Fraggle Rock was as good as I remembered, but Count Duckula was much, much worse

CITV's Old Skool Weekend pricked the bubble of childhood nostalgia for Bim Adewunmi.

What's your earliest memory? I have trouble remembering which of my memories are mine and which I've heard so many times as family folklore that I've reassigned them to my personal memory bank. What I have no trouble remembering is childhood television. The flickering box in the corner of the room was very much on while I was growing up, and changes in location – from east London to downtown Lagos – meant nothing in the grand scheme of my watching habits. So I remember Rainbow quite clearly (and being very distressed whenever somebody zipped up Zippy), and I have fond memories of singing along to the Jimbo and the Jet Set and Muppet Babies. I laughed at Dangermouse and The Trap Door and I watched the repeats of Vision On and Hartbeat. So when CITV announced their 'Old Skool Weekend' to mark their 30th anniversary, I was somewhat pathetically excited. This was my first error. As anyone who's ever met their hero will tell you: don't do it - they'll only let you down.

I settled in on Saturday morning, expecting to be hit by a wave of potent nostalgia and got… nothing. I've always resisted the charge that children's television has got dumber over time (honourable mention: Fairly Odd Parents), that the Golden Age of children's television was largely behind us by the time we hit the 90s. But perhaps the atrophying had begun even earlier. I started with T-Bag, and was shocked by how average it was. What had enchanted before merely delivered the basic goods. I shrugged it off and went to make a cup of tea. 'Count Duckula's coming soon,' I thought. 'And that was ace.'

An hour later, I found out the miserable truth about the Count: he was rubbish, wasn't he? How did he so successfully hypnotise us into believing his greatness? I sat, stony-faced and angry with myself for remaining seated. Such was its badness, it failed to elicit even a smirk from me, and I am a known smirker: I will laugh at the silliest of things. Carrie Bradshaw-style, I couldn't help but wonder: was I being overly harsh? Had the joy and innocence of childhood been so successfully leached from my heart, leaving only the tiny lump of coal that is a prerequisite for an embittered TV column? Short answer: no. Because Sooty and his friends were as charming as ever, their high-pitched squeaks a soothing balm to my disappointed soul.

Thank God also for Fun House: Pat Sharpe's limpid eyes, Melanie and Martina, a studio full of overexcited children, plus a briefly disconcerting bit when Pat asks a young contestant who likes dancing to "show me your booty, get on the floor!" (she does an adorable side running man). Knightmare carried on hitting high notes. This was nostalgia! Bad (but quite exciting at the time) graphics? Check. Children from the Home Counties (Simon, Derek and Daniel – names very much at home in the early 90s) helping Barry get through the course? Check. Hackneyed dialogue delivered by actors emoting far too much for the show in question ("nothing can save you except knowledge")? Check!

Straight after, Fraggle Rock came on. I had been obsessed with this show, going as far as writing up exciting fanfic for the Doozers, a move which, with hindsight, makes me view my younger self ever more favourably. Thankfully, the Henson magic was undiminished, and in a marvellous half-hour I was utterly entranced by the antics of some felt and fleece muppets. Incidentally, it was my favourite ever episode, one featuring Convincing John and his harmonising acolytes, which made it even more special. Here was a programme that truly spoke to the adult as well as the child – the mark of a great children's programme, yes? Now, I could see the evangelical fervour of John's performance, his 'hypnotic' powers had that sheen normally associated with the charismatic cult leader's, his jazz hands – and moustache – the pure theatre of Little Richard's rock n' roll. Watching it and getting all of this as an adult was an unexpected and welcome surprise, and only served to enhance my enjoyment of the show. Fraggle Rock gets it, Dangermouse gets it, Hey Arnold gets it. And in twenty years, Horrible Histories will get it.

Clearly, my discontent was not echoed by the vast majority of viewers: the Old Skool Weekend drew CITV's biggest ever audience. Nostalgia sells. It's part of the reason why Heinz continues to do so well. The thing is, brand heritage takes us only halfway – Heinz ketchup still manages to come out on top in blind taste tests, too. In the taste tests of television, the shows that get it, the ones where re-watching does not erode the legacy, are the ones we need more of. That way we get rewarded twice: now when it counts, and or the future, when we're basking in the glow of warm nostalgia.

A scene from Count Duckula.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.