Wednesday, 16 February 2022

The Launch of The Children's Channel in 1984

British children's television in the mid-1980s may have been fantastic, but the amount of children's programming was limited. Across the BBC and ITV, there were roughly six/seven hour's worth of children's content available on a weekday, and around five hours of this was playing at the same time on Children's BBC and Children's ITV.

I was there and, well, I just accepted this was the way things were, a little bit of television for me and then the rest dedicated to Wogan, Pebble Mill at One and Cagney & Lacey. But there was more children's television available. You just had to have access to cable television, where The Children's Channel launched in 1984.

The Children's Channel made its debut on cable television on September 1st 1984 and was an enterprise put together by Thorn EMI. It signalled a major push by Thorn EMI to corner the British cable TV market, a campaign which would also see its channels Music Box and Premiere launch in the same year. Originally, The Children's Channel went under the proposed name of Cable Club and had its first demonstration on Swindon's Radio Rentals cable service in May 1983.

This earliest peek at the channel's credentials consisted of programming from American channel Nickelodeon and Thames Television (including an appearance from Sooty). Whilst the previewed content had a heavy American bias, Richard Wolfe of Thorn EMI was keen to stress that the end product would be predominantly British.

By August 1983, the channel started to go under the name Jack-in-the-Box and its ties with Thames Television were strengthened when Julian Mounter, the most recent controller of children's television at Thames, joined Thorn EMI in January 1984. Plans were also being drawn up for Thames to establish a unit dedicated to producing content for cable television.

Excitement was building around this new frontier of British television and, with around four hours of daily content planned for Jack-in-the-Box, children had plenty to look forward to. Progress continued swiftly and, in May 1984, it was announced that Thames had formed a new company, Thames Cable and Satellite Services (TCASS), which was also backed by Thorn EMI and BET. Richard Dunn, MD of TCASS, confirmed that Thames would be looking to contribute around 50 hours of programming a year to the channel.

It was an interesting move by Thames, as many in the industry had expected their planned cable channel with Granada to be the priority, but these plans had now been shelved. Around this flurry of news stories relating to Thorn EMI's new channel, an important decision had been made: it would be called The Children's Channel.

The speed at which this new channel would launch was increasingly rapid. August 1984 brought news that The Children's Channel would take to the air on September 1st 1984. The expected audience would include the 38 towns served by Rediffusion Cablevision as well as subscribers to Greenwich Cablevision, Swindon Cable Services and British Telecom Cable.

Whilst the broadcast hours planned were 7am to 3pm, there would initially be a two hour block of programmes which would be shown four times daily. This format was only expected to be temporary, and it was hoped that, from mid-September, the programme block would be extended to four hours and shown twice daily.

The Children's Channel launch date is announced

News of The Children's Channel launch was announced at an event which saw channel executives Richard Wolfe, Dan Maddicott and Julian Mounter reveal more about the station's plans. Curiously, there was no showreel of the channel's proposed content, but the weekday schedule was put forwards as:

07.00: Animated shorts, including US imports from King Features and Filmation
08.00: Adventure series from the USA, Canada and Australia
08.30: Short items of puppetry and magic as parents and children prepare for the school run
09.00: Jack-in-the-Box: a two hour section for pre-schoolers including fairy stores, learning and music
11.00: Closedown

Saturday would be completely different, with The Saturday Cinema Club featuring a film, cartoons and a weekly serial. Sunday would see a two-hour programme airing but, at this point, the first episode had yet to be recorded and was untitled. Julian Mounter also announced that three new programmes had been produced by Thames for the Jack-in-the-Box slot: The Alphabet Game, Bits and Pieces and Funfit. Presenters lined up for The Children's Channel included Thames regulars Mick Robertson and Stephanie Laslett alongside Deborah Appleby.


Another Thames stalwart who was involved in the earliest days of The Children's Channel was Ronnie Le Drew, a puppeteer best known for performing as Zippy in Rainbow. Whereas Ronnie had previously performed out of view, at The Children's Channel he would be on camera presenting continuity links between programmes. I got in touch with Ronnie to find out a little more about what this involved and he delved deep into his memory to remember:

"I did do a few live spots, with me and a puppet beaver. Muppet type puppet. It was the first time I had done any live presenting, so I didn't do very many, probably two or three. The presentation studio was, as far as I can remember a table and a chair to sit on, and the camera. It all came about as I was at Thames Television at the time. I was there to do the continuity between programmes, with me doing a short sketch with the puppet and then announcing the next few programmes"

As planned, The Children's Channel launched on 1st September 1984, but it was a limited release with only Greenwich Cablevision, Swindon Cable and Visionhire East Kilbride carrying the channel. Optimism, however, was high and by the end of September 1984 it was estimated that The Children's Channel would soon be available to 100,000 homes in the country.

A few months on and, in December 1984, Richard Wolfe was in a confident mood as he confirmed that, after a hundred broadcasts, The Children's Channel had produced 75 hours of original programming. They had, in fact, suffered a slight setback around the launch of the channel when, after several industry rumours of a disagreement, Thorn EMI had to take over the responsibility for producing the channel's output from Thames Television.

Nonetheless, with a healthy amount of original programming building up in the archive, the outlook for The Children's Channel looked rosy. Dan Maddicott reinforced the importance of this self-produced content as he explained the channel's long-term plan to build up a bank of programming which could be repeated as new audience members entered the channel's demographics, a cost saving exercise par excellence.

Speaking of finances, The Children's Channel, which carried six minutes of advertising per hour, had started to generate money through adverts. The first advertising block to be sold was to Mattel toys - for £4,000 - in October 1984 and would be used to push products such as the Barbie range of toys. Mattel were soon joined by Lego, Hornby and KP Skips, all of whom were keen to tap into a new market of consumerist children.

As 1984 ended, with The Children's Channel broadcasting a feature film every morning at 9am over the festive period, a number of changes were planned for 1985. First up was the establishment of a magazine show to run for two hours from 7am on weekday mornings. This segment would be presented by Mick Robertson and Deborah Appleby, with a focus on subjects including sports, toys, cookery, technology, books and special guests alongside cartoons.

Mick Robertson in The Children's Channel studio

In a rather intriguing move, this two-hour programme was, at first, nameless. However, following a competition for the viewers, the segment - filmed at the channel's Shaftesbury Avenue studios - was named Roustabout and would run for several years. The next significant change to the channel's output came in February 1985 when a teletext service, under the guise of StarStream, was launched to provide general channel information.

A year after the channel's launch, The Children's Channel was maintaining its progress and, through a convoluted and rather contrived manner, had produced a statistic which proved they were technically more popular than Roland Rat - an announcement which angered TV-am's publicity manager David Keighley. The aesthetics of the channel had also been given a further polish thanks to new graphics and a Mike Batt composed theme.

Original programming continued to be added to the schedules such as Quizolympics (a family quiz) and The Magic Corner (a programme for playgroups) alongside US imports Masters of the Universe and Rainbow Brite. Plans were afoot to expand the channel's broadcast hours, to perhaps challenge the BBC and ITV in the after-school slots, whilst moves were being made to tap into the Scandinavian market. And, in true celebratory fashion, The Children's Channel broadcast their own birthday party on September 1st 1985.

The Children's Channel moved onto satellite television as the 1980s marched forwards and would remain on the air until 1998, when it closed suddenly and with little fanfare. However, it left behind a fascinating legacy. Positioned as Britain's first dedicated children's channel, it would be far from hyperbole to propose that it paved the way for future channels such as CBeebies, Cartoon Network and Children's ITV.

Sure, the original programming contained within the early schedules may not be iconic - although the internet finds room for nostalgic memories relating to Jack-in-the-Box and Roustabout - but these were experimental times. Mistakes needed to be made, formats tinkered with (as evidenced by the numerous changes in the channel's first year) and expectations calibrated; The Children's Channel went through all of this in its formative phase.

And, four decades on, it makes for a fascinating insight into the way children's needs were being catered for at the dawn of the multichannel age. A whole new world of programming was opening up and redefining the boundaries of children's television. If only my local area had been served by cable...

As ever, footage of The Children's Channel earliest days is rare (and most probably missing) so, if you happened to record any of it way back in the distant past, please get in touch. And, if you were watching The Children's Channel in 1984/85, please leave a comment below with your memories of the channel.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article. The Children's Channel was a big part of my childhood and yes, much footage from the early days is hard to come by.

    I think we must of got it around 1987 when I was about 4. It was very exciting to have more than 4 channels and so many new kids programmes! Early memories of it include watching Jack-in-the-Box with programmes like 'Let's Make Music Fun', 'Dr Snuggles' and, my absolute favourite back then – 'Jeremy Bear' (AKA Colargol). The Channel offered a really good mix of original and existing content from around the world and different eras. It was iconic to me!

    I seem to remember, in the 80s, that a block of content would be shown in the late morning and then repeated in the afternoon.

    Another favourite of mine was 'non-stop cartoons'. You had to get up really early to catch it and would be a mix of vintage public domain cartoons, much of it in black and white. By the time you got to 7 o'clock you'd get a more contemporary line up with stuff like 'My Little Pony' and 'Heathcliffe'.

    One strange programme I've never been able to re-find was a stop motion animated series about a female house with a face and her two friends (I think a lamp post and a post box). While I watched it in the 80s, it may have been an older series and perhaps from somewhere in Europe and dubbed into English.
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