Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Stilgoe's On

Genre: Children's
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 07/04/1986 - 09/06/1986

In this day and age, if you're a kid and off school sick, you've got it made. There's Netflix, YouTube, illegal torrents and a million games available for your tablet. Of course, back in the mid 80s, you were lucky if you're family even had a VHS player. The internet did exist, but mainly in the form of newsgroups and with limited access. Games, well, again they did exist, but they took a good 20 minutes to load before you broke your wrist waggling a joystick. Luckily, descending upon this mundane world was the wooly jumpered messiah, Richard Stilgoe. His aim, to prove that when you're feeling pale and wan, life Stilgoe's On.

Stilgoe's On episodes sought to show kids how to keep themselves entertained indoors. To this end, renowned songwriter, raconteur and general wit, Richard Stilgoe created a wonderland packed full of scissors, glue and crayons. School children, dressed in Stilgoe's On jumpers, arrived and messed about like it was a Friday afternoon 'fun hour'. Stilgoe delights in guiding them through various activities and, when possible, jumps on the old Yamaha DX7 keyboard to bang out a ditty. Each episode had a theme such as magic, words and how to have a party. Guests also featured throughout the series and included Fred Harris, Ray Alan with Lord Charles and Paul Jackson the Origami Man.

One particular aspect of the show that people remember is the characteristic Stilgoe theme tune which we took a moment to jot down the lyrics of:

It's a horrible day
and the weathermen say
it'll probably stay.
You've contracted a chill

and you're feeling so ill
that you're making your will.
You're imprisoned indoors
feeling woe begone

but remember life still goes on.
When the sky isn't blue
there are things you can do

using scissors and glue
make a sticker that sticks
there is paper and bricks
there are magical tricks.
You're imprisoned indoors
Feeling pale and wan
But remember life still goes on


Eight episodes of Stilgoe's On were produced, but sadly none have made their way to YouTube. Doing our bit for retro televisual preservation, we attended the BFI Archive to watch the very first episode.

Stilgoe is best known for his songwriting ability and the theme tune to Stilgoe's On is an utter treat. Featuring the harmonies of multi-tracked Richard Stilgoe's, it's a melodic and catchy beast that's difficult to rid your inner ear of. Even now, weeks later, we remember it better than our own mother's face. A nice link here is that our mother and father once went to some type of 'An Evening with Richard Stilgoe'.

As we mentioned in our intro, the mid 80s were lacking in interactive activities for children. We certainly remember the frustration of pulling out colouring pencils and drawing yet another 'supercar' complete with boosters. The activities that Stilgoe presents aren't the most startling pieces of entertainment. We enjoyed the 'codewheel' activity as all kids dream of being a spy, but other activities were less fun. We're not sure that a psychiatrist would ever prescribe "acting in the manner of a word" to someone feeling "woe begone".

Stilgoe, himself, is a curious host to the show. He never patronises the children, which is to be applauded, but he doesn't particularly sell himself as an avuncular figure either. His persona in Stilgoe's On is more of a supply teacher - packed full of quizzes and games, but not someone you'll miss once your normal teacher's back. Nonetheless, he puts on a good enough show and treats everyone to a song, so you can't say you're shortchanged.

Our favourite part, of the show we saw, was when Ray Alan and Lord Charles popped up. It leads to a few laughs and gets the kids, Richard and Ray Alan all interacting. It felt like a nice treat at the end of school term. Indeed, one episode featured a magician 'The Great Soprendo', which again would have delighted children. Quite how entertaining Paul Jackson the Origami Man was, however, will remain a mystery.

We're not 100% sure that Stilgoe's On is a great success, but we're rather fond of it. It's an admirable approach to entertaining kids in an era of huge boredom. The activities featured are rather hit and miss, but at least the performance section at the end grabs your attention. Stilgoe's On struggles to integrate Stilgoe's trademark wit, but, overall, it's an interesting look back at the mundanity of life for a mid 80s child.


  1. I was one of the kids on Stilgoe's On!

  2. Always wondered why there's barely a trace of it online - can anyone go to see it at the BFI archive? Or was it a special research thing? I'm sure I remember a line from one of the songs "eat your greens before they eat you". Random!

  3. Hi Anna!

    It's amazing that you were on the show! What can you remember about meeting the great man?

    Anyone can book in at the BFI, so it's definitely worth a visit!

  4. Haha, honestly not a huge amount about him specifically (think I was only 8 or 9)! I was featured in one of the episodes talking to him about little paper houses that I made. I was painfully shy I think. Will definitely have to pop down to the BFI and embarrass myself watching it! Thanks for writing about it, I'd have never tracked it down otherwise!