“And Now For Younger Viewers…”

Steve Williams with a brief history of the Broom Cupboard

First published August 2002

Ask anyone over the age of 20 what they think of children’s television these days and nine times out of 10 they’ll tell you it’s inane rubbish. The main reason? Those presenters! Nowadays it seems that we’ve got more children’s TV presenters in this country than doctors and nurses. Though that’s perhaps not surprising as we’ve got far more children’s television than we used to have – BBC1 and BBC2 manage about six hours a day, every day, and the BBC offer a whole channel of it on digital telly. Rewind 20 years, and the BBC’s children’s output consisted of about 90 minutes each afternoon, plus Play School every morning, 15 minutes at lunchtime, and Swap Shop/Superstore on a Saturday.

Nowadays CBBC is a real industry, a brand all of its own. Back in the early ’80s, it wasn’t the case. Yes, viewers knew that the programmes between 4 and 5.30pm in the afternoons were made for children, but in the Radio Times they were simply billed alongside the other programmes and introduced in the same way, by an avuncular announcer over the globe. Occasionally there’d be an effort to create a “zone”, with specially-created menus and styles, but that would be it. It wasn’t always thus – back in the 1950s and ’60s, children’s programmes had a look all of their own, with the shows introduced by Jennifer Gay, an astoundingly posh 16-year-old. But this was a short-lived experiment which ended when the BBC decided not to label the output as “children’s television” – apparently they didn’t want to discourage a wider audience from watching. Then in 1964 the BBC children’s department was closed down, when it was felt that the family audience was more important. Children’s drama and light entertainment was made by the respective adult departments and the rest came from “Family Programmes” – a bizarre merger of children’s TV and women’s programmes. Imagine This Morning coming from the same producers as Tweenies for a modern-day equivalent. This didn’t last long, and though the children’s department returned in 1967, the programme presentation was still strictly formal. This was how it stayed right throughout the ’70s and early ’80s.

Meanwhile, ITV’s children’s output throughout the 1970s, again presented by the usual announcers in the usual manner, seemed hugely disorganized. People remember programmes like Magpie but they don’t remember the days when the “children’s” output consisted almost entirely of imports such as Little House on the Prairie, Happy Days, or even a boring family film. In the early ’80s, the IBA forced ITV to make more of a children’s service, and the immediate result was “Watch It!” Invented by ATV and implemented from Christmas 1980, all children’s programmes now went out under this banner, and the hour between 4.15 and 5.15pm was now strictly confined to children’s output. However this wasn’t quite there, as while the branding was carried nationally, each region used it in a different way, normally with their usual announcers introducing each programme.

A more cohesive service came in January 1983 with the launch of Children’s ITV. Here, for the first time, was children’s TV as a self-contained service – its own specific name, presenters and presentation. It was also now extended to start at 4pm – albeit with the extra time filled by repeats from lunchtime. The service was networked by Central and each month would be fronted by a different person from a Children’s ITV programme – the first being Matthew Kelly. The new service was popular, but wasn’t always a success – because the presenters were on every day for four weeks, the links had to be pre-recorded, and so if there was a breakdown they couldn’t do anything about it. And because the links came from Central while the programmes came from other companies, there were often breakdowns. The idea was that after each link the camera would keep rolling for a minute so there’d be something to show if the next programme didn’t turn up, but this just looked odd. Late schedule changes were also a problem, and one day regional opt-outs meant Derek Griffiths had no option but to turn to the camera and say “And now, a surprise!”

Meanwhile the BBC, while still producing fine programmes, were less than sure-footed. Noting the success of the ITV product, the BBC had experimented with poor-looking computer animations between the programmes, but the plummy announcers were still heard. There were also scheduling problems from September 1984. Previously children’s programmes had run until the evening news began at 5.40pm, but the news was then moved to 6pm. When did children’s TV now finish? Some nights it did run on until 6pm, with the 1985 series of Grange Hill being screened at 5.35pm. Other nights, though, series like The Good Life would begin around 5.30pm, and at one point Star Trek – by no means a children’s programme – was screened at 5.10pm. This all led to a lack of focus. It was decided to freshen up and relaunch the whole service in September 1985.

So at 3.55pm on 9 September 1985, Phillip Schofield presented the first afternoon of Children’s BBC. The new format was thought up by BBC executive Pat Hubbard, and was one of those great, simple ideas that TV thrives upon. The notion was to hire a specific children’s anchor, but where could they broadcast from? Easy. A camera was installed in the BBC1 continuity suite, which would now be empty when children’s programmes were on. The presenter would simply sit in the announcer’s chair and do their job – but this time you could see them, making them the first in-vision announcer on the BBC for over 20 years. Like ITV, this meant that children’s programmes got their own self-contained slot, with the output tailored especially for the young audience. 5.35pm was also made the official end time.

Hubbard struck lucky with her choice of presenter, although it may never have happened. Weeks before the service went on air, a presenter could not be found, and they were reduced to auditioning members of the Grange Hill cast to take on the job. However the idea of Fay Lucas introducing Blue Peter was cast aside when Phillip Schofield arrived, fresh from living in New Zealand where he’d spent the previous few years fronting TV programmes there. He was new to British TV, though, and had an affable manner that made him the ideal choice. He turned out to be perfect for the role, and his inexperience didn’t matter – because as it transpired, that was exactly what was needed.

What’s notable about the early years of Children’s BBC was the hugely ramshackle way it was presented. The most hi-tech aspect of the whole output was the title sequence – a five-second animation produced on a BBC Micro. Even this wasn’t infallible, though – the first title sequence introduced the strand as “BBC Children’s”, and was corrected within a few days (Schofield greeting the amended version with “Ooh, another one!”) The rest of the output was as economical as possible – consisting entirely of Schofield, in his own clothes, chatting to a fixed camera on the wall. Phil did absolutely everything – he faded himself up, switched on his microphone, ad-libbed his links, and then ran the programmes himself. And there was no attempt to disguise the fact they were in the continuity suite – the only amendment to the decor was hundreds of drawings sent in by viewers at home. Phil wasn’t even billed in the Radio Times for 12 months.

Schofield’s first afternoon was a real baptism of fire – Blue Peter underran by a few minutes and so he had to improvise to fill the gap with a picture of Simon Groom and a sea-slug. But this was all part of the fun, and viewers excused all sorts of amateurism and cock-ups because of the enthusiastic way it was presented. The oft-screened out-take sums it all up – Phil trying to create a visual effect but instead managing to find the BBC1 globe on screen instead of him. He managed to get back in vision only to find he’d lost the sound, and so simply waved a silent goodbye to viewers and fell off the air. Schofield was almost sacked for this, but mid-carpeting was interrupted by the Head of Presentation roaring with laughter who said it was the best thing he’d ever seen. Schofield kept his job.

The junior telly addict found much to enjoy in Schofield’s presentation, so much so that this writer would always make a point of watching Children’s BBC regardless of what programmes were on, just to see Phil do his stuff. Indeed, given some of the output (ancient Children’s Film Foundation pictures in the “Friday Film Special” and umpteen repeats of Gentle Ben), he was often the only good thing about it. It wasn’t a normal presenting gig – in fact, it was more like being a DJ than a normal TV presenter. For example, on a Tuesday, the chart was announced and Phil would simply stick the Top Ten page from Ceefax on screen and read it out (the budget wouldn’t stretch to their own graphics), before playing a burst of the number one from the record player alongside him. Phil also had to time his links just right, and viewers could check this by watching the VT clock for the following programme count down on the monitor behind him. Of course, the aspect everyone remembers was the singing along to the theme of Mysterious Cities of Gold, and viewers could send in for songsheets – which were actually transcribed by Schofield himself with a tape recorder.

Of course, the high point for anyone nuts about TV presentation were the days when children’s programmes were screened on BBC2 for whatever reason. Such was the “working studio” aspect of the Broom Cupboard, it couldn’t be used when they switched channels because it was needed for BBC1 continuity – that’s the same reason why the CBBC presenter had to introduce Neighbours, or whatever followed at 5.35pm, themselves. So what to do? Easy – a move to the BBC2 continuity suite, which was even more untelegenic and dingy than the BBC1 equivalent. The plug sockets and switches on the wall were covered up with a tatty brown curtain and Phil had to talk into a huge microphone mounted on the desk. This “making do” was one of the things that made CBBC so watchable in the early days. On Phil’s first appearance on John Craven’s Back Pages in the Radio Times, writing about the first few months in April 1986, he talked about the afternoon he wore a kilt because they were on BBC2 everywhere except Scotland (as they weren’t screening the Israel v England football match that had pushed them to the second channel). Obviously, occasions like this led to more of Phil’s trademark detailed rundowns of the day’s schedule, especially when they started having to say “Goodbye to Wales!” a minute before the end every day – thanks to a regional opt-out at 5.35pm.

Such hilarity saw Schofield quickly become “Mr Children’s Programmes” at the BBC – when you thought of the children’s output, you thought of Phil. Hence he was soon representing the department everywhere. It wasn’t long before he got his first presentational gig, sensibly fronting the kid’s right-to-reply programme Take Two in April 1986. The budget for this wasn’t that much higher than the Broom Cupboard’s so he must surely have felt at home. It meant he had to take six weeks away from the Cupboard to do this, and so Debbie Flint became his first ever stand-in. In fact, it’s almost surprising how often Phil didn’t appear that year, because not long after his return Children’s BBC was shunted to the mornings over the summer and another unknown, Andy Crane, stepped in. One of the more curious episodes in Children’s BBC history, the afternoons in July and August saw rotten cartoon The Roman Holidays (later Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home), Heidi and repeats of Fame screened every day from 4.30pm and linked, again, by the BBC1 announcer. After six tedious weeks of the same shows day in day out, Phil returned to the afternoons and they never tried that idea again.

Meanwhile, Children’s ITV, noting the success they’d had on the BBC, decided to refresh their output. In 1987, they abandoned the idea of monthly guest presenters and instead hired permanent hosts of a live service – so no more shots of presenters staring at the wall waiting for Razzmatazz to show up. Former Central continuity announcers Gary Terzza and Debbie Shore fronted the new look from a studio at Central TV in Birmingham. This was perhaps more professional than the BBC alternative – the studio was larger and Terzza and Shore had someone to carry out their technical operations for them – but seemed to lack the immediacy and friendliness of the Broom Cupboard. It’s perhaps notable that Terzza and Shore were later replaced by a single presenter, Mark Granger, and Children’s ITV moved to a much smaller Broom Cupboard-style set. Later still, the links were presented from various control rooms and editing suites around Central, as if to become even more like the opposition.

Meanwhile Schofield ended 1986 with a Christmas of breakfast transmissions from the Broom Cupboard (with the Breakfast Time clock!) Schofield didn’t let us down by spending ages detailing what would happen when they broke for the news at 8am. These breakfast sessions also saw the debut of Gordon the Gopher, who he’d received from a relative that Christmas. He soon became Phil’s in-studio foil (controlled by Paul Smith, who when he wasn’t crouched under the desk was Executive Producer of the output). By this point they’d even managed to get a proper animated title sequence. But Phil’s time in the Broom Cupboard was coming to an end, and in August 1987 he bowed out after a final afternoon fronted from a rickety picnic table in the courtyard of TV Centre with Sarah Greene, the Newsround team and his replacement Andy Crane sat alongside him. It all ended with a visit to Michael Grade’s office, where Gordon was offered a role in a remake of Gone With the Wind with Selina Scott. Then it was off to Saturday mornings.

Andy Crane was an adequate replacement for Schofield, and was responsible for some equally memorable broadcasting – notably a seven-minute breakdown which saw him reduced to reading the Top Ten out letter-by-letter. The Broom Cupboard’s low-tech status also one day almost saved the whole of the BBC. On 16 October 1987, the morning after the great hurricane, Television Centre was almost completely blacked out apart from the Broom Cupboard, which had its own power supply and cost very little to run. Just before 7am, BBC bosses ran into the “studio”, pulled down the kids’ drawings and sat Nicholas Witchell there to blather on for two hours. A few years later, in 1993, Noel Edmonds also sat in the Broom Cupboard while explaining to viewers that because of a bomb scare, they couldn’t bring us Noel’s House Party.

For many, an era ended when Crane left in 1990 and the vaguely charmless Andi Peters took over, followed in 1993 by the hopeless Toby Anstis. Then in September 1994 it was really all over, when the Broom Cupboard was abandoned and CBBC moved into a dedicated full-sized studio. Now they could have more flexibility over the links, but it lost the charm of the Broom Cupboard. Anstis now had co-presenters and games to distract him, rather than simply addressing the audience directly. We lost the friendly “one man making his own fun” approach, and when Anstis left in 1995, he wasn’t replaced by one main presenter but instead a revolving line-up of hosts, sometimes appearing in pairs.

The Broom Cupboard was perhaps an unusual idea – if Children’s BBC was being launched today, there’s almost no chance they’d do it like that. And surely no presenter would agree to do some of the stuff Schofield and Crane had to do. But for those of a certain age, there’s something achingly nostalgic about our Broom Cupboard presenter reading out the schedules from the Radio Times, then actually putting the next programme on or inventing an item on the spot. Like Tiswas, it proved you could be entertaining with a budget of about 50p and a fertile imagination. Today’s CBBC is certainly more professional, but it seems more remote. And until Angellica goes home and spends the evening transcribing the lyrics to the Wild Thornberrys theme tune, that is how it’ll stay.