent them being aired on a daily basis for years afterwards. And that was far from the end of the saga – in 2015, the series was rebooted for a new generation of tots to enjoy on CBeebies, with episodes still in production in 2022. And they certainly weren’t doing things by halves – the opening theme music is performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
On a personal level, this is the first programme on the entire rundown where I’ve personally met the cast.
Yeah, you’re right to look impressed.
(Shown 3005 times, 1986-2004)
“Your mother’s in a care home? And is being drugged? For the convenience of the staff?”
“Your daughter, she’s about to get married. And you just threw black ink all over her dress?”
“I never touched her!”
October 1986 was a real transitional moment in the great timeline of British television. With Programmes For Schools and Colleges now airing over on BBC2, BBC1 stuck an arm down the back of the Breakfast Time sofa and rustled up enough cash to afford a brand new daytime schedule. All they needed was fresh content to fill it with. A lot of fresh content. Eventually, for one of the slots, they’d land on the programme under consideration here. But it took a while to get there.
Nominally, the new daytime schedule started at 10am, the post-Breakfast Time slot had long been enjoying actual programming for the benefit of anyone needing a post-Bough comedown before the white heat of Pages From Ceefax. Indeed, it took a little while for that slot to fully become part of the new Daytime BBC1 line-up, leaving it free to host all manner of filler between 27 October and 24 November 1986. On Day One of the new daytime schedule, the slot was taken by Who’s a Pretty Girl, Then?, a documentary following a beauty pageant for girls aged three-to-nine, and all manner of flotsam soon floated there: Pigeons – Queer Facts, On the Throne, a few early broadcasts of Neighbours, Emergency – Bloomsbury 3 and The Last Day.
Eventually, on 24 November 1986, British television welcomed a long-planned vehicle for a man who, upon being elected as Labour MP for Knowsley North in 1974, confidently predicted he’d be Prime Minister within 15 years. That plan having been scuppered by Militant, Robert Kilroy-Silk made the move to television, but not without lobbing a few bricks over his shoulder as he left – timing his headline-nabbing official resignation from Parliament on the day of Neil Kinnock’s keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference, and releasing his tell-all diary telling of his disillusion with the party being published on the first day of the conference – it also being serialised in Rupert Murdoch’s Times.
And so, a television career beckoned for the former lecturer, and as everyone knows, that programme was called… Day to Day.
Yep, Kilroy-Silk’s original discussion-based programme went by that title, running for 107 episodes between November 1986 and May 1987, mostly with a billing that offered viewers a chance to “join Robert Kilroy-Silk to discuss a topic that touches your life.” Given it’s position on the nascent BBC1 Daytime schedule, you might expect the programme veer away from anything too rabble-rousy. After all, it shared a schedule with Five To Eleven. Looking at some newspaper television listings at random from 1987 may provide some answers.
5 Jan 1987: “Robert Kilroy-Silk, Patric Walker. Jilly Cooper and a studio audience discuss astrology.”
3 February 1987: “Robert Kilroy-Silk is joined by two convicted burglars who confront a studio audience of victims of burglary to explain why burglars rob people.”
19 March 1987: “Robert Kilroy-Silk chairs debate on compulsory sterilisation of the mentally handicapped. With Brian Rix of MENCAP.”
Bloody hell, that escalated quickly.
At the end of the run, half-term children’s programming filed the 9.05am slot, followed by Election Call and repeats of Dallas in subsequent weeks. Bye, Day to Day. But in October 1987, Kilroy-Silk was back. And he meant business.
By that time, ITV had found their own rugged morning discussion show host, with Mike Scott’s The Time… The Place – the first daytime show to be aired throughout the national ITV network – attracting a solid million viewers per day. Time for the BBC to fight back, with their very own “golden-haired hero out of a Barbara Cartland novel” (as the Daily Mirror’s Patricia Smyllie put it) front and centre.
“I never run out of ideas, and I like the challenge of facing a similar programme on the other channel”, roared the silky-smooth one. “You get the sort of publicity you get nowhere else. I once turned down an early morning breakfast show because I refused to get up at 5am. They were amazed because no one had ever refused before. No one has refused to go on my show either.”
Not that there was much different between Day to Day and the renamed Kilroy!, to be honest, at least during those early programmes. But putting the name of the host in the titles was surely a canny move for a man fast becoming a cult figure amongst daytime viewers. Prior to his debut on daytime TV, the Daily Mirror had little positive to say about the former MP. Within a few months of Day to Day hitting the screens, the same publication would frequently publish puff pieces cooing over Kilroy-Silk:
All over Britain. Hoovers are switched off, dusters put down, Nescafe brewed. legs curled up on sofas. as a sizeable proportion of the female population settle down for a good old-fashioned fawn.
One was moved enough to write a poem to the BBC viewers’ letters show Points Of View which read:“As Smooth as Silk”, Colin Wills, Sunday Mirror, 1 March 1987
“If you want your day to be honey and milk
“Start each one with Kilroy-Silk.”
And that was at a time when Kilroy-Silk was penning opinion pieces for rival rag The Times. So, the same mix of discussion on topical subjects was rechristened with a third of the host’s moniker. The topics certainly remained a consistently inconsistent mix of the controversial and cliched: “Clause 28” (26 January 1988), “Maybe working women make better mums?” (3 March 1988), “Astrology” (again) 13 May 1988.
It was a formula that proved to be a hit with many viewers, and led to a number of special episodes for the permatanned host. 1989 saw a one-off special (and not, as you’d more reasonably expect, a Davey Jones strip for Viz) Kilroy in the Holy Land, where he and his guests “discussed prospects for peace”. That was followed by 1990’s Kilroy in Hong Kong, where Kilroy-Silk listened to the anxieties and hopes of the people of the colony as it inched towards 1997’s transfer of power. 1992 saw Kilroy on the Costa, while 1994 saw Kilroy Down Under.
Those overseas sojourns were accompanied by runs of Kids on Kilroy (1992) and Kids’ Kilroy (1994-1995), where topics were (thankfully) watered down to the likes of “Do brothers and sisters always have to love each other, or is an only child better off?”, “How do Britain’s next generation look at people in authority?” or “Young people talk about the clothes they like wearing and why“. I mean, because they’d get cold otherwise, probably.
As the new millennium whizzed by, Kilroy remained (for the most part) a fixture on the BBC. Surely nothing was about to derail his conversational juggernaut?
Oh, right. Yeah. That’ll probably do it. Still, plenty more channels out there who’ll welcome his no-nonsense approach. Onward and upward.
Oh, right. Yeah.
Phew. Another one down. Will we ever reach number one on the list? Tune in again soon to get a few inches closer to that numerical utopia.
One response to “The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (24 and 23)”
Teletubbies is one of a short list of TV series whose theme songs have sold over a million copies in the UK. Joining such classics as Stranger on the Shore and Eye Level, as well as everyone’s favourite tradesperson Bob the Builder. Ed Sheeran’s version of The A Team doesn’t count.
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