Contrary to the old saying, nostalgia these days is better than it ever was. This week, RTE’s TV50 began Children’s Classic month on the RTE website Player. Some of the programmes are very familiar. Misty-eyed smirking at Bosco is a relatively mature sport and there are a number of well-worn tropes: Why were the only two things on the other side of the magic door the zoo and the sausage factory? And what acid-soaked genius came up with The Plonksters? Oh look, do you see Yer Wan giving the Humanist greeting at Michael D’s inauguration, wasn’t that Suzy from Bosco? There are few enough surprises when watching the six Boscos, apart from unintended hilarity during the baking episode where Bosco declares him/her/itself so hungry, “I could eat my box”.
From a social history point of view the programmes which are more interesting are the ones where the shiny young things from RTE met the great unwashed on the Saturday morning Young People’s programmes.
Although the signature tune and opening credits for Anything Goes, with its VT of tight polyestered dancing trousers and men with moustaches on rollerskates, made it look and feel a little like an Elton John video; the content was very innocent. On the surface at least. If Thelma Mansfield was the woman everybody wanted to be their mother, then the feelings towards Mary Fitzgerald of ‘Mary Fitzgerald Make And Do on Anything Goes’ fame may have been less wholesome.
In the episode on the Player, Mary made a Table Football game from a cardboard box, toilet roll and some egg cartons. Mary had elected not have “one I made earlier” so with five children staring at her in the studio, it wasn’t easy going. “It’s not turning out very well, is it boys and girls? I think this egg-box head is a bit stubborn, he doesn’t want to be stuck on a footballer.” As far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter whether Mary was having difficulties or not, she was a blonde beacon of woolly jumpered sunlight in a country of non-stop scattered showers.
At the start of the show, Mary is visibly displeased when co-presenter Aonghus McAnally revealed that the programme was going to be cut short because of the Labour Party conference. This meant there wasn’t going to be time for a story. There probably would have been time for a story if Anything Goes hadn’t done an interminable report from the 11th Community Games in Mosney but even this had its own points of interest.
There was the girl who could have entered the 600 metres race but changed her mind and did Art instead, the cyclist from Coláiste Chríost Rí in Cork who is congratulated by the reporter for getting nine Honours in his Inter Cert and the fact that the athletes are running sprints and hurdles in bare feet on an uneven field.
If we fast forward ten years, Saturday morning television had evolved greatly as can be seen from Scratch Saturday. By this stage, we were the in realm of ‘zany’. This meant a lot of leaping about, cameras zooming in, gunge and general ‘wackiness’.
But no matter how much they turned up the octane in the studio, the true value of this programme was when they talked to real children. It was a Mother’s Day special and one cheeky imp wrote a poem to his mother complaining about how she would always send him out to get more coal during Glenroe. There was a Guess The Mystery Guest competition. Cathal in Athlone went straight for the question “Are you Marian Finucane?” The guest was in fact country music singer Sandy Kelly. You wouldn’t think a Country Music singer would be recognised by ten-year-olds but in fact she guessed quite quickly. It just goes to show that twenty years ago, if you were on RTE on a Sunday night, then EVERYONE knew your name. I don’t fancy Sandy Kelly’s chances of being Mystery Guest guessed by today’s eleven year olds. “Have you appeared on a manipulative Talent Show in the last 12 months? No? Then I don’t want to know?”
Other programmes in the selection reflect just how surreal children’s television always has been. In 1965, not many people had a TV so it’s doubtful whether Dáithí Lacha – a cartoon duck with his friend Puisín (catchphrase: “Aililiú!”) – would be remembered by huge numbers. More would have seen Wanderley Wagon – an apparent homage to the Beatles’ LSD period.
The little gem in the series is Pat’s Chat, presented by Pat Ingoldsby. With a phone on his head. (So that Mrs Rafferty could ring, natch.) There was the Clonk box and lots of other props that probably in hindsight could have done with a bit more Mary Fitzgerald Make and Do-ing but at the time the programme was the perfect outlet for fans of silliness of any age.
One thing missing from the nostalgia-fest on the RTE website was the Extra Programme. Like power cuts and car doors that could only be opened from the outside, the Extra Programme was a feature of life twenty years ago that we accepted as normal. These programmes were put on whenever someone in RTE did the sums and found that there were five minutes that needed to be filled before the news. The programmes were ostensibly for children but often they felt like the tortured imaginings of an underground artist, smuggled out of an Eastern Bloc country under the spare wheel in a Trabant.
The last word of course should go to Bosco “Tidy up, Goodbye Goodbye, Put everything back in its box. See you soon, Goodbye GoodBye. And remember now, you’re the tops!”