“Kids in Jeans”

Graham Kibble-White talks to Alistair McGown and Mark Docherty

First published February 2003

Alistair McGown and Mark Docherty’s writing careers came about thanks to Doctor Who. Being a major part of Doctor Who fandom north of the border, they created some of the most memorable amateur Who publications of the 1990s. Although Mark harboured no ambition to become a professional writer, Alistair began contributing semi-professionally to the music magazine Sun Zoom Spark. From there he wrote for the telefantasy publication Dreamwatch and Doctor Who Magazine, as well as producing the sleeve notes for Contender’s Avengers video releases. Their mutual interest in chidren’s television drama has resulted in The Hill and Beyond, a definitive catalogue and critical appraisal of the genre to be released by BFI Books this month. OTT caught up with the authors to find out more …

OTT: What was the initial impetus for the book?

MARK DOCHERTY: In May 1998 I was planning the sixth issue of an amateur magazine that I was writing for and editing. I decided to make children’s TV drama the focus of the issue because I had a deep appreciation for the innovation and impact of a great number of series I had seen while growing up. With the help of a number of talented writers allied with a bundle of video cassettes, I covered a good few dramas and met with a generally good response. Alistair and I later discussed the fact that there was a definite gap in the market and that a larger tome, covering a wider variety of dramas, would be very agreeable.

ALISTAIR McGOWN: It seemed strange to me that things like Dreamwatch magazine always came back to the same subjects like The Prisoner and Blake’s 7 – meaning the writer had to come up with a fresh angle. But when you did something like Timeslip you had a much freer hand – only fanzines like Time Screen had ever mentioned a lot of that children’s fantasy stuff and the good reason for that was that research resources and tapes were so hard to find. When Mark put together his fanzine I could only do a brief intro piece (I think I was busy with my PhD at the time) but when that came out I think we both realized how much stuff was not getting coverage anywhere – stuff we wanted to dredge up and see again.

Before that I had been getting into the web and on mailing lists and the new TV Cream you could see people were enthused about this stuff but had only vague memories to hand. I once had a discussion about Break in the Sun on a forum somewhere and someone else insisted it was “Break For the Sun”. I just had to know I was right! Publishing is all about not repeating someone else’s work – if you can spot a gap then you know it might be worth exploiting that.

OTT: What appeals to you about children’s TV drama? Was it an important part of your growing up years, and if so which programmes would you cite?

ALISTAIR McGOWN: My mum always says that I learned to read really young so I could read the TV listings in the papers. I would watch everything – Play School, Pipkins, Blue Peter, Doctor Who, Space:1999, Tomorrow People, Star Maidens, The New Avengers … Stuff that was aimed at children and stuff that wasn’t. But the children’s dramas were just really absorbing – particularly the short run serials that introduced you to a whole new world and set of characters for six weeks. I really did see everything into the late ’70s and early ’80s. King Cinder, you know, that was great. But Grange Hill was an obvious one – that absolutely terrified me but you still watched it anyway. Flockton Flyer! Break in the Sun was a really “gritty” one that really got at your young mind and started doing things with it while Marmalade Atkins was just so funny but there was some kind of weird theatre aspect that you knew was over your head somehow. Dramarama was brilliant as well – when the titles rolled with that big red curtain you had no idea what was going to happen in the next 25 minutes. The only things that left me cold occasionally were Sunday serials – fantasy ones I liked, the literary adaptations of the standards I found a bit dull – a period set adventure like Black Beauty was much more my thing.

MARK DOCHERTY: In my case it has always been the scope of subject matter that has appealed to me. That and the methods employed to apply hard-hitting and often emotive scenarios to an impressionable audience kept me entertained as a child and often still fascinates me as an adult. In many cases children’s drama demands more thought and ingenuity than drama for adults. Well, it used to anyway.

OTT: What exactly did you submit to the BFI in the first place? Had you already started writing before you got the commission?

ALISTAIR McGOWN: The first format in the proposal was a kind of “50 best” notion with about 2000 words on each programme. We just based it on things we knew about or had some tapes of, so it was obvious “biggies” like Grange Hill, Box of Delights, Black Beauty, Catweazle, Timeslip etc. We sent three sample entries – I wrote Carrie’s War and Century Falls and Mark wrote Stig of the Dump. Looking back they were a bit flabby and overlong – there’s as much info and critique in the 900 words or so that finally made it into the book. I wish I had started writing before the definite commission as I was “between jobs” having finally left Uni at that time. But you don’t like to waste time writing to the wrong format, do you? All I had was the odd bit of Radio Times/TV Times research I had done to satiate my own curiosity – brief episode guides to Seaview or the Marmalade series.

MARK DOCHERTY: The reason we specifically picked those programmes in our original proposal was because we felt that they demonstrated diversity, but to be honest we didn’t move very far beyond that point prior to the commission because we felt that there was still scope for refinement and change. And as Alistair says, we didn’t want to devote time and energy to writing articles that would perhaps have to be drastically altered later on. As it was, we were subsequently rejected by one publisher, while the BFI took an interest and requested a meeting to discuss the matter further.

OTT: How did you go about researching the book – how much was thumbing through old listings mags and how much was it actually watching the programmes themselves? Did the BFI provide copies of stuff?

MARK DOCHERTY: There was an almost unbearable amount of thumbing through old listings magazines, but almost every long and medium entry benefits from the fact that we have been able to view material. In some cases it may be every episode of the series and in some we may only have been able to get part representation. We also viewed a good amount of the short entries where we were able. Obviously some entries had to be written purely through information gleamed from TV listings, but I do not consider that to be unreasonable. Some programmes have of course been junked and copies of others were simply unobtainable. We also travelled, with considerable help from our friend Paul Moore, to a number of locations in Scotland, England and Wales in the pursuit of novels, novelizations and information on picture-still covers.

ALISTAIR McGOWN: When it came to writing the book, we quickly became thankful that the other publisher had rejected the proposal (they were concentrating on “franchise” books based on one subject like Buffy or whatever) as the BFI gave us viewing access to a lot of their VT material. A commercial publisher simply couldn’t have done that and the book would then have relied too much on our memories. There was indeed a lot of listings scouring going on, though, and my lifelong collection of Look-In magazine (about 400 of them) was a godsend too. Hopefully it’ll be quite obvious that we have viewed at least sample episodes in most cases. Mark and I have done a lot of video trading over the years and I think that convinced the BFI that we had a lot of material ourselves and weren’t just doing this to view their entire stock of tapes!

OTT: Did you uncover any surprises in your research, or dispel any myths?

MARK DOCHERTY: Yes and Yes. There have been surprises almost since the day we started and they have continued right up to the final draft submission. I’d say that a good few myths have been dispelled. Keeping it in perspective though, the myths dispelled may not apply to everyone. It depends on individual perceptions and opinions. I recommend that you draw your own conclusions when you read the book.

ALISTAIR McGOWN: I just wanted to answer loads of questions for myself. The ’50s and ’60s – bar the odd fantasy actiony thing like Freewheelers – were a virtual mystery before I delved into the listings. Sadly a lot of this era has effectively been rendered prehistory by the lack of recording facilities and junkings but hopefully we’ve put together a convincing picture of what sort of stories were and were not being told. The myth of Grange Hill as the first “realistic” drama is a nonsense – I’d say it was The Siege of Golden Hill that ATV did in 1975. GH was the best at it and got all the headlines but it was not the first.

Old chestnuts like “the BBC did costume stuff and ITV did ‘kids in jeans’ stuff” is nonsense too. And is the ’70s a golden age? I’d say that the early ’80s, with ITV putting together a concerted effort in networked programmes and the BBC having to try hard to fight back is possibly the high point. The book is a total nostalgia fest if the reader wants it to be but, in the decade overview chapters in particular, it’s hopefully written objectively from an overall perspective.

OTT: How did you divide the work up between you, and was there ever any disagreement with conclusions and findings?

ALISTAIR McGOWN: That’s a hard one to call. You realize that you can’t just say “well you do this 900 words and I’ll do that 900 words” – the amount of effort required can vary hugely. If you do Press Gang you’ve really got to watch 50 or so episodes. If you do a six-part serial that means you only watch six but if it’s based on a novel you have to read that source work, maybe look into the author’s background and so on. So these things are impossible to plan. Some of them were split in the end through necessity and deadlines – I wrote the latter half of Press Gang and Mark wrote about the ’90s Tomorrow People while I wrote the ’70s. Hopefully we don’t contradict each other anywhere – I think we always tried to be positive about the series we covered and if you do that no-one’s slagging something off unreasonably that the other author’s quite fond of. You have to have basic respect for the actual piece of TV work you’re looking at.

As I’m sure Mark will concede, I wrote the decade overviews that go through the “spine” of the book – I felt that they needed one writer to give it continuity. I had to draw it all together into a book and acted as editor – also hopefully formatting the programme data as consistently as possible with a designer’s eye.

MARK DOCHERTY: I would loved to have been involved with those decade commentaries and while I disagreed with Alistair’s feeling that they’d benefit from being written by just one person, his greater knowledge of the television medium as a whole dictated that he was better positioned to write them in a shorter space of time and with less research. I had hoped to pick up extra programme entries as a result of this to balance out the work, however time constraints from my “proper job” and BFI deadlines prevented me from doing so.

OTT: Alistair, you mentioned the design element – you actually ended up designing the book as well. Are you pleased with the way it’s turned out? Seeing as how you’ve leafed through a few TV-related volumes in your time, were there certain design elements or features you particularly wanted to include or avoid?

ALISTAIR McGOWN: I was delighted to do the design – I didn’t see why someone else should do it and then hand it over to me to take out all their mistakes. Hopefully that way you get meaningful picture captions and so on. It’s nothing over-elaborate but always functional. What helped though was that I was doing all the picture selection, with Mark having a say too. The BFI Stills Dept took our shortlist of about 70 key series and came back to us with some great stills and some poor ones – for example they came back with a picture of Dr Watson from The Baker Street Boys which is hardly representative of the series: you want one or all of the kids themselves. If an outside designer was working on this, they might well just put that picture of Watson in because it was to hand.

To make up the shortfall I had, I ploughed through Look-Ins and tie-in merchandise to find the best quality pictures I could, cleaned them up and so on. We were really pleased with the merchandise galleries that accompany the decade chapters – pretty much all of this both or either of us do own in our collections with the exception of a Vice Versa cover for TV Times which was from Paul Moore! Again, it’s doubtful a “jobbing designer” would go to those lengths. I do want to continue to work in print design so it was a great experience.

OTT: Who’s your target audience for The Hill and Beyond?

ALISTAIR McGOWN: I hope that the TV nostalgists will come and buy it in droves but it’s not written from vague memories down the pub. Still, it should fuel a few good pub conversations! It should also still work as a researchers’ guide or could be just as useful to a teacher who’s wondering if there is a video to accompany a book their pupils are studying in school.

MARK DOCHERTY: It’s primarily a research book but written, we hope, with a charisma that should ensure that it isn’t stand-offish to the more mainstream drama enthusiast.

OTT: What other TV-related resources/books do you rate and find useful? And can I tease you into naming and shaming some of the more useless tomes out there?

ALISTAIR McGOWN: Big reference works of usable listings info and so on are always impressive – things like Roger Fulton’s Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction for example. Mark Lewisohn’s Comedy Guide doorstop goes further I think in that it has really readable critiques of the series it covers rather than just drier data – hopefully The Hill and Beyond does the same.

The Kaleidoscope archive listings publications are superb too – they only list episodes and transmission dates usually but for researchers they’re terrific. I had to start the book without the use of the Children’s Guide but I eventually managed to get hold of it at a more advanced stage and that allowed us to cross-reference our own notes and plug a few gaps. Obviously because TH&B concentrates on a subsection of children’s TV we’ve been able to go a bit deeper and correct and add to what they’ve listed – there are some errors in their guides but that’s inevitable given the sheer unbelievable size and scope of them.

The Guinness Book of Classic British TV by Cornell-Day-Topping book is still one you keep going back to when you’ve watched something on a repeat or on video. Nicely opinionated and very thorough. Having said that, given its huge scope it can’t do very much with children’s drama – Follyfoot is described as “popular” and Carrie’s War was “spooky”. They had one word on each, we’ve got nearly 1000 plus all the episode data. Something like Richard Lewis’ Encyclopaedia of Cult Children’s TV has its market but I wouldn’t want to compete with that. Having said that I still maintain that people who bought that book will get as much, similar enjoyment out of our book despite it being based on more cross-referenced research work and not written in that self-consciously comedic tone.

MARK DOCHERTY: I don’t think there’s any merit in “naming and shaming” the hard work of others though, regardless of how useless I consider that work to be. I’m sure that every work is of use to somebody and to suggest otherwise would be unprofessional.

OTT: Are their any inclusions/exclusions you think will be controversial? For example, I know know Doctor Who isn’t featured.

MARK DOCHERTY: Fact and opinions on Doctor Who are available in a multitude of other tomes and mediums. Think how long the entry would need to be. Not practical and not really of any use. Some other exclusions may seem controversial initially but a quick reread of the remit of the book should make it immediately clear why a few programmes are missing.

ALISTAIR McGOWN: I certainly hope people won’t be too angry and criticize us for “missing” things that we thoroughly considered and found wanting as “drama”. Rentaghost, even in its first season, isn’t disciplined storywise thus it’s not drama; The Ghosts of Motley Hall nearly made it and fell at the last fence. I actually wrote an entry for Jossy’s Giants and it was cut. We realized that if you go that far into comedy you have to accept everything else and if we’d done that it would open the floodgates, the number of entries would double (Graham’s Gang, Here Come the Double Deckers!, Pardon My Genie, Maid Marian etc etc etc) and the BFI would drop it! We’ve only included the best-written and most interesting “comedies” as “exceptional” in all senses of the word. Things like Worzel Gummidge, Marmalade Atkins and in particular Seaview were too well-written as quasi-drama to miss out.

OTT: Finally, what’s the best ever children’s TV drama?

ALISTAIR McGOWN: The Owl Service is great because it’s not written at children or down to them. Century Falls is brilliantly constructed and has some deeper characterization. Grange Hill took so many risks in its first nine or so series and has largely remained well-written since. Press Gang strikes the perfect balance between moving and amusing. Hopefully what the book celebrates though is how wonderful it was to have such a huge variety of series made in the last 50 years. I think the state of play now is fairly unencouraging by comparison, sadly; ITV particularly don’t really seem to understand what drama is and the BBC is too keen to pass off sitcoms as “comedy-drama”. It would be nice if The Hill and Beyond acts as a reminder for the children’s TV producers.

MARK DOCHERTY: I think it depends on each individual. One person could wax lyrical with regards to The Children of Green Knowe because they consider it a very personal and emotive proposition. The person sitting next to them could argue and cite Grange Hill on the basis that it has been extremely brave and forthright in its handling of risky social realism. It depends totally on personal criteria and taste. The beauty of The Hill and Beyond is that the drama each reader considers to be their favourite should be in there waiting.