When Children’s BBC first began on weekday afternoons, 30 years ago this week, it was Childrens BBC. Although its mission was to inform, entertain, and educate impressionable minds, nobody had thought that a good grounding in grammar might help.
“I was there for the adding of the apostrophe,” says Andi Peters, proudly. He is as spritely today as he was when he made his debut in 1988, alongside a puppet with a green Mohican called Edd the Duck. Both have aged well. “We only called ourselves Childrens BBC back then. Nowadays it would never happen.”
Peters was the third presenter of what was by then already known as the Broom Cupboard, following Philip Schofield and Andy Crane. That no one had noticed a major grammatical snafu in three years offers some idea of the nature of the set up back then. The department Peters joined was called Children’s Presentation, and the job he was offered after being poached from ITV’s own children’s channel was as an in-vision continuity announcer. There was no sense that this might lead to any notoriety of any kind. It was seen as a largely practical role, filling the gaps between programmes.
“We used to turn up, do it and go home,” he says. “We didn’t rehearse, we didn’t legal the scripts. We’d go downstairs from our office on the sixth floor and say ‘Right, what shall we do today?’”
The Broom Cupboard, as it became known, was actually the BBC1 Continuity Suite at TV Centre.
“For the first link the previous continuity announcer would be sitting there saying, ‘And don’t forget on BBC 2 tonight, it’s Call My Bluff.’ There’d be one trail, they’d stand up, I’d sit down, plug in, switch the camera on and go, ‘Good afternoon, Welcome to Children’s BBC.’ There was no production team – it was just me and Edd.”
Today Children’s BBC is called CBBC and it does have a production team of researchers, runners, Assistant Producers, Producers. Peters, by contrast, used to work without even a cameraman. The Broom Cupboard camera was bolted to the wall. The presenter switched it on, focussed it himself and sat down.
“We did everything ourselves,” says Peters. “We even switched on the lights.”
Of course, Peters, Schofield and co weren’t entirely alone. There was always a sidekick, working from the simple showbiz maxim that a double act trumps a solo show every time. Not all of the sidekicks worked – you won’t find Bobby the Banana on the current CBBC trails celebrating 30 years of the Broom Cupboard. But Gordon the Gopher, Edd the Duck, Wilson the Butler and now Hacker T Dog have become as much part of the CBBC presentation team as the humans they accompanied.
“Edd was there before me,” says Peters. “He started with Andy Crane, then I joined and then I did longer with Edd than Andy did. [Peters hosted the Broom Cupboard for just under three years between 1988 and 1991.]”
In other words the puppets, who at the beginning never spoke, preferring squeaking and quacking, could be more enduring than their companions.
Except on Tuesdays.
“Edd never used to appear on Tuesdays,” Peters recalls. “People would write in and say, ‘Where is he?’ I’d say, ‘He’s at Cubs.’ We had to do a photoshoot with him in a Cubs uniform. There’s a reason why he used to do Cubs on Tuesday but we don’t like to reveal it. Keep the myth going.”
Lengthy research by this reporter means that today, for the first time, we can reveal where Edd the Duck was on Tuesdays all those years ago. The truth is, Edd was ‘operated’ by a female BBC producer who had to do something else on a Tuesday afternoon. Back in the late 80s the BBC was a corporation where a staff producer’s sideline as a puppeteer was deemed to be less important than their job as a producer. And so because only one person operated Edd, on Tuesdays Edd wasn’t around.
I ask Peters what it was like spending so many hours – he once appeared on Children’s BBC for 150 consecutive days in a row – talking to an inanimate object.
“You say inanimate – he had a personality. Sorry, he has a personality – Edd hasn’t died. And genuinely he would ‘say’ things and I would know what he had just said to me. It’s honestly some of the best years of my television life I spent in that Broom Cupboard. We used to just laugh a lot, Edd and I.”
The Broom Cupboard years were formative for the viewers as well. This was at a time when, with only four channels to choose from, Children’s BBC could draw 12 million viewers at half past five. I was one of them, and it introduced me and an entire generation to a type of freewheeling, irreverent whimsy that has gone on to become the dominant idiom across television entertainment.
“What the Broom Cupboard did,” Peters says, “was bring an intimacy between the presenter and the viewer. It was one camera, no bells and whistles, no graphics, just the presenter talking to the audience at home.”
Nowadays no show would dare risk a static set-up with a fixed camera that can’t even zoom in or out, but the strictures of working from a continuity booth meant the presenters had to be smart, composed and ever on their mettle. Plus, the absence of movement meant the presenters’ faces became like stamps – ubiquitous and instantly recognisable. Schofield, Peters, Zoe Ball, Jake Humphrey and Holly Willoughby all cut their teeth on Children’s BBC and all have gone on to forge successful small screen careers.
Watch some CBBC today, as I do with my children, and the irreverence remains – the presenters are funny, knowing, like the friendly big brother or sister at school. But the intimacy Peters speaks of has gone. It’s inevitable – television has evolved. There are now many more dedicated children’s channels and kids watch all sorts at all times. Peters maintains that British children’s television is still the best in the world – “by far” – but at the same time he accepts that it is different. For children today interactivity, apps and computer animation have rendered imagination optional in part. With that in mind, it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when a man in imaginary conversation with a sock puppet was enough to keep us watching.