Memories Of A Darkened Room: Children’s Summer Holiday TV Programmes

They may have been the oddest of programmes to serve up to kids on their summer hols but they are abiding memories of a childhood spent in front of the screen.

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What’s your memory of school summer holidays in the 60s and 70s? Running wild and free through sunlit forests and lush green meadows? Gambolling in amongst the rippling wheat fields to the sound of chattering songbirds with a warm southern wind in your face? Me neither.

My abiding memory of summer holidays at the age of 10ish is sitting in a semi-darkened living room with the curtains drawn and shafts of morning sunlight breaking through the gaps, irritatingly, as the TV screen lit up your face and the glorious percussive opening strains and black and white credits of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe struck up. Da da da da- da da!

Any child today would view this image as almost Victorian in its monochrome spareseness. Children’s TV was broadcast for an hour each weekday morning between 10 and 11 AM during July and August featuring badly dubbed cheap European imports, each series repeated unfailingly every year and watched every subsequent year with the same glee and wide-eyed wonder at the fact that programmes aimed at children were actually being beamed into your living room! In the morning! What wasn’t to like?

We were more easily pleased in those day, obviously. And to think back to the meagre visual TV diet we were given, and accepted gratefully, in those days, maybe said more about how compliant we were. Multi-platform, colour, flat screen, big budget 24/7 children’s TV programming was something from a science fiction series quite a few years into the future.

But it was still exciting and a welcome change to the norm. The fact that the BBC hardly bothered to change the programmes from year to year and didn’t even have the idea to repeat any children’s series they’d produced themselves is quite astounding. Of course, maybe they’d have had to stump up a repeat fee for some of the personnel involved which wouldn’t do and, of course, many of the children’s TV series would have been wiped immediately after broadcast anyway. So we were stuck with a few foreign series which, to us, seemed fine. It was, quite literally, better than nothing.

Singing Ringing Tree, The | Nostalgia Central
The Singing Ringing Tree: What’s not to like?

On top of that the productions were made in different languages and then badly dubbed into English. We were used to this though as we’d previously watched Tales from Europe on early evening telly. I wasn’t over enamoured with TFE as the dubbing irritated me a little but the stories were nuts! And this certainly did excite me. Much has been written about the weird and wonderful ‘Singing Ringing Tree‘ and it is a truly wonderful and, at times, terrifying experience. In later years when the colour version became available it added a new dimension of surreality. Other of the Tales from Europe strand weren’t even properly dubbed. Usually they just had an English language voiceover, a single actor explaining what was going on. You could hear the foreign language dialogue under this, which was never ideal. Broadcast by the BBC between 1964 and 1969 straight after Blue Peter (See Here’s Something I Wrote Earlier: Blue Peter v Magpie) on a Thursday, TFE was cheap and rarely cheerful series which had a peculiar fascination for children like myself. The narratives and characters were very different to what we were used to which was a good thing. With the exception of The Singing Ringing Tree, I doubt if any still survive and, other than The Snow Queen, I struggle to remember any of the stories featured.

So a bit of terrible dubbing for a July morning was more than acceptable.

And as a result these series have become synonymous with being young in the sixties for people of a certain vintage. Hear the theme tune to any of them and you’re transported to a time when nothing much bothered you, other than being told to go out and play. And, of course, in true Genxculture style, there was often more to those dubious summer visual treats than met the cathode-ray inflected eye.

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Well we have to start with this, obviously. If any piece of music could be said to evoke childhood memories for those of a certain age, it’s this one. Hearing even a few bars of it takes you back to blissful summer mornings where there was nothing to worry you, nothing that needed to be done or appointments to be kept. Until, of course, your mum shouted through from the kitchenette telling you to go out and play as the sun was splitting the sky.

If you managed to escape this fate you could settle down to see how Robinson Crusoe managed to survive this seemingly idyllic island imprisonment.

Written by Daniel Defoe in 1719 it has since been seen as being the first work of fiction, using a range of narrative techniques. Some believed it was based on Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish privateer, or pirate which those types of mariners were, including the likes of that supposed British ‘hero’ Francis Drake. Selkirk spent three years on a deserted island Mas a Tiera, off the coast of Chile, before being rescued by a passing ship. They were essentially thieves on the high seas, often endorsed by royalty. Should anyone happen to pass through the cute wee village of Lower Largo on Fife’s East Neuk they will see a statue of Selkirk in the harbour.

It’s safe to describe the theme music as (cliche alert!) iconic. A word not just overused but battered to death nightly on TV and radio, but, in this case, appropriate. I doubt anyone over the age of 55 would fail to recognise the rumbling opening to the programme or the various pieces of incidental music. It’s even been reimagined by Art of Noise, no less.

Played by Austrian actor Robert Hoffman, it was his first professional role after leaving acting school. Hoffman went on to have a long and successful film career, mainly in slightly dubious European films such as Naked Girl Murdered In The Park, ermm Spasmo and the inevitable part of a U-Boat captain in 1980’s The Sea Wolves with British acting royalty Roger Moore, David Niven, Trevor Howard and the great Gregory Peck. All a bit long in the tooth to be messing about with U-Boats I’d say. Hoffman even had a part in the final days of Dallas in 1989.

In a nod to his 60s cult status as a mid-morning children’s TV hero, towards the end of his film career Hoffman appeared in a film entitled My Friend, The Lipizzaner.

What goes around, comes around, I suppose. And it’s also nice to see that, although retired from acting, he is still very much with us at the age of 83.

For me, the most memorable of Crusoe’s black and white adventures were the scene where he tries to rescue equipment from his sinking ship by building a raft and paddling out to the stricken vessel and then when he discovers footprints on the beach when he thought the island was deserted. An excellent cliff-hanger to end that particular episode. Of course, by the fourth time we’d watched the series the event had lost a little of its shock and mystery. But did we care? Did we buffalo.

It always seemed such a nice place to be marooned, the sun always shone, fish were plentiful and the little shelter he’d built himself would have made a fantastic gang-hut. Obviously when the cannibals and pirates arrived that put a slight damper on things but there had to be some moments of tension. The whole adventure was filmed on Gran Canaria, though long before anyone, other than some hippies maybe, saw it is a year-round holiday destination. At least it wasn’t Tenerife, or Brexit By The Sea as I tend to refer to it, so it maintained its mystery and exoticness no matter how often we watched it.

The White Horses

The White Horses was a curious confection of very poor dubbing (tick), bad acting (tick), unknown actors (tick) and what would now be questionable storylines (tick). The fact that the premise revolved around stories of summer holidays spent at an uncle’s horse stables which was populated by lovely white Lipizanner nags and was mainly of interested to young adolescent girls, with a equine fixation, before they’d discovered boys was irrelevant. It was a TV programme and it was on on a holiday weekday morning for god’s sake! Every weekday holiday morning. Every weekday holiday morning every holiday year! What wasn’t to like? Well, quite a lot really if you were a eight-year-old boy but we could easily put up with it as Robinson Crusoe was on next.

The White Horses was a German/Yugoslavian production first broadcast in the UK by the BBC in 1968. Surprisingly only 13 episodes were ever made, it just seems as if there were more due to the many repeat broadcasts every year.

It starred Austrian born Helga Anders as Julka who goes on holiday one sun-drenched summer to her uncle’s Lipizanner stud farm, although there was little exposition for the benefit of young viewers as to what a stud farm was. The fragrant Jenny Handley of Magpie (See Here’s Something I Wrote Earlier: Blue Peter v Magpie) might have been able to help her on that one (allegedly). Poor Helga went on to appear in many German TV series and films during the 70s and 80s but sadly lost her battle with drink and drug addiction in 1986 at the criminally young age of 38. A tragically adult demise for someone associated with children’s summer holidays.

Few people who watched The White Horses, other than the young horsey types who adored the series, will remember many of the storylines. There must have been limited opportunities to come up with narratives that always involved smart white horses saving their owners and busting crime syndicates. One slightly dodgy storyline, the very first episode in fact, featured some dastardly gypsies who tried to steal one the prize nags and hide it in plain sight by painting it brown. But Julka was too clever for them and spotted their deception! Well, it was 1966.

Everyone who watched the series, though, remembers the theme tune. And if anything transports us back all those years it’s hearing this tune, whether you liked the series or not.

Arguably it’s the theme tune that has rendered this series more memorable. I’ve already made the point a number of times that theme tunes are responsible for some series being remembered as better than they actually were. The most obvious example being Van Der Valk, a rather run of the windmill detective series set in Amsterdam (See Here’s Something I Wrote Earlier: Blue Peter v Magpie below). It was performed by that stalwart of TV theme tunes, Irish songstress, Jackie Lee. As ‘Jacky’ she reached number 10 with The White Horses theme song, voted the best ever theme by The Penguin Television Companion, indeed. She followed this up using her proper stage name, Jackie Lee, with the similarly earwormic theme from Rupert The Bear in 1970 which reached number 14 in the hit parade. Jackie can be seen performing Rupert The Bear on the legendary Golden Shot in 1970 at 16:17 below. Finally, in 1973 she recorded the theme from Inigo Pipkin (latterly The Pipkins after the unfortunate death of Mr Pipkin after the first series ended) which didn’t chart but was also memorable.

Jackie was responsible for some Northern Soul classics but was also much in demand as a session singer during the 60s and 70s, providing vocal backing on such MOR classics as Tom Jones’s ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home,’ Englebert’sRelease Me’ as well as the more psychedelic stylings of the great Jimi Hendrix on ‘Hey Joe.’

At the age of 85, Jackie Lee is still very much with us and living in Canada.

Despite The White Horses being aimed mainly at a female audience, the next offering was very much a favourite of young male viewers.

Herge’s Adventures of Tintin

By far the greatest summer holiday programme was The Adventures of Tintin but it was also the most frustrating. It just wasn’t long enough, running in at about 7 minutes an episode.

We all know now that Tintin was Belgian having been created by George Remi under the nom de plume of Herge. His first comic strip, years before Tintin was entitled The Adventures of Totor: Scout Leader of The Cockchafers. Make of that what you will but Herge was about to go global with the release of Tintin some years later. To me the characters seemed very British, particularly the Thompson Twins and Captain Haddock, who had been adapted for a British audience, but it was the English language dubbing that was so much better than White Horses.

Certain Tintin stories from the 30s and 40s have been accused of being racist and imperialistic, an accusation fairly accurate, but it pretty much went with the territory in those far off days. And the only Tintin story I ever remember seeing during school holidays was ‘The Crab With The Golden Claws,’ made in 1959, so it must have been pretty cheap for the BBC to broadcast in 1967. But so was every programme during this summer period.

The Tintin series was, as far as I can remember, quite professionally dubbed. Unlike The White Horses and Robinson Crusoe which was clearly filmed in a foreign language, I had no idea Tintin was actually Belgian. At this time cartoons were like gold dust. There were so few on telly, when one was broadcast it was a significant event. But each episode was only five minutes long which frustrated me hugely. We did, of course, have Cartoon Cavalcade which eventually morphed into the awful Glen Michael’s Cavalcade, it really just became a platform for his irritating and comedy-lite personality, but it probably saved STV loads of money as we were lucky to get 2 or 3 cartoons during each episode.

Glen Michael's Cartoon Cavalcade. A memory for Scottish folk of a certain  age. At its peak, Cartoon Cavalcade attracted a staggeri… | Uk tv shows,  Cartoon, Retro tv
More of the Glen Michael, less of the cartoon.

The dubbing was good because the adapters brought in some proper voice actors. Tintin was played by Gerald Campion, an actor who played Billy Bunter in the TV series of the 50s and was perennially typecast as a ‘fat’ character in various films and TV shows. Other characters were played by the UK’s most famous voice actor of the period, Peter Hawkins. Few of a certain age will remember his name but he was responsible for many voices during the 60s-80s including the Daleks and Cybermen from early Doctor Who, Captain Pugwash, Bill and Ben, The Flowerpot Men (Sklobalop!) and SuperTed.

Flower Pot Men - Wikipedia

The cartoon version of the story was also adapted from the original and became the pursuit of diamond smugglers rather than opium smugglers, not that I’d have known what opium was in those days anyway.

Although this was my favourite holiday programme and one that excited me hugely when broadcast, I struggle to remember much about the story. It seemed to end almost as quickly as it began and just left me wanting more.

There were other holiday programmes such as Belle and Sebastian, which I never really took to, and a few Watch With Mother -type shows but it was The Big Three that really arrested our attention. It was genuinely exciting to have these programmes to watch every morning and every year as TV was severely rationed for children in those days and despite almost knowing the script after three years of the same schedule it didn’t matter.

Tell that to kids nowadays and they won’t believe you….