The 6 eras of British kids’ TV

kids watching tv

We’ve got an exciting weekend up ahead: Friday 20 November is Universal Children’s Day, and the 21 November straight afterwards is World TV Day. Sounds like a good time to revisit all our favourite kids’ telly.

It's had a good run in the UK so far - if a bizarre one. And it seems to divide up neatly into six bizarre eras.

1. The creepy black and white puppets era

The first forays into children's programming in the 1940s included the likes of Muffin the Mule, a clanky equine puppet and the embodiment of the Queen's English. So things were off to an interesting start.

The patronisingly titled Watch With Mother cycle kicked off in the 50s, and featured a few more wonderfully creepy marionettes like the Flower Pot Men and Andy Pandy. The stage for kids' TV was set… and it would be a while before we got rid of those damn puppets.

2. The fluffy stop motion era

The Clangers

By the 1960s and 70s, kids TV had gained two key things: colour, and what we can only assume is class-A psychedelics. Puppets had been replaced for the most part with curious stop motion characters that looked like scraps of carpet, and the basic premises of most shows got increasingly weird.

The inhabitants of The Magic Roundabout have been compared to illegal drugs more than enough times; the Clangers were simply bizarre; and why there was a lion frolicking around a herb garden is beyond anyone. But hey, it was the 60s and 70s - an oddity or two was par for the course, even if they did accidentally encourage kids to drop their rubbish all over Wimbledon.

3. The blue collar workers with pleasant dispositions era

The late 1980s brought an economic boom and decent employment, and boy were we thrilled about it. And of course the sheer joy at being at work spilled over into children's TV. The stop motion of the previous decade remained intact, but now it lent itself to showing regular humans doing regular jobs.

Enter Postman Pat, Fireman Sam, and Bertha. Even Thomas the Tank Engine - a show so focused on hard work that there are PhD theses calling it conservative propaganda - had a resurgence, as if to drive the point home that everyone loves their job.

4. The golden era of puppetry

Ragdoll Productions cooked up a storm in the 90s. Suddenly, puppets. Puppets everywhere. Puppets in people's houses. Puppets running shops. Puppets on narrowboats. Puppets.

Between Sooty's revival and the continued success of Rainbow, the puppet revival was in full swing. But, this time around, they were a bit nicer - instead of the creaky marionettes of yesteryear, they were softer and friendlier and controlled by stuffing your hand inside them. The UK had been watching Muppets and taking careful notes.

5. The zany era

If there's one thing we can say about kids' TV in the late 90s and early 00s, it was ZANY. Absolutely BONKERS. Apparently kids weren't so into puppets any more (and who can blame them?), so they had to make do with humans. The anarchic 70s show Tiswas and early 90s general question mark ZZZap! set the stage for some of the BARMIEST live action we'd seen in years.

Oh, and they'd also rediscovered that gunging people was a thing, and that kids found it hilarious. Buckets of the stuff were chucked liberally around the sets of Fun House, Get Your Own Back, and Live and Kicking.

Even more scripted live action shows with plots got the zanification treatment - only in the late 90s would anyone make a programme about alien foster parents who grow antlers when they eat ice cream.

6. The low budget 3D animation era

Kids' TV characters

The cool thing about 3D animation is that it makes it quicker and cheaper to make an animated TV show. The bad thing is that this means production companies can churn out media before the script's even had a chance to be proofread.

Luckily, kids aren't as bothered by weird clipping and simple character design. So today's children's TV offerings have a poor man's Pixar look about them - from the peculiar saccharine Bing to Octonauts to reggae-loving Rastamouse.

Some classics like Clangers, The Magic Roundabout, and Peter Rabbit got given an overhaul in the last decade too, in - you guessed it - 3D animation. There's no escape.

Where's children's TV going next? Only time will tell. Though it pains me to say so, I'd say we're due for a new cycle of puppets.

  • Freeview vs Freesat vs YouView

  • How to watch the Premier League 2018 on TV and online

  • How to watch TV on games consoles

  • Sports and broadband

  • Can I get BT Sport on Sky?

  • Netflix vs Amazon Prime Video vs Now Broadband: Which is best?

  • The worst dads on TV, and what to get them for Father’s Day

  • Out the trash can and into our hearts: The worst & weirdest reality TV

  • Spoiler etiquette: how not to be a total Joffrey

  • YouTube makes me feel old so I’m lashing out at it

  • Sky Q is more than a TV service – it’s Sky investing in its future

  • 6 reasons why the new BBC Three will succeed

Compare broadband, TV & landline deals