Friday 24 February 2017

Animal Fair

Have you ever seen how excited children get when they're confronted with animals? It's like catnip to cats, but with, uh, cats to humans... Anyway, children love animals and I guess this is down to the fact that animals never shout "DON'T DO THAT!" and are prone to running around with a manic abandon, just like children.

However, there's a whole world of animals out there and, no matter where you live, you're always going to be limited to the furry, feathered or scaly critters you can encounter. So, how do you teach children about the diversity of our beloved planet's wildlife?

Sure, you could stick them in front of a David Attenborough documentary, but, whilst a world beater in the world of adult television, this type of documentary is perhaps a bit too sedate for over-excitable children. Instead, they want a bit of laughter, fun and song. And, luckily, this can all be found by taking a trip to Animal Fair.

Genre: Children's
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 1986, 1988

Animal Fair uses stock footage to bring wildlife from all four corners of the globe into our living rooms without the carpets being turned into a horrendous combination of browns and smells. And that's why we get to see beavers chewing through trees, crocodiles burying their eggs on the riverbank and gorillas lumbering across grasslands. Occasionally, original footage is also included, but this is reserved purely for UK based filming such as Gilly the collie dog going fishing.

Wildlife footage is all well and good, but you need something to bring it all together and provide, at the very least, a basic narrative. Luckily, not only does Animal Fair have antipodean great Don Spencer on hand, but Don's mercurial talents are also coming along for the ride; songs featured include an ode to Don's beloved marsupial family ("It's a marsupial! It's a marsupial"), a ditty about the deceptive nature of crocodiles ("Crocodile, you've got a wonderful smile, and I must admit I kind of like your style") and even a song about garden wildlife ("Ants so busy working all the day, I wonder if they stop for tea").

Feeding the Animals

Two series of Animal Fair were produced for BBC with the first series in 1986 comprising 8 episodes (airing at 4pm on a Wednesday and then repeated the next day in the lunchtime SeeSaw slot) and the second series in 1988 being a shorter run of 5 episodes (episodes airing at 4pm on Wednesdays). The series was repeated a few times on BBC1 and BBC2, the final repeats came in 1992.

Animal Magic

Despite the first series airing in an era where I managed to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of lunchtime children's TV, I honestly can't remember one sing iota about Animal Fair. Naturally, this was a troubling situation, so I leapt at the chance to watch a few episodes when they were offered to me.

There's something quite enchanting about wildlife documentaries, captured on camera instead of cowering away or lurking in the undergrowth, it's an opportunity to view the less than subservient animal subjects of the world we've taken control of. And Animal Fair is no different.

Children, of course, are great explorers and ravenous for new sights and sounds, so Animal Fair delivers plenty of exotic animals such as wombats, crocodiles and prairie dogs to satisfy this curiosity. However, children also love the security of familiarity and that's why it's a clever move to include collie dogs, cats and hedgehogs.

Most exciting, though, are the songs in Animal Fair. Anyone who was young in the 1980s will be well aware of Don Spencer and his talent for knocking up a catchy little number. He thrilled us in Play School, he dazzled us in Hokey Cokey and the musical prowess of those two shows is easily matched by Animal Fair.

In fact, given that Don Spencer is so engaging in front of the camera, it's a real shame he's merely on narration duties in Animal Fair. Seeing a presenter get up close with animals always makes for an intimate affair, but I guess the budget wouldn't stretch to sending Spencer all round the world.

A few points to take note of:

  • Whatever happened to that brand of children's TV presenter who could also play guitar and sing a la Don Spencer and Derek Griffifths?
  • Animal Fair was surely the inspiration for Two by Two which featured the songs of Derek Griffifths and the 'close up with animals' presenting of Jenny Powell, right?
  • Is it just me or are the animated animals in the opening titles reminiscent of the wonderful artwork on the Cadbury Wildlife bars from the same era?

All the Fun of the Fair?

Animal Fair may be a simplistic affair and certainly surpassed - in terms of vision - by The Really Wild Show and Two by Two, but it remains a menagerie of fun and is certainly more entertaining than any stuffy old book. And, of course, there's Don Spencer. And Don Spencer songs. And that's a marvellous combination, so Animal Fair gets the Curious British Telly seal of approval.


  1. I remember watching Animal Fair with Aussie Don Spencer narrating and singing the relevant songs. Don of course was a Play School presenter both in Britain and Australia.

  2. And, of course, Don Spencer was the dulcet tones behind the theme song to 1960s Gerry Anderson Marionation adventure series Fireball XL5.