Wednesday, February 28, 2007

DOES.NOT.REGISTER: Schools Programming Of The 1980s-1990s

I never particularly enjoyed the daily routine of school until I reached the sixth form (and even then, it was only because I found myself with more free time). From the age of five until eighteen, school was just something that took me away from watching television for six hours. Not completely though, because schools programming provided a welcome break from normal lessons and a chance to sit in a musty old room watching a twenty-year-old Philips television set.

Many programmes were of a surprisingly high standard. Some employed the services of well-known personalities - it was obviously (and correctly) believed that we would pay more attention to somebody like Chris Tarrant (narrator of Stop, Look And Listen) than a wooden, patronising relic of a presenter left over from the early years of the BBC.

My primary school friends and I were particularly fond of ITV's schools programming (it later moved to Channel Four in order to make room for trivial (but fantastic) entertainment like Lucky Ladders and The Time, The Place). It wasn't that the programming was of a particularly high standard, but rather because ITV turned every programme into an event.

Once a week, we would be escorted to the television room in Victoria Primary in order to watch a history programme called How We Used To Live. The title says it all really. It consisted of dramatic reconstructions of previous stages in history, as well as interviews with the sort of people who like to spend their weekends re-enacting the Tudor Period and staying in character for the entire duration (rather like Mistress Sweet, who took my Cultural Criticism seminar group around Llancaiach Fawr and managed to persuade S to get into bed with her "to illustrate a point").

Anyway, we would always have to arrive at the school's television room a good fifteen minutes in advance. This was partly because the teacher could never work out how to turn on the set and flick it to channel three. Did they not have a television at home? Was the school television the equivalent of one of those old cars that needed a man with a flag to wind it up with a handle beforehand? Whatever the reason, the teacher (after much arsing around and calling to the headmaster for assistance) would be left red-faced when a cheeky eight-year-old in a SuperTed T-Shirt managed to get the television up and running within thirty seconds and would program the primitive video recorder as an added bonus.

The other reason for our early arrival was because we all insisted on seeing the ITV Schools countdown clock (later just an animated screen) and singing along to its cheesy theme. I knew boys who broke down in tears when we missed it one week, so our teacher never made that mistake again. We would sit down (cross-legged of course) on the floor and eagerly await the clock. A cheer would greet its arrival. The music would begin and twenty-five boys and girls would break into song.


"Be quiet, children!" the exasperated teacher would shout. "You don't want Mrs R coming down here and shouting at you!"

Of course, the threat would just make us sing even louder. Inevitably, when the programme actually started, a few over-eager kids would continue singing (usually the same jokers who would add an extra "of Kings" to the end of that hymn that goes "Sing Hosannah! Sing Hosannah! Sing Hosannah to the King of Kings!" just to annoy the pianist during morning assembly). The teacher soon got wise to this however, and would threaten them with a television ban the following week. That shut them up.

However, the jewel in the crown of schools programming was not an ITV show at all. Every Friday we would be treated to one of the BBC's best programmes ever. It's title? Look And Read.

For such a boring name, the show had it all. Annoying down-with-the-kids-and-not-too-patronising robot? Check (his name was Wordy).

Truly fantastic serialised stories? Check (There were many, but highlights included Geordie Racer (a story about a group of child pigeon racing enthusiasts in Newcastle who manage to catch a gang of criminals during the course of The Great North Run) and Dark Towers (a genuinely scary ghost story set in a haunted castle. I seem to remember a headless knight wandering the corridors. I had nightmares for weeks). Well written workbooks filled with questions about the stories that made you feel like you were a contestant on The Krypton Factor's observation round? Check.

However, the greatest thing about Look And Read were the educational (yet catchy) songs. These tunes, which had lyrics like "get everyone's attention with an exclamation mark!" and titles like Magic E would be accompanied by Wordy whizzing around the screen drawing exclamation marks, commas, apostrophes and "E"'s. They were my first lessons in writing and even now, I'll still recite the lyrics of Exclamation Mark in my head whenever I am unsure whether one is needed or not. Thank you, Wordy!

Of course, being a keen Welsh student throughout my school life, it would be criminal of me not to share some of Cymru's greatest additions to the genre. There were two of note. Now You're Talking was a straightforward listen-and-repeat Welsh tutorial show. It is still shown now and again on S4C (Welsh language channel) today, complete with early '90s hairstyles and fashions which are now rather distracting when trying to learn how to list the contents of your handbag, or how to order a meal at a Welsh restaurant. The best episode, in my opinion, was the one dedicated to illness. The producers hired the most over-the-top actor imaginable. When he said "O Mam, Mae bola tost da fi!" ("Oh Mother, I have a stomach ache!") you'd be forgiven for thinking that he was having a stroke. Still, it embedded the phrase in my memory and that, ultimately, is the sign of a good educational programme (whether intentional or not).

The other great Welsh offering was Stabec. This show was a serialised drama about a teenage alien who had fallen from space. Somehow, he managed to have impeccable English skills but decided that he would be better off learning Welsh. He even had a catchphrase - a robotic "DOES. NOT. REGISTER". He made friends with a teenage boy and girl (I thought she was rather foxy when I was fifteen). These two humans would (rather rudely) speak nothing but Welsh when in his company, so he spent most of each episode walking around Cardiff with a very confused look on his face. Almost every sentence would be met with "DOES.NOT.REGISTER", to the point where you wished he'd just hurry up and learn the bloody language or just give up and make friends with some English speaking chums - there are plenty of them around here. Still, "DOES.NOT.REGISTER" became the official catchphrase of Welsh lessons for the rest of my school life.

When I reached sixth form and took A-Level Welsh, we were banned from speaking English for the entire duration of each lesson. Should one of us slip up (there were only three of us), our teacher would glare and say "DOES.NOT.REGISTER" until we repeated the sentence in Welsh. We all passed with flying colours though, which was a particularly good result considering that our Welsh Oral examiner had his flies undone for the entire exam and none of us could keep a straight face. It was such an ordeal for E that she almost threw up afterwards. Good times.

Schools programming is still going strong on both Channel Four and BBC2. I'll often have a look if I have nothing better to do, and it always amuses me to see some of the old shows still being aired. Geordie Racer, for example, is still a firm favourite. Maybe they can't be bothered to make any new material, or they don't think the old shows can be bettered. Either way, they're giving a whole new generation something to laugh about in a decade's time.

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