Ninety minutes of telly. Less, maybe, depending on what time you got home from school, and even then you’d need to ping back and forth between the channels, splitting your allegiance between Phillip and Andi in the Broom Cupboard or Tommy Boyd and co. over on ITV while the precious seconds ticked past.
As an 80s kid, that fleeting hour-and-a-half was the sliver of a weekday when the television was meant for you, and you didn’t want to waste a second of it on adverts or accidentally watching T-Bag instead of The Dream Stone. It was all you had – unless, of course, you were lucky enough to have cable TV in your house, because then there was a chance you’d be able to watch The Children’s Channel.
TCC, as it would later be rebranded, was a whole other world. Predating Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon in the UK, it would broadcast for up to ten hours without being interrupted by news headlines or a cricket match gone rogue. True, its content did drop down to pre-school entertainment during the day and you might get lumbered with something like Babar The Elephant, but a feast was a feast nonetheless.
To fill those ten hours, the channel’s operators assembled a hodge-podge collection of animation from around the world, giving viewers their first glimpses at shows like You Can’t Do That On Television and Sharky & George long before they found their way onto terrestrial telly. Other programmes, beloved classics like Danger Mouse, were duly provided by companies like Thames Television who were backing the station.
Not everything in that long daily schedule could be a classic, though, and a lot of the original programming – about a third of TCC’s content, according to the operators – has sunk into the murky oblivion of memory along with some imported shows that were too hokey, niche or downright strange to be easily remembered. Let’s take a look at some of the most obscure examples…
The Super Mario Challenge
Watching competitive gaming may seem a common enough activity nowadays, but back in 1990 – a full two years before GamesMaster made the concept cool – the idea of cheering on two kids going head to head with the NES Super Mario trilogy was an odd one to say the least. Luckily, it turned out to be far more watchable than Connect 4, TCC’s previous attempt at a game show that involved two children, stacks of oversized game chips and an audience quietly praying for death.
This was largely due to the reassuring showmanship of John Lenahan, who Red Dwarf fans might recognise as the original Talkie Toaster, gamely donning Mario’s overalls and strutting around a stage so cheap you could practically see the warp pipes peeling away to expose the balsa wood beneath. With a swift three rounds crammed into the show’s fifteen minute run-time, banter was kept to a minimum as the tussling tweens focused on score and speed challenges across the Mushroom Kingdom.
For Nintendo die-hards, however, there was another reason to tune in. The second and final year of the show focused on Super Mario Bros. 3, which had only just hit UK shelves and offered a tantalising glimpse of what might be awaiting a young gamer come Christmas Day. Granted, the whole affair can be cynically viewed as one long advert for Nintendo, but there were a few moments of genuine tension, like the player who saw off all-comers despite a broken arm forcing him to play one-handed. The winner of the 1991 final, somewhat bafflingly, was rewarded with a family holiday to Legoland – arguably the last place likely to endorse kids smashing bricks apart for fun and profit.
The Dennis Puppet Show
Or The Beano’s Dennis the Menace and Gnasher Show, to give it its full title. Having begun life on ITV, this curious addition to the line-up does make slightly more sense once you learn that Beano publisher D.C. Thomson was one of TCC’s many backers.
A strange mix of simple, Beano-styled animation, neon video graphics and a cast of disturbingly mournful puppets – Walter in particular looks like he’s been cut from the same cloth as Beaker from The Muppet Show – saw Dennis getting embroiled in typical spiky-haired scrapes like booby-trapping beds with ice-cubes, cheating at art class and, er, out-staring the sea.
All the usual suspects make an appearance, including Dennis’s long-suffering Mum and Dad, and in some ways the shorter episodes feel more faithful to the original comic strips than Dennis’s later adventures. We have to wonder, though, given how much time the puppets spend talking directly into camera with their semi-circular mouths and fuzzy, unflinching stares, if it really would have been much more expensive simply to animate the whole kit’n’caboodle. It would certainly have been a lot less creepy.
Around the World in 80 Seconds
It’s another TCC original game show, which means we’re back to a shoestring budget and a studio so small you could hide it under a king-sized duvet. As the name suggests, the competitors’ playfield was designed to notionally resemble a trip around the globe, playing fast and loose with history, geography and political correctness along the way. As such, rounds involved antics like kids carrying giant cups of ‘Chinese tea’ on their heads while Wolf from Gladiators – yes, really – half-heartedly attempted to swat them into a paddling pool.
Proceedings were overseen by the indefatigably cheerful Timmy Mallett – or rather, his alter-ego Captain Everything, who stood atop Global Control in the centre of the studio and called the contestants ‘Earthlings’, which rather confusingly implied that he was an alien despite being in charge of the Earth. (With twin lightning insignia on his jacket, a silver moon dangling from his cap and what looked like an assortment of industrial solvents strung to his belt, it’s obvious that Captain Everything has a huge amount of as-yet-unseen lore and someone needs to greenlight his origin story as quickly as possible.)
What followed was the usual cavalcade of gunge, custard pies and silly string overdubbed with fart noises and other ‘amusing’ sound effects. All quintessential 90s stuff, granted, but this was an era when the larger channels offered up fare like Get Your Own Back, Fun House and Finders Keepers. Change the channel and you could watch schoolkids dunking their teachers, ransacking an entire house and driving actual go-karts. Compared to the bigger boys, Around The World In 80 Seconds simply didn’t stand a chance.
The Telecat Show
Imported from France (where it aired as Téléchat, if you’re looking for it on Youtube), this surreal puppet show took the form of a current affairs programme starring the titular feline and his ostrich co-host, Lola, who was prone to sticking her head into a hole in her desk whenever she got embarrassed.
Telecat, if it’s not already obvious, was strange. We’re talking In The Night Garden levels of weird, here. There was a telephone whose earpiece was really a face resembling a hungover Thomas the Tank Engine, a Grinch-like ape who couldn’t quite master household tasks for the adverts he was starring in and live coverage of an Olympics for various kinds of paste.
The real stars of the show, however, were the Quarks. Telecat’s second episode introduced its young audience to the notion that Quarks are the smallest, indivisible units of matter – and then went out of its way to find and interview them. (For the curious, they look a bit like the Smash Robots.) Whether it was vox-pops from the Quark of the Cake, The Chair, The Hole or The Step, the miniscule creatures almost always had something to say about the way the objects they inhabit are treated. Was there a larger philosophical point to this? Probably not, but at least you could walk away from Telecat knowing precisely how much make-up a rusk biscuit should wear to the prom.
The last entry on this list is hardly obscure; rather, it’s an all-star cartoon that was created to tie-in with a gorgeously-animated, if fiddly, platform game that received critical acclaim when it hit the Super NES and Sega Megadrive in the mid-1990s. Why, then, are we bringing it up? Three reasons: firstly, the show was co-produced by Flextech, who owned TCC at the time, which meant that they got first dibs before the series was eventually broadcast on Channel 4 and Nickelodeon.
Secondly, Earthworm Jim was ruddy brilliant. Top-tier voice actors like Dan ‘Homer Simpson’ Castellaneta, Kath ‘Phil & Lil’ Soucie and Charlie ‘Starscream’ Adler were instantly familiar to viewers of the day, and they were given some top-notch animated comedy to work with. The pacey dialogue, layered as it was with smart gags and meta-references, meant that Earthworm Jim was one of those rare cartoons like Animaniacswhere older viewers could still find plenty to chuckle at in between the slapstick and screaming. It’s not every day you get a Dune reference on children’s TV.
Thirdly, at least according to the schedule on the long-defunct TCC website, Earthworm Jim would have been the final programme to have aired one fateful day in 1998, when the station suddenly and unexpectedly ceased transmission, leaving broadcasters scrambling to find a stopgap. It was a strange and ignoble end for a channel that had tried so many unusual things over the years, but if Earthworm Jim really was TCC’s final broadcast, at least its original programming went out on a high.