How Music Hall conquered the world through CRACKERJACK!

In America, they called it Vaudeville. In Britain it was Variety or Music Hall.

Buy a ticket and sit amongst your fellow rowdies to watch the succession of acts do their thing on stage. If you didn’t think much of plate spinning- or a bit of Shakespeare being declaimed- just let them know about it until someone else came on.

Comedy sketches, character sketches, leggy lovelies in chorus lines, magicians and actors toured the provincial towns. Rising or falling on the Bill (the poster listing that night’s acts) their careers waxed or waned in public.

There was a sharp line drawn between legitimate theatre (as it called itself) and the Music Hall. The Music Hall audience were just a bit too literally the Great Unwashed. Acting had spent long centuries professionalising and building respect for its artistes. Mixing in a world of dancing dogs and ventriloquists’ dummies was too close to returning to the roots of English theatre for comfort.

Theatre remains, but the Music Halls are closed. But Music Hall as a form has triumphed. It is the dominant entertainment form of modern television. Strictly Come X-Factor Idol Dancing On Ice is a stylized set of acts doing their turns in front of a baying, critical audience. You can even still boo the acts off the stage (though now you’re charged for the privilege, via premium text lines).

But while supercharged mega budget Variety booms there are some corners of the telly universe where the old fashioned values of mucking about in front of a rowdy audience continue. Those places, of course, are on CBeebies.

The relationship between the Music Hall Tradition and children’s television is very old. In fact, it was into kid’s TV that many stars (and they were stars. The music hall acts were the big, big names of their day) drifted even before the last of the actual music halls closed.

Now, I’m about to introduce you to someone who is completely unknown to you, but who was one of the best known- and best loved- of all performers for years in the UK. This is Richard Hearne playing his lifelong character, Mr. Pastry.

Mr. Pastry was the first person to ever get their own BBC television series. The character was created in the 1930s, and 40 years later he was still so popular that he was considered as a replacement for John Pertwee as Doctor Who. Mr. Pastry was so famous he used to appear regularly on the Ed Sullivan show in the US. I don’t care if you’ve never heard of him. He was a star.

Look upon his works, O ye mighty, and despair.

Now, take a look at Cbeebie’s latest vehicle for Justin Fletcher (and perhaps silent justification for moving to the huge, far away studios of Salford) Justin’s House. It’s recorded in front of an audience of screaming, hopped-up children, featuring frequent custard pies to the face, a unicycling delivery lady and a new addition to the rolls of Gay Robots.

Justin is one of the CBeebies megastars. He is a clown, fluent in sign language, who also does sketch comedy. By my reckoning he has been the star of four seperate series. He’s done silent slapstick with Higgildy House. He’s been a clown, as his alter ego Mr. Tumble in Something Special. But, to my mind, his apogee so far has been Gigglebiz. This is music-hall.

Now, remember the hyped-up audience of kids in Justin’s House? Add them to Gigglebiz’s sketches. What do you get?

“It’s Friday, it’s five o’clock, it’s Crackerjack! (CRACKERJACK!!)”

There is no call more assured of a response from a certain age group of TV watchers than to mention Crackerjack. You’ll always get the audience cry back. Here’s why:

Crackerjack first appeared on thick-glassed black and white screens in 1955. It was hosted by avuncular Eamon Andrews and was filmed in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theater– which had been built as an actual Music Hall fifty years earlier. The turns and acts for those early shows just carried on doing what they always did- except to a spectacularly excited prepubesent audience.

Even after moving to Television Centre, Crackerjack remained a protected reservation for sketch artists, stage magicians and plate spinners, even as their natural habitats died out. Music-hall as a form of entertainment was probably terrible most of the time. The acts were likely to be little better than the early rounds of Britain’s Got Talent (itself another throwback to the Variety tradition) in any given provincial town’s show.

But as a form, it is near to a perfect match for modern television’s fashions. Its rapid changes in tone and that little edge from knowing that the audience is sitting there watching and waiting for something to go wrong combine to ensure that entertainment is placed above all the high minded virtues of the Reithian televisual diet. Children’s television spent decades keeping that ember alive.

Cbeebies continues that love affair today. But the preservation of the form is of less importance than it once was. The preciously preserved Theatre has dwindled to a minority interest, where the same people go out to see each other in the interval every few weeks.

But Music-hall? Music-hall hid inside children’s Television until, eventually, Television became Music-hall.

Century Falls: The future comes for us all

Century Falls is dark. Dark, Dark, Dark. I’m reasonably sure there isn’t another children’s drama series which ends with a suicide. I’m confident that there isn’t another which presents that suicide as the rational response to the events that have gone before. 

Century Falls is the creation of Russell T. Davis, later famous for writing Queer as Folk and regenerating Doctor Who. But this is his early work, and as we all know, when you are a talented writer, before you can strike off into your future,  you first have to turn back and deal with your childhood. Well, Russell is Welsh. And our story happens in as rural a Welsh setting as you could manage to create on screen without actually setting it underground. Russell was also an outsider teen. And our hero is a fat teenaged girl. We know she’s fat, because we can see she is and we know everyone else sees it too because they regularly refer to her as the ‘fat girl’. She doesn’t get thin during the story. She doesn’t get a makeover. She is a fat girl. Russell doesn’t have to tell us the consequences for her of that fact. He knows and trusts us to know too. 

The village is full of old people. In fact, there are usually only old people in the village. The local lordling, Naismith, is a comparative youngster in his forties. Everywhere else, the old women and men shuffle around the cobbled streets of their slate grey world, keeping tabs on each other and on the newcomers- Tess and her pregnant mother. 

The only other children are a pair of twins- meek Carey struggling to keep her frankly borderline psychopathic brother Ben from doing too much damage with the psychic powers which seem to be leaking out of him. They’ve been called back to the village by their Uncle, Naismith, for reasons which owe nothing to family affection. 

The plot unwinds at a fair clip- Century Falls has been home to generations of psychics. Forty years ago, prompted by the two of them with the strongest powers, they attempted to create a godlike being to protect themselves from the encroaching future. The ceremony went wrong, their temple burt down and from that moment on no children have ever been born in the village. 

Now Naismith plans to repeat the failed ceremony, powered by his unbalanced but staggeringly powerful nephew, creating a monstrous immortal foetus which will use its mother as its puppet, never being born. And Tess’ mother and unborn sister will be rewritten, their futures erased as Century’s first victims.

I did tell you it was dark. 

So, that’s the plot. But what is is really about?

Oh, you know, loneliness. The loneliness of being an only child. The loneliness of childlessness. The loneliness of being different. 

The loneliness of being stuck in a fucking nowhere town, where nothing happens and everyone is ancient. The loneliness of having got old, and finding you’re still stuck in the same fucking nowhere town you’ve lived your whole life and you didn’t really find anyone to share your life. 

Afraid of what the future might bring, the villagers destroyed their own futures. Presented with a second chance, they almost make the same mistake. But, this time the impulse is charged with their need to grab at their last chance to create something to outlast themselves. Are there even any villains in Century Falls? Or is everyone too flawed and too human to be classed as evil?

And where is our hope? The pinprick of light in our pitch prison? It comes as Tess takes the step the entire village has been avoiding for 40 years and embraces an uncertain future as a sister. Disaster is only just averted. But I’m not sure we can say we have a happy ending. Tess’ family is saved, but their future is still as uncertain as all of ours is. The villagers accept living the remainder of their lives without being able to control how they will turn out. And the character who has seemed closest to a villain ends as a tragic figure- empty inside, having been hollowed out decades before, she cannot find any future for herself at all, and simply steps off a cliff to die.

The Box of Delights (part 1): History, Place and Evil

RADA-voiced schoolboy Kay Harker has an adventure between the Winter solstice and Christmas Eve in the 1930s. But he is just our cypher to experience the Box of Delights’ real stars- the heros, villains and dreamlike mythical figures who explode from the screen. 

I have struggled to try to write this with some sort of distance. But it’s impossible. This is one of the pieces of television which became part of my personal memories of childhood Christmas’. Shown in 1984, when I was impressionably 8, it played across six weeks leading up to Christmas Eve midnight mass. It is unquestionably the best ‘classical’ children’s book adaptation of the 1980s.

I re-watched it all recently, for the first time in 26 years. It is still magical. And I still got the heebie-jeebies from the forces of evil. These aren’t generic ‘Bad Guys’. The villains in The Box of Delights are malevolence personified. As the Punch and Judy man tells the young Master Harker, he (and they) date back to pagan times.

On the surface, Kay faces a criminal gang committing kidnaps for ransom. This is the stuff of boys’ pulp fiction. Kay first encounters them when he is tricked out of his money by two clergymen playing find the lady on the train. They steal his purse for good measure. 

Petty thievery and base disguise. In many children’s books of the period this would have been enough to establish this gang as the antagonists to be defeated. But these men are more than just thieves. The jolt as one of them becomes a looming wolf, just for a moment before the train goes into the tunnel, caught me still on rewatching. Even though the wolf is, to adult eyes, clearly one of the BBC props department’s less convincing stuffed animals. The fright comes from the leap the viewer has to make. Having pegged the clergymen as shabby con artists, we are jolted into a reappraisal. Their supernatural aspect underlines the Punch and Judy man’s warnings when Kay alights.

Kay finds he faces a pack of wolves, of hunters, who the Punch and Judy man Cole Harkins warns are running him ‘very close’. He eventually gives Kay his magical Box of Delights to hold for safekeeping, before being captured. Abner Brown, the Wolves’ pack leader, is a malevolent sorcerer. 

The link to English myth (an almost forgotten underground river, buried by Britain and Empire) seems to stem from an awareness of the landscape of England as a constant, if slumbering, presence. John Masefield, the book’s author, was the British Poet Laureate and he drew the inspiration for his verse from the rural constants of streams, fields and forests. The series’ director managed to convey that sense of place unchanging across time with wide shots framing the characters as temporary moving elements in eternally still landscapes.

This timelessness of place centers on the snow covered barrow standing in a field near Kay Harker’s home. The boys get up just after dawn and find themselves alone in the landscape. The country is blanketed in snow. Walking through the silent, early morning blankness, they could be in any time. The seasons, the barrow and the countryside are all as they have always been.

This still heart lies under the layers of action. 

All of which is to take us to the moment in the dark of midwinter when Kay, in a white cloak and cowl, climbs onto the back of a white horse, jumps to the top of the barrow and lands in King Arthur’s Camp. Time has slipped back who knows how many years, but yet here we are on the same mound in the dead of midwinter. And despite the timeslip, the camp is still besieged by the wolves. They breach the stockade and are fought back. 

Evil is eternal. But so, it seems, is Cole Hawkins.

The story’s ability to call on the depths of near-forgotten history, attached to a strong sense of place, gives The Box of Delights its most mysterious and wonderful sequence. Herne the Hunter draws Kay into his Wild Wood. They then transform, in an extended wordless hand-drawn animated sequence, into stags, into geese, into fish. Each time, they exult in their freedom only to be threatened. Hunted by wolves, then a hawk and then a pike.

The message is never spoken, never spelt out. After the extended animated sequence, Herne simply asks Kay if he saw the sequence of threats. Whether running in the woods, flying in the air or swimming the lakes the same forces are waiting for us. They take different forms, depending on our environment- wolves, hawk, pike or crooks. But they are the same universally present force of evil, the bringers of death and destruction. They are the predators who wish to make us their prey. 

A message which can hardly be divorced from the circumstances of 1930s Britain. 

Alienation: A Tea-Time Treat

I recently wrote about The Changes (1975) as an example of the alienation from society which children’s television dramas reflected as the UK’s postwar social contract was torn apart.

Whatever the reason, the shape of children’s dramas was rarely the reassuring US superhero narrative arc of the dangerous outsider being heroically repelled. Rather, we may almost take it for granted that the pillars of establishment we meet in a CBBC drama are either corrupt and malevolent or stupid and ineffectual. Village leaders will try to stone children as witches, or turn out to be in league with an ancient evil stuck in a black hole. Parents will be distant or absent at best, or actively obstructive at worst.

Of course, if you are going to have a young protagonist, narratively it helps to set them up as having to act without the safety net of adult assistance. Famously, Roald Dahl disposed of the hero’s parents in James and the Giant Peach by casually having them eaten by a rhino in the opening pages. 

But there is more to this than just upping the stakes for our heros. Britain since Suez was a place where the people in charge were more likely to be wrong than right. The nation learned that, at best, authority figures were just making it up as they went along. Just as likely, they were lying. 

The writers who grew up through that humiliation of the 1950s Suez fumbles, lived through the upheavals of the 1960s settled into their writing career in the 1970s. After all that had happened, is it surprising that they spent the next 30 years drumming the same message- Do Not Trust Power- into their viewers? 

Alternatively, you could argue that children on the cusp of adulthood are naturally alienated from adult society, but no longer fully in the childhood state. Is it any wonder that children’s dramas are filled with only children? Every child feels themselves alone. 

Some dramas tackled this head on. Archer’s Goon, an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ superlative book of the same name, deals (as every one of her novels do in one way or other) with the problem of families. Screaming sisters, unreliable fathers, gods and monsters in the family. Who wouldn’t feel out of place and unsettled trying to develop a sense of self in those circumstances? The creators’ understood that the children watching were likely struggling with the same emotions, even if not actually fighting a family of wizards while doing it.

Children struggle to find their place in adult society under even the best conditions. And writers, trying to make sense of both their experiences of society and to communicate them to children, have to balance reassurance with warnings. The magic comes when the writer and the children both recognise each other as co-conspirators. When each whispers, in view of the grown ups, but unheeded by them “We are not like them.”

The stillness of Waybaloo

They float down out of the screen. Huge heads, enormous eyes. 

Piplings live in Nara. They do yogo (yoga). Cheebies (children) come to visit them. They interact in a strange manner. Then they all do the same yoga moves together. 

Most programmes for preschoolers try to teach something- tolerance of physical difference, say. Or how to eat healthily. Waybaloo structurally fits into that mould. But what does it try to teach? The children and the Piplings usually overcome some minor-key difficulty by cooperating. Or they might exhort a Pipling to achieve some form of personal growth- to face a fear or to solve a mechanical problem. 

What is the lesson? What do the Piplings teach? 

That’s what makes Waybaloo so different from all the other programmes whose DNA it appears to share. This is not a programme about learning how to do something or even how to deal with other people. 

Waybaloo is a programme which tries to give the children watching a toolkit for reflecting, thinking and being still. This isn’t something which has ever been tried via television before. The medium is resistant to the concept of stillness. Moving picture boxes tend not to like it if you don’t move. But stillness- the gaps between actions- are the heart of Waybaloo. 

The Piplings play hide and seek with the children. But the emphasis is on the hiding, rather than the seeking. We see the four creatures looking for places to wait to be found. They waft here and there, peering into hollow logs or drifting to a halt behind bushes. Then, they wait for the children to find them. 

Every child who has ever played hide and seek with recognise the significance of those moments. Waiting to be found, holding quiet and still. 

The problem-solving aspect to the stories is also something different. It isn’t so much the actual solutions to problems which are focussed on. (When you are the owner of an ‘Everything Machine’ you tend not to have to work too hard to fix any little glitches you might encounter.) Rather, we see the process of consideration, collaboration and waiting for inspiration, on screen. ‘Thinkabout’ they call it. How to think, rather than what to think about, is Waybaloo’s education priority. 

And then, of course, there is the yoga. Called to a clearing by the chimes of a crystal bedecked prayer wheel, the Piplings (and later the children as well) go through a simple routine of yoga poses. But here’s a question for you- when did you ever see yoga on the television before? You haven’t. Even exercise shows prefer the jiggling hyperactivity of aerobics. But here, children (on both sides of the screen) are doing yoga poses and stretches at a dreamy slow pace. 

Waybaloo is reaching, stretching upward, to give children a moment of calm and stillness in their day. It also wants to encourage them to accept introspection as a natural and helpful part of a day. It is painful, as an adult, to realise that we have so nearly taken that from them.

The Changes: Excellent fansite

The Changes: Excellent fansite

The Changes

The 1970s saw a gradual breakdown in the postwar social system in the UK. The economy contracted, inflation rose while incomes fell and unions took increasingly dramatic steps to demand more money for their members to compensate.

Rubbish piling up in the streets, the dead unburied- these are the stuff of apocalyptic visions. And it was the apocalypse that preoccupied children’s television for the following ten years. But these weren’t the apocalypses of Hollywood, centered on exploding landmarks and CGI special effects.

These were domestic apocalypses. Drawing on a series of children’s books, portraying not the end of the world so much as the end of the child protagonist’s world, UK children’s TV showed us families, and the societies they lived in, destroyed.

The Changes, based on the trilogy by Peter Dickinson followed the consequences of every single adult in the UK going violently insane and destroying any technology more advanced than the wheel.

The root of the terror for children didn’t come in the loss of the radios and televisions. It came from the fact that the adults had all stopped caring whether their children were happy or not.

Violence, madness, death. These were the consequences of adult society pursuing its own priorities without caring what the effects of those choices were on their children. If you want horror, try imagining you are entirely dependent on a group of people and then make those people insane. Stephen King’s Misery was built on the same insight. But even then he made his victim fully grown.

Destroy society and you can expect the smallest and weakest members of society to suffer. The children’s TV watching audiences of the 70s and 80s weren’t going to miss that message, delivered in 30 minute chunks after Blue Peter.