On the afternoon of the 9th of September 1985, UK children were introduced to their new big brother. Phillip Schofield, a vision in a side-parting, a geometric print jumper and a beaming smile, arrived in the Children’s BBC Broom Cupboard to babysit the nation’s kids for an hour and a half every weekday.
Schofield’s job was to ferry us through the post-school slump and drop us off at Neighbours no later than 5.35pm. He let us watch cartoons, wished us happy birthday, praised our felt-tip drawings of Jimbo and the Jet Set, and never once told us off for eating too many packs of salt and vinegar Chipsticks before tea.
After Phillip came Debbie Flint, who was awesome because her earrings didn’t match, and then Andy Crane, who taught us all the words to the Around The World With Willy Fog theme song. Cheery Simon Parkin and slightly naughty Andi Peters—the man who introduced the phrase “oo-er missus” to the school playground—followed.
Those presenters were like family. They did much more than just read aloud from the Radio Times and interview the residents of Ramsay Street. They were the companions of our salad days, back when we lived in blissful ignorance of what salad even was.
To salute CBBC’s thirty-five year anniversary, join us as we revisit a few childhood memories from the early days of the Broom Cupboard. Feel free to add your own below…
1. The Jonny Briggs trombone slide
Forget synths. The sound of the mid-eighties was the trombone slide. Specifically, the slide in J.A. Greenwood’s The Acrobat used as the opening theme music to Jonny Briggs.
Jonny Briggs was a sort of trainee Shameless, the story of a working class lad with two big brothers—one nice, one a bully—, a gobby older sister, a best friend called Pam, and a dog named after a jazz mag. Its fifteen minute episodes were comic glimpses into Jonny’s schoolboy scrapes and family life. It was classic Broom Cupboard fodder, and that opening note is all the time machine you need to take you instantly back to sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, eating a Jacob’s Trio (or perhaps even, if your family was posh enough to have a car and a utility room, a KP Choc Dip).
2. Goodbye to our viewers in Northern Ireland
If you grew up outside Northern Ireland, and were as stupid a child as I was, you too may have been perplexed by why each day at 5.05pm, CBBC presenters waved goodbye to Northern Irish viewers.
What happened in Northern Ireland at the same time every day that meant kids couldn’t watch Blue Peter, I wondered? Did everyone in Northern Ireland have really early bedtimes? Was that when telly finished for the day there? Perhaps kids weren’t allowed to watch Blue Peter for religious reasons, like the brother and sister in my primary school who were let out of assembly before hymns on Friday? Was it something to do with the Troubles?
Was Blue Peter behind the Troubles?
No. It wasn’t. The real reason for the Northern Irish early exit from CBBC, as it turns out, is a simple one. Northern Ireland showed regional news before The 6 O Clock News and aired Neighbours an hour later than everywhere else.
3. National Willy Fog Day
Following in Phillip Schofield’s tradition of tunefully singing along to the theme songs of Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities Of Gold (that starring role in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat didn’t come out of nowhere), Andy Crane turned the theme to Spanish/Japanese cartoon Around The World With Willy Fog into a Broom Cupboard singalong.
Taking things a step further, Crane and co. named the 28th of April 1988 to be National Willy Fog day. To mark the final episode of the series, the Broom Cupboard transcribed the lyrics to the theme, told viewers to send in a stamped addressed envelope if they wanted a copy, and asked them to wear Willy Fog-themed fancy dress on the day in question. According to this interview with Crane, the viewer response was astounding and necessitated reinforcements to be drafted in to cope with all the mail-outs.
Some former viewers still mark the occasion every April, which is oddly touching. We especially salute the wonderful Fiona, in this ace YouTube video from 2008, for keeping the tradition alive.
Downtown was a genius segment to rival anything Alan Partridge could dream up. The premise, should you need reminding, was that viewers sent in photographs of themselves and their mates (involving a trip to Boots, a stamp and an envelope in those days) while they were, wait for it, down town.
The pictures would then be shown in a CBBC slide-show, as in the above video courtesy of this tremendous Broom Cupboard website) accompanied by the dulcet tones of Petula Clark’s titular song. There was also an accompanying campaign to get the Clark song to number one, using a three-prong marketing campaign of repeated exposure, felt-tip pen banners, and pleas from Phillip Schofield.
5. A Tribe Of Toffs – John Kettley Is A Weatherman
Technically, this clip is from Children’s BBC summer holiday spin-off, But First This (later known as BFT), but it all began in the Broom Cupboard.
In 1988, Sunderland-based band, A Tribe Of Toffs, sent a cassette tape of their novelty song, John Kettley Is A Weatherman, to Andy Crane. Crane played it to the producer of BFT, who invited the group down to record a video featuring Kettley himself, and the result is above. The song reached Number 21 in the UK singles chart.
According to his official website, John Kettley is still a weather presenter, and appeared on Celebrity Eggheads in 2013.
6. When the Budget moved it to BBC Two
Once a year, you’d switch on Children’s BBC only to find in its place a man you didn’t recognise reading out the price of a pack of cigarettes in the House of Commons. That disappointment was only matched by the relief at realising that you could simply switch channels to BBC Two, and all would be well in the world again.
7. Edd the Duck et al
In the grand genealogy of Broom Cupboard characters, we think we’ve got this just about straight:
Hogan the Monkey begat Gordon the Gopher, and Gordon the Gopher begat Bobby the Banana. To Bobby the Banana two sons were born, Chris the Carrot and Edd the Duck. Edd the Duck begat Wilson the Butler. Wilson the Butler was the father of The Caretaker. The Caretaker begat Ban The Broom, who gave birth to a son. And he named him… scratch that.
The only Broom Cupboard puppets anyone really needs to remember are Gordon the Gopher (whose leather jacket, it’s widely and quite possibly erroneously reported, was custom-made for him by Adam Ant) and Edd the Duck, spreader of mysterious “Quack Circles”, singer of Awesome Dood (which rhymes ballad with mallard), nemesis of Wilson the butler, and star of Duck Tracy, Duck Dares, and a pretty terrible video game.
8. Maggot Moments
Speaking of which, Maggot Moments was a late arrival to CBBC, in the days of Philippa Forrester and Toby Anstis. If it proved one thing though, it was that compass points sorely needed inclusion on early 90s UK school curricula.
9. “Tell that aardvark it’s a wrap!”
Finally, for a child of CBBC, nothing is more likely to do the job of one of Proust’s madeleines than an ident. From BBC Micro continuity slides to Acorn Archimedes animations to the snazzier modern versions collected in the video above, these stings are wee pockets of pure nostalgia.
Happy thirty-fifth birthday, CBBC. You raised a nation.
This article first appeared in September 2015.