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  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses