WATCH WITH MOTHER

British Children's Program

Watch with Mother, the general title of a series of five individual programs, formed a central element in the making of television a domestic and family medium in Britain. Although the title Watch with Mother did not come into existence until 1952, Andy Pandy, the mainstay of the series, was first broadcast in July 1950. Two years later it was joined by The Flowerpot Men and later in the 1950s these shows were scheduled alongside Rag, Tag and Bobtail in 1953, and Picture Book and The Woodentops in 1955. Initially Andy Pandy was shown in the afternoon between 3:45 P.M. and 4:00 P.M. at the end of the women's programme For Women. But in the 1960s Watch with Mother was scheduled at lunch time. The different programmes within the series were shown on specific days of the week: Picture Book on Monday, Andy Pandy on Tuesday, The Flowerpot Men on Wednesday, Rag, Tag and Bobtail on Thursday and The Woodentops on Friday. The series was eventually taken off-air and replaced by See-Saw in 1980.

Watch with Mother was the first television programme series which specifically addressed a pre-school child audience and, along with BBC radio's Listen with Mother, which began in 1950, it represented a shift in BBC policy to make programmes, both on radio and television, for this very young audience. Until this time, the BBC had made occasional radio programmes for the very young, but it did not, in the words of Derek McCulloch ("Uncle Mac"), Director of Children's Hour radio, think that they should be "catered for deliberately". This audience, according to McCulloch, came "into no real category at all". An earlier programme, Muffin the Mule, which was originally shown from 1946 on BBC children's television, had all the appearances of a pre-school children's programme but was in fact addressed to all children and was popular with adults as well.

In the planning stages of Andy Pandy there was clearly some reticence about the introduction of a television programme for very young children and the BBC had a special panel to advise them consisting of representatives of the Ministry of Education, the Institute of Child Development, the Nursery Schools' Association, and some educational child psychologists. There was particular concern about children watching television on their own, letting the "mother" free to do other things. As a result of these concerns about the development of the child and the responsibilities of the mother, Andy Pandy, and the later programmes, needed to be imagined in such a way as to allay these fears. The textual form of the programme and its scheduling are important in this respect.

Andy Pandy was created by Freda Lingstrom, who was head of Children's Television Programmes at the BBC between 1951 and 1956, and her long standing friend, programme-maker, Maria Bird, as a programme specifically directed at the pre-school audience. Lingstrom, while Assistant Head of BBC School's Broadcasting, had been responsible for Listen with Mother and was asked to make a television equivalent on music and movement lines. Andy Pandy had no linear narrative structure. Instead it presented a series of tableaux with no apparent overarching theme. For example, in one programme Andy starts by playing on a swing, accompanied by Maria Bird singing, "Swinging high, swinging low." He is joined by Teddy. The camera then focuses on Teddy who enacts the movements to the nursery rhyme "Round and round the garden." Finally, after a scene with Andy and Teddy playing in their cart and a scene with Looby Loo singing her song, "Here we go Looby Loo," the two male characters return to their basket and wave good-bye and Maria Bird sings "Time to go home." Lingstrom argued that the tempo was slow and there was no story so that the action could move from one situation to another in a way totally acceptable to the very young child.

The programme was designed to bring three year olds into a close relationship with what was seen on the screen. Andy Pandy was intended to provide a friend for the very young viewer and as a three-year-old actor was out of the question a puppet was the obvious answer. The characters took part in simple movement, games, stories, nursery rhymes and songs. The use of nursery rhymes was seen as particularly important as it worked both to establish a relationship between the mother and the development of child and also to connect the child to a tradition and community of preschool childhood. The children were invited, not only to listen and to watch the movements of the puppets, but also to respond to his invitations to join in by clapping, stamping, sitting down, standing up and so forth.

Andy Pandy drew upon the language of play in order to make itself, and hence also television, homely. Mary Adams, head of Television Talks at the BBC, argued that the puppet came to the child in the security of its own home and brought nothing alarming or contradictory to the safe routines of the family. In Andy Pandy, and also in The Flowerpot Men, the fictional world of pre-school childhood was presented within the confines of the domestic. Andy, Teddy and Looby Loo were always presented within the garden or the living room. Likewise in The Flowerpot Men the characters were presented within the garden and in close proximity to the little house which was pictured at the beginning of each programme opening its doors to the diegetic space. In Andy Pandy we hear nothing of the outside world. And in The Flowerpot Men the only off-screen character we hear about is the gardener, whose character, never seen or heard, signified the limits of this imaginary world.

Watch with Mother was never scheduled within the main bulk of children's programmes between 5:00 P.M. and 6:00 P.M. When, in September 1950 there was discussion that Andy Pandy should be shown with the rest of children's programmes, Richmond Postgate, acting head of Children's Television Programmes at the BBC, firmly responded stating that at 5:00 P.M. three year olds should be thinking of bed. The programme was designed to fit into the routines of both mothers and small children and it was scheduled at different times during its early history. However, changes to its scheduling caused minor revolts widely reported in the press. For example, when in 1963 the BBC planned to show Watch with Mother at 10:45 A.M. the Daily Sketch declared that "for most small children 10:45 is a time to 'Watch Without Mother'. And there's not much joy in that." However, although the timing of the programme was intended to provide a space especially for mother and small child, it is clear that some viewers saw it as a means to do other things.

In the 1960s and 1970s a new stream of programmes were invented for the series (e.g. Pogles' Wood, Trumpton, and Mary, Mungo and Midge). However, there was still significant emotional investment in the older programmes. For example, there was much concern in 1965 when viewers thought that Camberwick Green was to replace Andy Pandy and The Flowerpot Men. Doreen Stephens, head of Family Programmes, reassured the audience stating that they would be shown, although less frequently until 1970. It was no surprise that when a number of the older programmes were released on a Watch with Mother video in 1986, it became a best-seller and topped the BBC's video charts.

-David Oswell


Watch with Mother
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

SERIES CREATOR AND PRODUCER     Freda Lingstrom

ANDY PANDY

WRITER COMPOSER Maria Bird

SINGER Gladys Whitred

PUPPETEERS
Audrey Atterbury, Molly Gibson

THE FLOWERPOT MEN

WRITER COMPOSER Maria Bird

PUPPETEERS Audrey Atterbury, Milly Gibson

VOICES AND SOUND EFFECTS
Peter Hawkins, Gladys Whitred, Julia Williams

RAG, TAG, AND BOBTAIL STORY

NARRATOR Charles E. Stidwell

STORY WRITER Louise Cochrane

GLOVE PUPPETEERS Sam and Elizabeth Williams

THE WOODENTOPS

SCRIPTS AND MUSIC Maria Bird

PUPPETEERS Audrey Atterbury, Molly Gibson

VOICES Eileen Brown, Josephina Ray, Peter Hawkins

PICTURE BOOKS

STORY TELLERS   
Patricia Driscoll, Vera McKechnie

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

BBC
Various Times

FURTHER READING

Oswell, David. "Watching With Mother in the Early 1950s." In, Bazelgette, Cary, and David Buckingham, editors. In Front of the Children. London: British Film Institute, 1995.

 

See also British Programming; Children and Television