Kids’ TV: The Surprising Story – BBC 1


I nearly turned this off after five minutes.  Need the BBC turn *everything* into a culture war?  Fair enough, the Wombles were into recycling long before most other people were, but saying that Bagpuss introduced kids to the world of industrial disputes sounded preposterous even by the BBC’s standards.  In case anyone’s wondering, the mice once went on strike!

And I would not, TBH, compare the Teletubbies’ arrival in America with Beatlemania.  But I kept watching and, to be fair, it got better!   When you think about it, children’s TV over the years has been at the forefront of a lot of things.

There was a lot of talk about the role of women and ethnic minorities on children’s TV, but, fair enough, children’s TV did play an important role in that.  I honestly can’t remember whether or not I ever thought it was a big deal that a black lady (Floella Benjamin) was on Play School, or that female presenters on Going Live (I never really watched Blue Peter) took part in daredevil stunts.  I don’t think I did, and that’s probably a really positive thing.  It just seemed normal, and that’s important.  They also talked about the involvement of disabled presenters, in more recent times.

There was a fair bit of nostalgic indulgence, which was what I was really after.   We used to watch You and Me at primary school.  A group of annoying boys used to sing “Poo and wee, wee and poo” to the theme tune.  And my sister and I watched Why Don’t You … although I can’t say I even remembered there being a Belfast gang, never mind having my views on Northern Ireland influenced by it!  We often watched ITV’s Saturday morning programmes, though, not the BBC’s.  Number 73 was our favourite.  But, yes, it was quite a big deal that Margaret Thatcher went on the kids’ TV phone-in, and the problems write-in did tackle some very distressing issues and help people to cope with them.

And, yes, Grange Hill, Children’s Ward and other programmes tackled some of the biggest social issues of the day.  “Just Say No” is the one everyone remembers, but there were others too.  I do think that there was a bit too much pushing of culture wars in this programme, but it was genuinely interesting, and all the points it made were valid.   I’m out of touch with kids’ TV these days, but I really enjoyed the reminiscing about the programmes of the ’80s.‏


Malory Towers Season 2 – BBC



I’m in two minds about this, although generally I’m feeling pretty positive about it.  It’s very entertaining – I’ve been binge-watching it! – and there are superb performances all round from a main cast of just 14 people (eight second-formers, one sixth-former, three teachers, a matron, and an odd job boy who has a very Warringtonian accent for someone supposed to be from Cornwall).   Nearly all the main storylines from Second Form at Malory Towers are in, although not all the characters are there, and it does a good job of getting across the iconic Malory Towers issues of Darrell’s battles to control her temper and the importance of honesty and standing by your friends.  It also makes some interesting points about the effects of tricks, which usually just seem funny in the books, and it’s added some depth to the characters of the staff and also the eternally-maligned Gwendoline.

On the other hand, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin – some of it’s a long way from what Enid Blyton wrote.  In the Malory Towers books, anyway – some of it seems to have been copied and pasted across from Five on a Treasure Island! The main plots from Second Form at Malory Towers are included, as I’ve said, although they’ve been altered to fit the small cast size – Belinda’s artistic talents have been transferred to Mary-Lou, and Daphne’s plot of stealing and then redemption by rescuing Mary-Lou has been transferred to Gwendoline, although sadly Mam’zelle Dupont doesn’t feature at all.  The other main plot from the book, Ellen, desperate to impress as she’s there on a scholarship, overworking, is included, with the “right” character.  But, instead of Miss Parker, we’ve got Mr Parker, whereas there were definitely no male form teachers at the “real” Malory Towers.  And a lot of extra plots have just been made up.  However, to be fair, it would have been difficult to fill 6 hours of TV time with the contents of what’s quite a short book.  They didn’t really miss anything out, apart from the feud between the two Mam’zelles,  so I can see that they had to get some extra material from somewhere.

The location is absolutely gorgeous, incidentally!  It’s the Hartland Abbey estate in Devon.  Whilst the Chalet School had lakes and mountains, and Malory Towers had a seawater swimming school, my secondary school had a “scenic” view of the busiest bus route in Europe, and, whilst I think it was a nice building once, it was destroyed during the Manchester Blitz and rebuilt rather haphazardly.  OK, there was a bit of woodland at the back, but we weren’t supposed to go there because it was a hangout for flashers.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a lovely school, but scenic it was not!  In this series, Malory Towers has not only a seawater swimming pool but extensive grounds and (er, despite being so near the sea) a stream.  I would have so loved that 🙂 .  And the room where they had the quiz – that was one of the made-up plots, but I rather liked the idea of the girls beating a team from a boys’ school in a quiz – was stunning.

But we’re told in this series that the school building is dilapidated, that Miss Grayling’s running out of money – I don’t think the books specify who owns the school, but I think most readers would assume that the school’s run by a trust and Miss Grayling is only employed as a headmistress – and then someone’s going to invest, but they’re secretly plotting to pull the building down.  It’s a classic soap opera plot – Emmerdale are currently running something very similar, and Coronation Street also did something similar fairly recently – but what on earth is it doing in a TV adaptation of Malory Towers?!  It just doesn’t fit. I don’t mind the storylines about school plays and outbreaks of measles, because they’re classic school story stuff, and, as I’ve said, I rather liked the quiz – even in my day, the boys from our brother school could be horribly chauvinistic!! –  but the school takeover plot feels out of place.   And the buried treasure plot’s straight out of Five on a Treasure Island, and seems even cornier here than it did there!

Also, what’s going on with Sally wanting to be “form representative” instead of “head of form”, because she wants to represent all the girls?   Would anyone have said that at a boarding school in the 1940s?  Sally does generally come across much as she does in the books, though, as do Darrell, Mary-Lou and Irene.  And Miss Grayling.  Matron’s got a bigger role than she has in the books, and been made into a bit more of a comedy character, but I think that’s partly because Mam’zelle Dupont’s missing and the two characters have to some extent been merged.  A back story about Gwendoline having a difficult home life was brought in in the first series and continued here, which I quite like because there’s just no sympathy either for or from Gwendoline in the books.  And Alicia, often described as “malicious” in the books, has been toned down a fair bit – although we do see her being very selfish, and how Darrell and Sally try to cope with that.  Er, and she suddenly seems to be a champion ice-skater – where on earth did that come from?!  Great performances from all the young actresses, though, and a star turn from Ashley McGuire as Matron!

The way in which Alicia’s tricks are handled is quite interesting.  We haven’t got Mam’zelle Dupont playing “treeks” back, although we do see Mam’zelle Rougier having a bit of a joke on the girls, but it does make the point that school pranks can get out of hand and aren’t always that funny.  I think a lot of us read these books at a very early age and thought that all the tricks were wonderful, and we thought that some of the pranks played at our own schools were wonderful too – unless you were the unfortunate kid who sat on chewing gum, had graffiti written on your locker or whatever.  But, when you’re a bit older and possibly a teensy bit wiser, you realise that they actually aren’t very funny for the victim!  Er, and that sounds really prissy, doesn’t it?!  But still.

Part of that is that kids sometimes forget that teachers are actually human, and this has shown more about the teachers than the books do.  Blyton’s Miss Grayling was all-wise and all serene: she’d never have had money worries!   In this adaptation, we see her struggling with problems, we already know from the first series that she lost her fiance in the Great War, and we learn about her family.  And we also see that Mr Parker (er, not that he was in the books) was given a rough time in his previous job, and the girls understanding the school’s importance to Matron.  We even see Mr Parker’s girlfriend, whereas there was never the slightest suggestion in the books that teachers might have personal lives!  It works well, but it’s very Elinor M Brent-Dyer, not very Enid Blyton.

I can see why purists have got concerns about it, but, all in all, it’s very enjoyable.  The Malory Towers books aren’t the best school stories ever written, but they’re probably the best-known.  Ask people who aren’t devotees of school stories what they know about them, and they’ll talk about Malory Towers.  Jolly hockey sticks, lacrosse (oh, and that’s another thing – as the school’s only got 9 pupils in this, we don’t see any sports matches!) and, of course, midnight feasts.  Maybe this TV adaptation and the recent stage musical’ll keep the popularity of “Girls’ Own” school stories marching on into another generation.  Let’s hope so 🙂 .



Malory Towers – BBC iPlayer


What brilliant fun this is!   It’s clearly aimed at a young audience, but, especially as we’re confined to barracks at present, I suspect that a lot of “grown-ups” will be having a cracking nostalgia-fest with it.  They really have done an excellent job with a limited and mostly very young cast.  The main characters are all in there, and we’ve got midnight feasts (although I can’t say that I ever envisioned them involving china cups and teapots), lacrosse practice and tricks being played on teachers.  Am I the only person who’s ever tried to make a lacrosse stick by attaching a piece of wood to a bin?  OK, don’t answer that. I was only about 7 at the time, to be fair.  I’m quite sure I’m not the only person who was obsessed with the idea of midnight feasts, though.

And they’re swimming in a seawater cove.  I assume that the pool in the books was actually a proper pool, just somehow fed by seawater, but this is way better.  The moral lessons, which aren’t overly preachy in Blyton books, are in there, and a bit of feminist debate’s been chucked in too, with Darrell doing a lot of talking about careers for women, and Gwen only wanting to bag a husband.   Some of the storylines from the first book are there, and the actual characters of the girls are true to the books.  There are several plots which definitely aren’t in the books – one of them’s been half-inched from “Theodora and the Chalet School”, and I’m not sure how a ghost story got in there – so purists may have a few issues with it, but it’s nice, clean fun, and I’m sure we could all do with some of that at the moment.

Alicia has somehow become American, which completely confused me because I thought at first that she must be Sadie, and then remembered that Sadie was at St Clare’s, not Malory Towers, and got even more confused!  [ETA – oops, sorry, she’s Canadian!] I’m glad that they’re pronouncing it A-LISS-ee-a, by the way, because that’s how I’ve always pronounced it, but the name now seems to have become A-leesh-a.  The colour blind casting is great, but the American accent did confuse me a bit.  Mamzelle (Rougier, but a combination of Rougier and Dupont) has been made very chic, but I suppose the idea of the stupid Frenchwoman might not work so well now.  The same with the famous slapping scene – that definitely doesn’t feature. [ ETA – a-ha, yes it does, it’s in the 4th episode, and I’d only watched the first three when I wrote this!!]  Miss Potts is also rather elegant, and no-one’s yet referred to her as “Potty”.  Matron is now the comedy figure.  Miss Grayling is suitably wise and inspirational, although sadly we didn’t get her famous speech welcoming Darrell to Malory Towers.

As far as Darrell starting at the school goes, it’s been explained that she and some of the others have changed schools.  It never did make sense how they arrived for the first year but some of the girls had already been there a while, so that sorts it!

And I’m very glad that it’s been left in the 1940s, where it’s meant to be.  The books don’t actually say anything to set it in a particular time, but this showed a soldier and a sailor on the platform at the station, and reference was made to Darrell’s mum and others being traumatised by the events of the war.  The uniforms are utterly vile, though.  Couldn’t they have dressed them in brown gymslips?

Don’t be expecting the story to be faithful to the books, because it isn’t, but I really am enjoying it.  In these strange times, something safe and familiar from childhood days is very welcome.  And there are 13 episodes, so, if you’re in a country with access to BBC iPlayer and you haven’t done so already, get watching 🙂 !


Great Australian Railway Journeys – BBC 2


I really want Michael Portillo’s job. He gets paid for reading historical books and going on exciting railway journeys all over the world! And he seems to have become rather a cult figure: there were people in Australia holding a Michael Portillo lookalike competition. Seriously.

Whereas most British TV programmes about Australia focus on Sydney and Melbourne, this showed us the “Ghan” railway journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin, featuring cute baby kangaroos, camels, and some thought-provoking discussions about the effect that the building of telegraph wires had on 19th century Australia. The most interesting bit, though, was about Aboriginal storytelling. As with the griots mentioned in the foreword to Alex Haley’s “Roots”, the idea of a trained human memory and just how much information people can recall and recount, and pass down the generations, is absolutely fascinating. The days of the epics and the bards are long gone here: we write everything down, or put it in our mobile phones. But the Aboriginal storytelling culture lives on. No other culture in the world can match that.

The paintings were brilliant too, but it was the storytelling that particularly interested me. We heard a lot about Aboriginal traditions and lifestyles in this first episode, and we also heard “Stolen Generation” stories about the horrific removal of mixed-race children from their families, and the effect that that’s still having now. Michael Portillo’s programmes are about a lot more than railways. But, in terms of the history of the railways, we were told about the competition between Queensland and South Australia to build railways across the Northern Territory, and also about how important the coming of telegraph wires to Australia was: before then, it was taking three to four months to get information between Australia and Britain, when information could be passed between Britain and the US in a few hours, at a time when most white Australians had family and friends in Britain, as well as the political ties.

Wildlife featured as well. Kangaroos! Camels. Apparently there are 200,000 feral camels in Australia. They were introduced there as beasts of burden … and went forth and multiplied.  Less excitingly but more importantly, cattle. And there was so much room, so much space … miles and miles of space.

Then, at the end, Michael attended an Anzac Day commemoration in Darwin.  As I said, this is about much more than railways.

All in all, a very watchable hour’s TV. But, however interesting the subject matter, it’s the presenter who makes or breaks programmes like these, and Michael definitely makes them. He’s an important reminder, amid all the abuse and nastiness that we’re doubtless going to have to put up with on our television screens and on our social media over the next six weeks, that politicians, whether or not we agree with their views, are just human beings like the rest of us. And he comes across as being a very nice one.  These railway programmes have been going since 2010, and may there be many more of them!

Thatcher: A Very British Revolution – BBC 2


It’s very strange watching a documentary series about the time during which you were growing up – it seems like only yesterday, and yet everything was so different. Given how biased most BBC programmes are these days, this gave a surprisingly balanced portrayal of an extremely controversial and polarising figure. It really did try hard to show things from all angles, and, whatever I may think of Mrs/Baroness Thatcher, I appreciated that. It’s increasingly difficult to find any TV, newspaper or internet coverage which tells you facts rather than opinions, shows different points of view, and does not give the impression that there must be something seriously wrong with you if you don’t agree with every word that the journalist in question’s saying. I kept getting distracted by Michael Heseltine’s hair, though. It makes Boris Johnson’s look immaculate.

The major policies and events of Margaret Thatcher’s time in power are well-known. Her economic policies, and the effects that they’re still having here in the north of England. Her battles with the trade unions. Horrendous levels of inflation and unemployment. The Falklands War – how well would any of today’s politicians cope with an unexpected crisis? The tragedy of the 1984 IRA bombing in Brighton. Her close ties with Ronald Reagan. The end of the Cold War. The poll tax riots. And all that drama at the end, like a Jeffrey Archer or Michael Dobbs novel.

Heseltine’s still so narked that he never got to be PM: you could tell that from every word he said! It was also quite interesting to hear his sneering remarks about how Margaret Thatcher came from “a certain type of background”. I always find it so ironic that Northern traditional industry should have been finished off not by a southern public schoolboy but by a grammar school girl from Grantham. Love her or hate her, you have to give her credit for the fact that a grocer’s daughter managed to become Prime Minister – just stop and think about that, with it looking likely that our next Prime Minister will be yet another Old Etonian.

There were interviews with quite a few Tory politicians from the 1970s and 1980s, but also with politicians from other parties, with civil servants, and with a range of other people, including some who were involved in the miners’ strike. As I’ve said, I really did appreciate the fact that the BBC tried to give that balanced portrayal both of events and of Margaret Thatcher herself, and also to show different facets of her life, public and personal, and her personality.

I’m not going to write about it all, because everyone’s heard it all before. But I wanted to make the point that the BBC could easily have made this either a hatchet job or a hagiography, and yet they did neither; and I wish we got more documentaries like this. Even many historical documentaries these days are full of bias based on current events which have absolutely no bearing on the events which they’re actually supposed to be about.

One phrase that stood out for me was “She wouldn’t listen”. No – she wouldn’t. I well remember the poll tax riots and wondering how on earth things had been allowed to get to that stage, when everyone knew how unpopular the poll tax was. But I feel that we listened to each other a lot more, in those days. OK, the papers were biased, but TV and radio coverage wasn’t, certainly not the extent that it was now.

We saw clips of senior politicians appearing on TV chat shows – can you imagine that happening now? And, hey, they actually answered questions! The main parties won’t talk to each other now, even when consensus is desperately needed. You see MPs on TV, muttering like kids in the school playground about how it won’t look good if their gang’s seen to be talking to members of the other gang. People are banned from speaking at university debating societies. Articles in newspapers make you feel as if you must be the devil incarnate if you don’t agree with their biased take on things. People post abusive comments/articles/memes on social media saying that every single person who doesn’t agree with them on the issue in question is at best stupid and at worse an extremist, using whichever offensive label they feel like.

Oh dear, this has got a bit ranty! But, if we can have a TV series presenting a reasoned and even-handed view of one of the most controversial Prime Ministers we’ve ever had, why can’t we have some reasoned and even-handed coverage of today’s events? Why can’t people just listen to other people’s points of view? Oh, and someone get Michael Heseltine a hairbrush and comb …


Countryfile (70 years of national parks) – BBC 1


Four of the six people arrested during the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932 were from Cheetham Hill, and “The Manchester Rambler”, the song famously inspired by it, was written by Ewan MacColl from Lower Broughton, so I do tend to get very parochial about it 😊 … although I do acknowledge that it was a Sheffield thing as well as a Manchester thing!  Workers of the north unite!   Whilst the trespass didn’t bring immediate results, it played a crucial role in the campaign for access to the countryside to all and in the creation of national parks – and the people jailed over it were rightly hailed as heroes in this BBC programme.  2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the passing of the National Parks legislation, which led to the creation of Britain’s fifteen national parks – the first one, fittingly, being the Peak District, and the second, a few weeks later, my beloved Lake District ❤, where I’ve just spent the weekend.

Countryfile marked the anniversary by visiting seven of the parks – the Peak District, the North York Moors, the New Forest, the South Downs, the Pembrokeshire coast, the Cairngorms and Exmoor.   I was very sorry that they didn’t include the Lake District, I have to say.  I love the Peak District, but the Lake District is my favourite national park by a country mile.  Every romantic word that Wordsworth wrote about the Lake District is true!  The Yorkshire Dales is a third one that’s near enough to me for day trips.  Sadly, Northumberland National Park isn’t near enough for day trips, but it’s somewhere else I’m very fond of … partly because of the Lorna Hill books (Guy Charlton ❤!).  And neither of them got a mention either.  But, OK, they couldn’t get round all of them in an hour-long programme, and they had to give other parts of the UK a look in too!

The programme started off with a large group of people walking though the Peak District in the footsteps of the Kinder Scout Trespassers.  When I say “walk”, the group included people in specially-adapted wheelchairs: it was good to see accessibility being considered.  It also discussed the work done by Ethel Haythornthwaite, the founder of the Friends of the Peak District, and how important being able to get into the countryside was to her whilst she was suffering from severe mental health problems following her first husband’s death in the First World War.  The countryside is a great balm to troubled souls.  I know that well!   Later, it went right back to the early 1800s, to talk about agricultural pioneer John Knight, who dreamed of creating a national park of sorts – long before the term existed – in Exmoor.  And then all the way back to the 16th century, to talk about Huguenot refugees (before the Edict of Nantes was even passed, never mind before it was revoked) working as glass-blowers there, and how there are still glass-blowers working there.

There wasn’t much more history in the programme, sadly, but it did make some extremely important points about the issues faced by national parks – partly due to the inevitable issues of funding, partly due to climate change and the damage caused by severe weather, and, unfortunately, mostly the problems caused by inappropriate behaviour by a minority of visitors.  There’ve been arguments ever since Victorian times, when the railways made the countryside and the seaside accessible to people who’d never have been able to get there otherwise, about overcrowding in places like the Lake District; and it seems to be a particular problem in the South Downs, which has a far greater population density than most other national park areas, about the effects of large numbers of people coming into rural areas, and about anti-social behaviour.

I find this quite difficult to write about, because, as a little girl, I read so many books where it was all tied in with snobbery, in a way that still makes my blood boil!   Characters like the Famous Five are always making snooty remarks about “day trippers” – i.e. the people who are enjoying a day out, which they’ll have been look forward to for months, as opposed to the people who can afford to spend the entire school summer holidays in some picturesque location! – and blaming them for every gate that’s been left open or every piece of litter that’s been dropped!

Countryfile wasn’t like that at all, though, I’m pleased to say!  It was making the point that these are working landscapes, and that it’s not acceptable for people to treat them however they like.  As much as the national parks belong to everyone, setting up an unauthorised campsite close to areas where they are livestock is not appropriate.  And the worst problem of the lot is people failing to keep their horrible dogs under control, and sheep and other animals being attacked as a result.  I was reading the other day that the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) insurance company has called for changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act because of the growing numbers of attacks by dogs on sheep and other farm animals.  And there are issues about overcrowding.  That’s no-one’s fault – it just reflects the fact that the roads in the countryside weren’t built for huge numbers of cars, and that there isn’t room for parking for all those cars, nor are facilities in small villages able to cope with vast influxes of visitors.

This is sounding negative now!  It wasn’t a negative programme: it was a lovely programme, showing some of the most beautiful areas of our beautiful country (even if it didn’t include the Lake District, which is the most beautiful part of all!).  But, as with so many things, it’s essential to remember not to take what we’ve got for granted – and to show courtesy and respect to other people, to animals, to birds, to plantlife, and to the environment in general.

Due to the unfortunate fact of being a wage slave on Monday, also on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (“The Manchester Rambler” – “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man [or indeed woman] on Sunday”), I’ve yet to make it to the non-northern national parks covered by the programme.  I suppose I must have been through the South Downs on the way to Brighton when I was 13 (long before the South Downs even was a national park), but that doesn’t really count.  I would love to visit the Pembrokeshire coast, and especially to see Caldey Island because of its Chalet School connections, and the New Forest because of Children of the New Forest.  And I’ve been wanting to go to Exmoor ever since seeing the Polly Walker/Clive Owen/Sean Bean BBC adaptation of Lorna Doone when I was 15.  Yes, all right, all right, I don’t suppose much of it was actually filmed in Exmoor, but anyway!  And I’ve only ever made it to any part of the Scottish Highlands once.

I suppose that proves everything that those who took part in the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass said – that most of us don’t have much time to enjoy the countryside, and that that makes it incredibly important for us to have access to it in the time that we do have.

So it was certainly worrying to hear those involved in running our national parks, and those who farm within them, talking about the problems that they’re facing.  Without wanting to get political over this, there are big issues with severe funding cuts.  And, as already mentioned, there are issues with poor behaviour by some of visitors, especially in relation to dogs not being kept under control.  It’s certainly concerning.  Let’s never forget that the general public didn’t always have access to these beautiful places, and that people fought long campaigns, even spending time in prison in some cases, for our “right to roam” – which, even now, is limited, in England and Wales, and that we didn’t even have that much enshrined in law until 2000.   And let’s hope that ways can be found to deal with the challenges which the parks are facing at the moment, so that we’re able to keep enjoying them in the years to come.

And all hail the Kinder Scout heroes!  Quick chorus of The Manchester Rambler, anyone (as ever, if anyone’s actually read this!!)  😉?