Saturday 20 December 2014

The Computer Programme

Genre: Education
Channel: BBC1 & BBC2
Transmission: 11/01/1982 -15/03/1982

A world without computers would be a sorry place indeed. Just imagine having to ring up all those car insurance companies to compare prices. Doesn't bear thinking about.

However, such a world existed and it wasn't that long ago.

Up until the early 1980s, computers were the preserve of universities, businesses and a few enthusiasts tinkering in their garages.


These affordable machines meant that Britain could start getting to grips with computers from the comfort of their front room. No one had any idea on how to use one though.

The BBC decided, therefore, to launch The Computer Programme as part of their computer literacy project to get the country up to scratch on working with computers.

Getting to Grips with Microchips

The Computer Programme saw Ian McNaught-Davis (Mac for short) and Chris Serle taking viewers through the rudimentary basics of computers. The aim was to show what computers were capable of and how they achieved this.

Whilst Mac had a firm grasp of how computers worked, Chris Serle was very much the layman with whom viewers could look at and say "If he can bloody do it, then so can I!".

Each episode would open with an example of an everyday scenario that computers could be used to handle e.g. instead of sending a telegram, why not use a computer to send an electronic message (essentially a prototype email).

Several features were shown which demonstrated computers at work in the real world. Some of these examples were rather complex such as controlling traffic lights in London, but some were simpler such as Beryl the sweet shop owner keeping track of her stock and finances.

As part of their computer literacy project, the BBC released the BBC Micro priced at £235 to accompany the series. This allowed viewers to tackle programming in the BBC BASIC language which featured heavily throughout the series.

Compiling the Show's Code

Ten episodes of The Computer Programme aired in early 1982 and had a rather curious transmission history. The first strand of transmissions were on Monday afternoons on BBC2 to cater for the school demographic, but a few weeks later a BBC1 broadcast also began to air on Sunday mornings. A week or two after this, the BBC introduced a late night Monday BBC1 slot for the series. It's fair to say they didn't want the show to escape anyone's viewing habits.

The series was repeated several times over the next couple of years, but was last transmitted in 1984. Part of the reason for this is that technology advances quickly. To counter this, a number of spin off shows followed in The Computer Programme's footsteps: Making the Most of the Micro (1983) and Micro Live (1984 - 87).

The series was also shown in the USA on PBS and a Spanish version popped up on the Catalan channel TV3. Interestingly, the TV3 broadcasts featured original material which replaced the BBC Micro with Spain's 'Dragon 200' computer.

Paul Kriwaczek, who had a strong background in education programmes such as Bellamy's Backyard Safari and Ancestral Voices, produced The Computer Programme. The moody and menacing synths which accompanied the opening and closing credits were provided by none other than Kraftwerk! Both sequences were taken from their 1981 album, Computer World.

Taking Computers for Granted

We used to potter about on a BBC Micro in the late 80s at primary school, but this was mostly just educational nonsense such as spelling games.We never really learned about what a computer was. In fact, nearly 30 years on and we still don't really.

Everyone uses computers now (a fact predicted in episode one of The Computer Programme), but we all take them for granted. All we know is that there's some wires in there and they've stopped us having to trudge round the supermarket at weekends.

As luck would have it, YouTube had all ten episodes of The Computer Programme available, so we could investigate this burgeoning age of computing.

Mac and Chris Serle are a likeable duo, not quite a double act but affable enough. Chris Serle (imagine a less sneering and younger Jeremy Paxman) looks absolutely flummoxed at times by Mac's explanations, but perhaps encouraged by Mac's winning smile, Serle slowly begins to grow in confidence. And this is exactly what viewers at home wanted to feed off.

Some of the features are fascinating and our particular favourite is when they investigate Prestel. It's kind of the original internet, but if it was cross pollinated with Teletext. There's no PornHub, but there is a crude version of email - The Duke of Edinburgh even had an account. What really blew our minds was that there was a primitive form of internet banking available. In 1982. Madness. Utter madness.

Obviously, with our 21st century eyes, the majority of the features look ridiculously dated, but this is where the nostalgic charm comes from. Even though early computers were slow and achieving anything was a struggle, it gave us such a thrill. We knew no different. It was the future as far as we were concerned. Everything was going to be okay from now on.

The show is pitched perfectly at a beginner's level, but never patronises and episodes are nippy affairs which fly by. The Computer Programme does a great job at demistifying computers and it got us thinking. Is it time for a modern update? There's still a huge section of the population who may use computers in their day to day life, but don't know their capabilities outside of Facebook.

For now, though, we would highly recommend watching a few episodes to brush up on the basics of computing.

Monday 1 December 2014

5 Hidden Gems of Children's Christmas TV

Let's face it, Christmas was always, ALWAYS, the pinnacle of every child's year. The endless anticipation of whether you'd get all 600 items on your list, the sugar induced insanity brought on by too many Matchmakers and then, of course, there was the festive telly. All your bog standard, everyday shows, but with with tinsel hastily thrown up in the corner of the studio.

The arrival of the Christmas editions of the Radio Times and TV Times meant that it was time for some intense scrutiny of the festive listings. You had to watch as much as possible and, more importantly, plan a recording schedule. That one Christmas VHS would provide hours of entertainment all year round, because, get this, Christmas telly was that spellbinding.

In all the excitement of Christmas, though, some of the shows we adored were forgotten and lost to the mysteries of time. In order to make sure you know there's more to life than The Snowman, we're going to take you through our five picks of Christmas children's shows you need to watch.

ChuckleVision- Traditional Christmas - 19/12/1987

chuckle brothers christmas

Despite running for over 20 years ChuckleVision yielded relatively few Christmas specials, but one that really stands out is from the very first series in 1987.

Barry's gone and got Paul a lovely, sparkly present to put underneath the Christmas tree, but as per the standard Chuckle Brother relationship, Paul hasn't got Barry anything - it's better for Barry to give than receive according to Paul.

In between philosophical musing on the concept of altruism, we're treated to a series of sketches where Paul and Barry attempt carol singing, Merseyside DJ Billy Butler pops up with a festive edition of 'Armchair Theatre' and magician Simon Lovell conjures up a Christmas cake.

In the end everyone's left smiling as Paul makes Barry's Christmas dreams come true with a ridiculously large present, but curiously we never do find out what's in there. A particularly large jammy doughnut, perhaps?

The episode's a relatively simple affair and is a world away from the plotcentric, narrative approach of series 3 onwards, but it's a celebration of brotherly love and, apart from lashings of egg nog, what more do you want at Christmas?

'Traditional Christmas' can be found on the ChuckleVision series 1 DVD.

Knightmare Series 4 Episode 16 - 21/12/1990

Knightmare Christmas

Sure, it's not exactly a Christmas episode. Hell, for 99% of the episode there's not even a whisper about the festive season. However, that final 1% produces a wonderful bauble to hang on the Curious British Telly Christmas tree.

Helmet wearing Giles is deep in the dungeon, standing atop a transporter pad and his advisors are debating his next step. Suddenly, the dungeon begins to shake; Pickle is alarmed, but Treguard assures him it's just the end of this particular era for the dungeon. Treguard casts a quick spell to reunite Giles with Robin, Andrew and Bret. And then...

Merlin appears! And he's not just in the mood for some beardy sorcery! With a quick wave of his wand Knightmare Castle is covered in decorations and 'Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly' starts playing!

At the time we were absolutely overjoyed. School had finished a few hours earlier and we were getting more and more excited by the minute. The icing on the cake was this short, magical segment which left us with a huge smile on our face.

Giles and his team weren't exactly singing "Joy to the World" what with their quest being cut short though...

The whole episode can be found here.

Fat Tulip's Christmas - 25/12/1987

Fat Tulip Christmas

Tony Robinson's surreal tales of the goings on at Little Monkhams was rewarded with the ultimate honour of a Christmas special in 1987.

Fat Tulip wants to have a fun filled Christmas with all their best mates and plenty of stuffing sandwiches, but Thin Tim puts the kaibosh on this as he wants a quiet affair with his Aunt Mable. Out in the garden, Ernie and Sylvia the frogs have received a suspicious invitation to a Christmas party organized by the toads.

Things become complicated when Fred the Baddie turns up with 20 fellow inmates from the local prison. After Fat Tulip turns them away, 21 suspicious looking Aunt Mables turn up and are invited in. Meanwhile, the deceitful toads are party is nothing more than a ruse to rob the garden folk of their grub.

With a little helping of festive luck and cheer, though, the toads get their comeuppance and everyone else parties the night away.

Fat Tulip's Christmas was the final episode of the Fat Tulip franchise and makes for a fitting end. It's a quirky, surreal take on Christmas and Tony Robinson, again, manages to confidently portray all the characters without confusing the viewer. It also has the added bonus of Tony Robinson getting to grips with a turnip.

Fat Tulip's Christmas can be found on the Fat Tulip DVD.

The Children of Green Knowe - 26/11/1986 - 17/12/1986

Everyone's go to choice for Christmas telefantasy seems to be The Box of Delights, but that's a bit too popular for us so we're sticking with 1986's The Children of Green Knowe.

Tolly (Alec Christie) has been given the festive treat of spending Christmas with his maternal great-grandmother (Daphne Oxenford) at the family home of Green Knowe. Delightful it may sound, but it turns out that Tolly is in for a traditional Christmas ghost story.

Across four episodes and set against a wonderfully atmospheric BBC Radiophonic soundtrack, Tolly finds himself interacting with ancient ancestors and fighting evil forces on the way to rummaging through his stocking on Christmas day.

Although Christmas doesn't start making its presence felt until the last two episodes, The Children of Green Knowe retains a wintry, festive charm and you can't help but cosily wrap yourself up in great granny Tolly's family history.

The whole serial is up on YouTube here.

Roland's Yuletide Binge - 25/12/1985

roland rat christmas

The self professed rodent superstar, Roland Rat, had defected to the BBC in October 1985 and a Christmas special was hastily put together to guarantee a healthy audience on the big day.

Roland's live Christmas extravaganza from the BBC is just about to be broadcast, but there's a slight technical difficulty - Roland's asleep in the rat cave!

Rushing to the Ratmobile, Roland looks like he's just about going to make it. However, the Ratmobile is in serious need of an MOT and only manages to move a few inches before the head gasket blows.

Desperate to the point of taking Errol the Hamster's advice, Roland and Kevin the Gerbil hop on a milkfloat and 'race' to Television Centre.

A whole host of stars are waiting to greet, obstruct and divert Roland such as Frankie Howerd, Valerie Singleton, the Saturday Superstore team, Russell Grant, Jan Leeming, Ian Mccaskill, Beryl Reid and Mr Showbiz himself, D'Arcy De Farcy.

Will Roland make it to the studio in time to broadcast the Christmas special to beat all specials?!

Roland Rat's appeal was never limited to just the kids, there was always plenty for the adults to pull a wry smile about and Yuletide Binge is no different. There's laughs, stars and even a few singalongs, so it's a traditional Christmas variety show.

The show was only ever broadcast once, but luckily our parents recorded it for us on their newly purchased Ferguson Videostar. As a result, we watched it endlessly all year round for the next couple of years. That VHS was lost long ago, but thankfully the whole thing is up on YouTube here.