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.