As I remember children getting soaked in gunge, whizzing around the Fun House circuit in a go-cart, having a fully fledged conversation with Pat Sharp, and wining all manner of cool techno-prizes, something small snaps inside me. As a fully functioning adult, I would like to hold onto the belief that the mention Fun House wouldn’t fill me with envy for all the children who appeared as contestants. But the simple fact is this is not true. And although it’s ridiculous, few subjects can get students such as myself more excited than 90’s children’s tv, whether we had a passion for Power Rangers, or a love for Live and Kicking. But what is it that makes our childhood heroes hold such a sway over supposedly grown-up individuals?
The obvious answer is nostalgia: we look back to the golden years of our childhood with fond eyes, before dissertations, mouldy student houses and Jesters. And yes, we were careless, young and free, but can this excessive excitement really be attributed to recapturing our childhood?
Surely it has more to do with the fact that children’s tv of the 90s was somewhat groundbreaking. If you discount the fact that it was the decade that brought us the Teletubbies, the 90s was an excellent 10 years of children’s programming. It was the decade that saw Pingu, Tots TV, Brum and Fireman Sam take to the screens, all of which have come to be household names. They used a similar kind of style to 80s classics such as The Clangers, Bagpuss and The Herbs, but 90s tv for the toddlers was still somehow very fresh. Both sets of characters in The Clangers and Pingu, for example, spend the entirety of the programme not saying a single word, but where the Clangers relied on a narrator to bridge the gap between the moon and its audience, Pingu’s eponymous hero does it all by himself.
It was also the era in which anime really came into its own. Pokémon took the world by storm, with Ash and the gang firmly holding us in their grasp. We never tired of seeing Ash zapped by his Pikachu, singed by his disobedient Charizard, foiled by Team Rocket, or recovering from a supposedly unwinnable conflict: it was tragedy, comedy, romance and adventure all rolled into one, a combination that made exceptional childhood viewing.
Even away from the primary coloured world of animation, real life children’s tv was a massive hit. For the younger audiences you had real life renditions of popular children’s literature, from Animal Ark to The Worst Witch saga. And at the other end, Saved by the Bell, Sister Sister, Byker Grove and Kenan and Kell all had us gripped to our screens, with breaks only coming to fetch the orange soda (who loves orange soda?). It was also the time when spine-chilling real life programming took over the screens. The haunting opening sequence of Are You Afraid of the Dark? caused children everywhere to break out into a cold sweat, whilst Goosebumps was adopted from the award winning books to the small screen, a transformation that was brilliantly achieved – the rendering of a gigantic rabid hamster couldn’t be more terrifying at the age of 8.
But for me, you can’t talk about 90’s children’s tv without talking about two things. And the first is ReBoot. I have had many arguments with university colleagues about this programme, most of which revolved around the simple fact that everyone believes I have imagined it ever existing. For those of you who don’t remember, ReBoot was the first ever half hour CGI television series, revolving around the fictional world of Mainframe, a location within a computer. This meant all the characters were somewhat 8-bit looking, with blocky bodies and simplistic shapes that epitomised 90s gaming. But what made this series exceptional, was the immense fear it instilled in its watchers. When a Mainframe user boots up a game, a game cube drops in a random location, absorbing all those who happen to be in the vicinity in a computer game, being unable to escape until the game was won or lost. If the user who boots up the game wins, everyone in that particular section of Mainframe is evaporated – essentially it’s Tron for children. The prospect of seeing these blocky, brightly coloured characters obliterated by a computer game was very disturbing, and tapped into many technological concerns of the time, making this the kind of television that may not have made millions, but was temporally relevant and groundbreaking.
And the second thing that epitomises the phenomenal children’s tv of the 90’s is Saturday morning programming. You’d rush downstairs before your parents were up so you could sit on the floor in front of the tv with your fingers firmly in the biscuit tin, shovelling as many ginger nuts as you can before Mum and Dad wake up. On CITV you had Diggit, hosted by a rather fresh-faced Fearne Cotton and Jasper the dog. It was through Diggit that I cultivated a love for Recess and Peanut Butter and Jelly Otter – I wonder if you can still remember the theme tune, the characters, the storylines, because I certainly can. Following this, you had SM:TV Live, hosted by Ant, Dec and Cat Deely. For me, the whole programme was about Chums, their Friends style spoof that swarmed with special guests, and Wonky Donky, a rather cruel but hilarious showcasing of childhood idiocy. I don’t seem to remember what programmes broke up the skits, because in the same way the Diggit was all about the cartoons, SM:TV Live was an older, more mature show that relied on the childhood humour of the three presenters. The saddest moment came when Chums finally came to a close, with a shot of the empty flat bringing many viewers, who secretly wanted Dec and Cat to finally get together, to tears.
The 90s was simply fantastic for children’s television in a way that it is not now, and was not before us. Although there was some excellent children’s tv of the 60s and 70s, you just can’t escape the fact that our parents grew up with stop animated characters that often didn’t even speak a real language, with men dressed in suits made of terracotta, and with funny bean animals with zips for mouths. And aside from a few exceptions, current children’s television is nothing much to be marvelled over. In fact, at times it is simply ludicrous: The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, In the Night Garden, and Rastamouse for example. Granted, Ben Ten or Peppa Pig are never going to hold resonance with an audience of mature and educated undergraduates and postgraduates. But get a couple of second year philosophers together, and they will be just as happy discussing Rosy and Jim or Get Your Own Back as they would be pondering over Descartes or troubling over Nietzsche.