Watch with Mother

Watch with Mother was the first television programme on either side of the Atlantic to be explicitly aimed at very young children. Its title was carried over from a radio series, Listen with Mother, which had started life in 1950 (and continued until 1982). The first programmes, featuring a child marionette called Andy Pandy, were broadcast in mid-1950, under the broader heading For the Very Young. The overall title Watch with Mother was not used until 1953, and it was only in 1955 that all five daily strands of the programme were in place. Apart from Andy Pandy, they included: Picture Book, featuring a female presenter reading a story or demonstrating simple ‘make and do’ activities; the Flower Pot Men, with two nonsense-talking marionettes living in flower pots at the bottom of a garden; Rag, Tag and Bobtail, fairytales featuring glove puppets of a dormouse, a hedgehog and a rabbit; and The Woodentops, another marionette show about the everyday life of a farming family.

The programme was produced by the BBC: commercial television did not begin in the UK until 1955. Nominally intended for a target audience of three-year-olds, the first series were typically made in runs of 26 episodes of fifteen minutes each. These original programmes were regularly repeated throughout the 1960s and 1970s, in some instances twice daily, in daytime slots not accessible to older children; although the umbrella title Watch with Mother was dropped in 1973 as it was believed to be outdated, and the strand was re-named See-Saw. A new, shorter series of Andy Pandy, in colour, was made in 1970, because the original films were decomposing; and in 2001, the BBC produced an animated re-boot of the Flower Pot Men, now re-named Bill and Ben. Five programmes from the original series were released on a best-selling video compilation in 1987, clearly catering to the heritage-nostalgia market.

The title Watch with Mother obviously reflects an assumption that mothers would be watching television with their children. Even at the time, however, there was not much evidence that this was the case. From the very earliest days of television, executives in the BBC’s children’s department were expressing concern about the dangers of unsupervised viewing. As David Oswell has shown, concerns about the harmful effects of television on children were widespread right from the start; and working-class children were often seen to be particularly vulnerable. As he suggests, broadcasters were expected to make middle-class parents conscious of their responsibilities, while compensating for the alleged irresponsibility of working-class parents. In this sense, the title Watch with Mother may well have reflected a wished-for ideal rather than a reality. According to Alistair McGowan, the title was intended ‘to deflect fears that television might become a nursemaid to children and encourage “bad mothering”’.

Created by Freda Lingstrom, the formidable head of the children’s department, along with her friend the producer Maria Bird, Watch with Mother needs to be understood in relation to the broader ethos of BBC children’s broadcasting at the time. In some respects, this can be seen as a variety of the paternalistic approach of the BBC’s first Director General Lord Reith, who had left the Corporation only shortly before the War – although when it came to children, the approach might more aptly be termed ‘maternalistic’. According to Lindstrom, children’s programming should reflect an ethos of love and care: children should be carefully nurtured, in line with contemporary ideas of child development, and any elements of Reithian ‘cultural uplift’ or education should be introduced very gently. Like Reith, Lingstrom was extremely resistant towards commercialism and elements of ‘mass culture’, but she also felt very strongly that children’s television should be entertaining. She did not want children’s programmes to be confused with those produced explicitly for schools, which came from another BBC department.

As such, programmes like Watch with Mother had to achieve a delicate balance between education and entertainment: they should not be too entertaining, but not too educational either. BBC programmes needed to be sedate and restrained, and should not contain the ‘thrills and stunts’ or the rapid pace that broadcasters claimed to find in some American children’s programmes. Yet they should also avoid being unduly didactic, moralistic or patronizing. The BBC’s earliest presenters of children’s radio and television – who were referred to as ‘Uncles’ and ‘Aunties’ – were key to achieving the correct balance between intimacy and authority. For Lingstrom and her colleagues, it was vital that programmes should not promote passive or indiscriminate viewing: ‘the force of television,’ she argued, had to be ‘carefully controlled’. This uneasy equilibrium was already under pressure in the early 1950s, but it faced a much more direct challenge with the coming of commercial television in 1955, whose schedules came to be dominated by American-made family entertainment shows. The child audience quickly began to desert the BBC, precipitating a crisis that eventually led to the closure of the children’s department (in 1964, it was finally merged with a new family department, and only re-emerged in 1967, with a rather different ethos).

The daily strands of Watch with Mother were diverse in some respects, but there are several shared characteristics. While Rag, Tag and Bobtail generally features a simple fairy tale, and while Picture Book always includes the adult presenter reading a short story from a book, the other programmes are much less concerned with narrative. Each episode of Andy Pandy, The Flower Pot Men and The Woodentops takes us back to the worlds of familiar characters, who are re-introduced in turn, and shown doing the familiar things they invariably do. Andy performs a little dance with his friends Looby Loo and Teddy; Bill and Ben pop up from their flowerpots and then hide when they hear the gardener approaching; the twin Woodentop children do the same actions, both together. Everyday events are repeated in a form of ritual. The pace is extraordinarily slow, there is little movement, and the narrator’s voice is calm and quiet.

The original episodes were obviously made on film (videotape was not widely used until the late 1960s), but there is hardly any editing or even much camera movement. Events typically unfold on a tableau, mostly in long or medium shot. In some ways, the format is similar to that of early cinema, before the director D.W. Griffith famously instructed his camera operator Billy Bitzer to move the camera for a close-up. Indeed, the off-screen adult narrator (who is female in all the programmes except Rag, Tag and Bobtail) plays a role similar to that of the ‘explainer’ who was employed in nickelodeon cinemas in the 1900s and 1910s. She explains the camera movements and infrequent edits, warning us before they occur: ‘let’s look around the garden, shall we, children?’ or ‘let’s see what’s happening in the kitchen’. It is as if the producers are afraid that children might become disoriented or confused if there were to be a sudden cut to a close-up or a different scene, or if the camera were to pan around or zoom too quickly.

Watch with Mother locates childhood in a secure and familiar domestic setting, in the garden or the nursery rather than the street, or even a more natural outdoor location. The gardener occasionally threatens to encroach on the world of the Flower Pot Men, although he is never actually seen; but Andy Pandy never leaves the play room and the garden. Yet this is hardly a child-centred world. Andy Pandy does not speak, and Bill and Ben speak only in a nonsense language. The comments of Rag, Tag and Bobtail are spoken by the adult narrator. Only Willy and Jenny, the Woodentop children, are heard to say occasional words. The dominant voice throughout is that of the adult narrator, who occasionally ‘hears’ and re-states, or infers, what the child characters are intending to say. The children occasionally display a will of their own, but they are never remotely naughty or disobedient. By contrast, the narrator addresses the child viewer directly, asking questions or offering invitations to participate (for example, in singing a nursery rhyme, clapping or copying simple movements). The adult narrator remains in authority, both over the children on screen and over those at home; yet her authority is kindly and loving rather than domineering or teacherly. The child at home is gently encouraged to respond or join in, but there is no insistence on doing so.

In some respects, the pedagogy of Watch with Mother reflects ideas about child-rearing that were popular at the time – and specifically the emphasis on the attachment between mother and child that was key to the work of post-war psychologists such as John Bowlby and D.W. Winnicott. Meanwhile, very few assumptions are made about these children’s understanding of media – or their ‘media literacy’. The programmes make very little use of the possibilities of the medium, despite the fact that they were shot on film; and the verbal commentary clearly dominates over the visual elements. This might be seen to reflect the limited technical possibilities of television at the time, but it also reflects different assumptions about the audience: most children of this age would have been quite familiar with the much more sophisticated visual language of Disney cartoons, for example.

Read more…