Thursday 14 November 2019

Thinking outside the Bosco

Anna Carey takes a nostalgic look back at children's shows of years past

Nora O'Mahony, Judge the Dog and Eugene Lambert on Wanderly Wagon
Nora O'Mahony, Judge the Dog and Eugene Lambert on Wanderly Wagon
International stars like the Sesame Street cast feature on 'Bring Back Bosco'

'Knock knock, open wide, see what's on the other side! Knock knock, any more, come with me through the Magic Door ... " If you were a child in the 1980s, those words will take you back to the days when the height of television entertainment was a wooden puppet with red wool for hair, a box for a house and an annoying habit of squeaking "uafásach!" at anything he didn't like.

Yes, Bosco was a truly Irish 1980s icon, and he (or possibly she -- it was hard to tell) is just one of the television legends celebrated in a nostalgic new TV3 show, Bring Back Bosco: The Story of Kids TV, which starts tonight at 9pm. In it, the people behind the programmes we loved as children, as well as their fans and international stars such as the Sesame Street cast, look at the colourful history of Irish children's television.

It may be hard to believe for today's kids, who have grown up with a range of digital stations entirely devoted to children's programming, but 30 years ago kids' TV took up, at most, two hours of the daily television schedule. This meant that pretty much everyone watched the same programmes, and for those in two-channel-land, shows such as Bosco, Anything Goes, Fortycoats and Wanderly Wagon basically defined television.

Of course, those of us who grew up with the British stations also had access to everything from the gritty Grange Hill to the magical Box of Delights, but we were still drawn to the home-grown RTE shows. They may have lacked the glamour and budgets of the British productions, but they managed to capture the imaginations of the nation's children.

Wanderly Wagon, which first aired back in 1967, was RTE's most significant children's hit. It was imaginative and ambitious, and it didn't resemble any other children's shows. Children were captivated by the adventures of likeable O'Brien (played by legendary puppeteer Eugene Lambert), matronly Godmother (Nora O'Mahoney) and of course puppet sidekicks Mr Crow and Judge, as they traveled around in the eponymous wagon. The show's writers included film maker Neil Jordan, children's author Carolyn Swift, and acting legend Frank Kelly. Its established position in the hearts of the nation's kids was confirmed when Judge, the cheerful dog puppet, fronted a memorable road safety campaign.

In fact, Wanderly Wagon was so popular that it even spawned a spin-off in the 1980s, Fortycoats. The title character lived in a flying sweetshop (sometimes it became a trickshop -- he was obviously a creative businessman) with two sidekicks, the ditzy schoolgirl Slightly Bonkers and the prissy Sofar Sogood. They battled the evil Whilomena the Whirligig Witch, surely one of children's television's most impressively named villains.

But kids' TV wasn't all about fantasy adventure. There were also shows such as Saturday morning's Anything Goes, starring Aonghus McAnally and a studio full of excited small children, while Mary Fitzgerald taught us how to make sculptures out of lollypop sticks and other useful skills in Mary's Make and Do.

And of course, there was Bosco. While the likes of Wanderly Wagon gang inspired widespread devotion, Bosco was a more divisive figure. Many children (myself and my sisters included) found his squeaky cries of "uafásach" more annoying than endearing, and we realised that there were only so many times that the magic door could lead us to the zoo or the bottle factory before it got a bit boring. And yet when Bosco presenter Philip (whose relatives lived across the road from us) turned up at our local community week summer event, we all went wild with excitement.

We didn't know it at the time, but Irish children's telly was about to get even more exciting with the arrival, in the late 1980s, of puppet duo Zig and Zag. Soon, even those of us who had hit our teens and claimed to have no interest in babyish children's shows were tuning in to see the increasingly hilarious aliens share the stage (and the sofa, which later developed a life of its own) with Ian Dempsey, in what was then called Dempsey's Den. The alien duo had a subversive, anarchic quality that was a staple of British children's TV but had been previously lacking from Irish screens. No wonder both children and adults adored them. After Zig and Zag were lured away to Channel 4, RTE made sure the Den stayed lively with Dustin the Turkey and the affable Socky.

Today, Irish children's programmes are shown around the world. TG4 are producing quality children's drama as Gaeilge, and Ireland is leading the way with new shows such as the cartoon Punky, whose lively heroine is a little girl with Down Syndrome. So what would today's Irish children think of the cardboard sets and wobbly production of the shows their parents loved? Bring Back Bosco will attempt to find out tonight, when it introduces 21st century children to Bosco and his ilk. Would there be an audience for him today?

You never know, there just might be. After all, who doesn't want to find out what lies behind the magic door? Even if it is just the zoo again.

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