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Friday 17 September 2021

Britain says "Goodbye" to Edward Barnes, the Godfather of Children's Television

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Edward, who has died at the age of 92, was responsible for  brightening and broadening the lives of millions of British children with innovative  TV programmes he produced for them at the BBC in the 1960s and 70s. Now in their fifties and sixties, this generation can look back on the both the  programmes and their presenters : John Noakes, John Craven, Sarah Greene, Keith Chegwin, Philip Schofield, Valerie Singleton and Noel Edmunds, with a slew of fond childhood memories. 

He was born in Wigan, Greater Manchester, in the autumn of 1928, the son of Mabel, a nurse and midwife and Hubert, who worked as a journalist and music critic on the provincial 'Wigan Observer' and also as an actor on the provincial stage. Wigan at this time was still a major mill town and coal mining district and came into the public eye when George Orwell highlighted the poverty there in his book 'The Road to Wigan Pier', which he wrote after a 3 week stay in the town and was published when Edward was 9 years old. 

Edward had his first direct contact with the world of broadcasting, as a result of listening to a BBC Radio 'Children's Hour' programme at the age of seven. The subject was natural history and the presenter was almost certainly the Rev. George Bramwell Evens, better known as 'Romany' and it inspired Edward to post a bunch of flowers to him that he had found growing beside a brook. He had asked Romany to identify them and when he listened to the next episode he was no doubt thrilled to be able to tell his parents that Romany had said that he had received a “lovely bunch of flowers - celandines sent to me by a little boy in Wigan”.

In 1938, when he was 10, Edward obviously failed to gain a place at Wigan Grammar School for Boys and instead attended the Gidlow County Secondary School for Boys, which he joined at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and attended for a brief three years before leaving at the age of  14. His first job, as an office boy at the Miners’ Permanent Relief Society, was short-lived and he was sacked after 3 weeks when it was found out that he had made a hole in wash basin pipe and tried to plaster over the damage with a piece of chewing gum which came awry when the General Secretary turned on the tap.  

He then next spent six months training as a junior salesman in a department store in Wigan, before leaving to join the Merchant Navy at the age of 16 in 1944 as a trainee wireless operator. Britain was still in the grip of the Second World War and he left the Navy after returning from a voyage to Iceland which had been endangered by German U-boat activity and in addition to which he suffered from seasickness and, not unsurprisingly, a fear of being trapped below deck. Back in Wigan he restarted his education at Wigan and District Mining and Technical College, but dropped out to pursue a career in acting starting in rep with the Gainsborough Players at the Old Nick Theatre in the Lancashire mill town of Chorley, eight miles north of Wigan.

His acting was interrupted after the Second World War was over, when, at the age of 18 in 1946, he was called up for National Service and posted to the British Forces Broadcasting Service to work as an announcer based in the British Sector of Allied Occupied Vienna, which itself was in the Russian occupied zone of Austria. 

Three years later, film director  Carol Reed would evoke Vienna at this time in his film noir version of Graham Greene's thriller, 'The Third Man', starring Orson Wells as the elusive Harry Lime. It was this Vienna which formed the back drop for Edward's romance with Dorothy Smith who ran the city's branch of the YWCA. It began when Edward was asked to engage Dorothy in conversation when her interviewer on the radio was delayed. Unlike Edward, her secondary education had been seven years and not three. First at a fee-paying independent school, the King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham then, when she left at 18, as an undergraduate studying History at the University of Birmingham. She had proceeded to do her bit for the War effort in 1942 by becoming Personnel Officer at Lucas, a factory making electrical components for aircraft.

Edward returned to Britain when he was demobbed in 1948 at the age of 20 and returned to provincial theatre in the Merseyside mining town of St Helens and appeared in Daphne du Maurier’s 'The Years Between' which had been screened in cinemas two years before, starring Michael Redgrave and Valerie Hobson. Consigned to the minor role as a valet, this time, in an incident not dissimilar to the chewing gum, he smashed the expensive champagne glasses which belonged to the theatre owner and entered the stage with 6 substituted sherry glasses and the bottle on a tray and then 'ad libbed' the lines “I’m terribly sorry, sir, there’s been an accident in the pantry”. The audience were greatly amused, but the owner was not and he was given his cards. 

Meanwhile, Dorothy had left Vienna for Edinburgh in 1948, where she became Warden at the University's Balfour Hostel for students, moving in 1950 to be Club Leader at the YWCA's Great Street Headquarters in London. It was in London that she settled down with Edward when they married in 1950. She was 29 and they had their three children there in quick succession. 
With responsibility to put the bread on the family table, Edward now worked as a stage manager on what he called “girlie shows”, at the  Pigalle Nightclub in the West End of London, owned by the 'Nightclub King', Al Burnett, and recalled : “We did two shows a night. There were lots of lights, lots of girls, lots of work — and no room to do it”. He liked to relate the story that, walking home in the early hours one morning, he was stopped by a policeman who, when he told Edward to empty his pockets was surprised to be shown a pair of fishnet tights, single ballet shoe and a velvet whip. 

In 1953, Edward changed direction, set his sights on a job in the emerging medium of television and wrote to every producer, credited in the 'Radio Times', asking if they had a vacancy for a stage manager. One, Michael Mills, responded and offered him the job and a small part in his production of 'Our Marie', based on the life of music hall star, Marie Lloyd. It was a time when the majority of BBC Television Service production moved form Alexander Palace to its Lime Grove Studios. ITV was launched in 1955 and the BBC diversified its output and showed comedies, drama, documentaries, game shows, soap operas and regularly competed with ITV to become the channel with the highest ratings for that week. 

Despite the fact that both channels broadcast with limited airtime, there were plenty of children's programmes. 'Watch With Mother' catered for younger children, while shows such as 'Crackerjack', and 'Sooty' provided laughs and there were improving quizzes and factual programmes like 'Sketch Club' and 'Studio E'. However, the feeling was, that five- to eight-year-olds were too old for 'Watch With Mother' but not quite old enough for 'Studio E' and something was needed to fill the gap. That 'something' was 'Blue Peter' and its creation marked Edward's promotion from the studio floor to programme production. 

Edward was 30 when he co-founded the new show with John Hunter Blair in 1958. Biddy Baxter, a raw recruit from radio, who would become the show’s long-running editor, was initially appointed as Senior Producer and Edward, who was nominally her assistant, was told to look after her. Biddy recalled : “He was furious, but he did it with good grace, and we gelled”. She added that it was Edward who suggested that the show needed an identity and a logo.  Known for its signature nautical theme tune and title, it featured viewer and presenter challenges, competitions, celebrity interviews and popular culture segments. (link)

Four years after the creation of 'Blue Peter', in 1962, Edward directed the television series 'Katy', which starred Susan Hampshire as the American girl Katy Carr and Michele Dotrice as her sister Clover. It was based on the novel, 'What Katy Did', written by the American author Susan Coolidge and published in 1872. It was set in the American countryside, in the small village where Katy Carr lived with her Aunt Izzie her father, who was a doctor and often away from home, her three sisters and two brothers and her friend Cecy.

In 1964, BBC television’s Children’s Department lost its autonomy, and a new 'Family Department' was formed out of children’s and women’s programmes. Edward joined forces with Biddy and said :  “We felt betrayed by the BBC and we thought, ‘We’ll show them’. We wanted to give the management a black eye”. Blue Peter and Play School were at the forefront of the battle and the children’s department was restored three years later.

By the mid 1960s 'Blue Peter' was getting into its stride and if Edward had a major influence on the content of the show with his thrilling, visually exciting action films and overseas summer expeditions (seen here filming with John Hunter Blair), Edward's wife, Dorothy became, in many ways, the programme's 'eminence grise', coming up with ideas that became integral parts of the programme's policy. Their three children  adored their mongrel dog, 'Duff', and it was her suggestion to Edward that 'Blue Peter' should have a puppy to be a dog for all children and in particular, those stuck in the high-rise flats of the 1960s and unable to keep pets of their own. The result was 'Petra', who took part in every programme during the 15 years of her life until her death in 1977 and the first of many programme pets.

It was also Dorothy's suggestion that a badge would help children feel they belonged to 'Blue Peter'. These were not just given away, but awarded, usually for letters, ideas, poems and pictures - all good programme material and because they had to be won, they quickly gained currency. On one occasion, even the Chairman of the BBC's Board of Governors was firmly refused a badge for his grandson. "Tell him to write a letter", was Biddy's suggestion. When the programme held its appeal for Cambodia and the victims of Pol Pot's murderous regime, it was her idea for viewers to organise bring-and-buy sales to raise cash quickly rather than collect the usual scrap commodities.

Dorothy was also responsible for the History content of  Blue Peter. She had an incredible sense of the 'hook' or 'detail' had the knack of ferreting out elements in the lives of great men and women that would specially appeal to children. She also had a special talent for portraying women pioneers - aviators like Harriet Quimby, Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson. Scientists like Marie Curie, nurses like Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale and doctors like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. One fan letter from a female GP said : 'I became determined to be a doctor when I was a small child after seeing Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's story on Blue Peter'.        

No doubt Dorothy tried out the stories on her children with Edward and Simon, their eldest, himself now 70 years old and a successful author and journalist has said of Edward : "Part of my childhood was his collaboration with my mother and colleagues at the BBC. I know that my mother's contribution was vital to everything that he did". From 1975, she worked with Edward on the full-length documentary scripts for the 'Blue Peter Special Assignments', which he produced for the programme. There were five series in all and they included presenter, Valerie Singleton, becoming the first British television personality to be presented to the Pope. 

In 1970, at the age of 42, and in no small measure, as a result of his success as a producer for 'Blue Peter', for which he was awarded a BAFTA TV Award, Edward was appointed Deputy Head of Children's Television at the BBC. It was now that he came up with the idea for a news bulletin for children based on his realisation that not many of them watched the News on television. In an interview in 2018 he said : "Figures for children watching the adult news were dreadful. 'The News' signaled the end of children's programmes at 5.40 and on came the news, so it was the end of their special time and on came this boring man in a suit, talking, which they took great exception to and I began to wonder if in fact children were going to be brought up as being more ignorant of current affairs than children of the pre-television age, because of a natural antipathy to 'The News'. Also there was an enormous amount of stories that were going unreported that affected children". Edward thought these stories should be given a "huge priority and one of the things I said to people on 'Newsround' was that if they dropped the atom bomb on Washington at the same time that they abolished caning in schools, we'll lead on the caning story, which is ridiculous in a way, but it was done deliberately. A child of eight would be more interested in the fact that that a teacher was no longer allowed to hit them, than they were that half the world had bee blown up on the other side of the Atlantic". (link)

Edward's suggestion of a television news programme aimed at children met with fierce resistance from his BBC colleagues. He recalled : “Even within my own department there were people who said we shouldn’t be doing this; why should we tell children about disasters and massacres and murders ?" Edward believed there was a need to explain to children stories that might otherwise confuse them on the adult news and he said of the opposition : “They thought it was violating children’s innocence. There was a Victorian idea of childhood, that it is something to be protected and guarded".

He worked on the assumption that children watched television without adult company and told anxious parents : We don’t aim to eliminate all violence because violence is part of life, but to be careful how it is shown. A rope or knife at someone’s throat might be very dramatic, but if only one child tried it, I couldn’t live with myself. We’re not anarchic in children’s broadcasts. We try to help”.

He put John Craven, dressed casually in an open neck shirt or wearing a sweater, in the presenter’s chair, initially for a six-week experiment. Originally known as 'John Craven’s Newsround' (link), it is has now run continuously, with a succession of presenters, for 49 years. In the days before 24-hour news, 'Newsround' was the first British television programme to report on the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981, the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986 and the Windsor Castle fire in 1992.

In addition to 'Newsround', Edward was involved in the creation of 'Record Breakers' (link) in 1972, which would go on to run for 29 years and was initially presented by Roy Castle with the founders of the Guinness Book of Records, Ross and Norris McWhirter.                       

In 2015 Edward recalled the making of the show's 'Christmas Special : The All Stars Record Breakers', featuring 'all stars' of children's programmes. He recalled with relish that in 1977 Alan Russell "had this marvelous notion of breaking the world record for the maximum number of tap dancers. It was 500 and he was going to make it 502 and he tap danced out of the studio with a little girl into the great circle which is the inside circle where the fountain is and there were the other 500 dancers. He'd slung a camera across the middle of the 'O'. I had this wonderful Busby Berkeley shot of 500 dancers breaking a world record which was tremendous"(link) and the dancers (link)

In 1975 Noel Edmonds was taken on to present a phone-in programme for teenagers called 'Z Shed' which was the precursor to 'Multi-Coloured Swap Shop' the following year, a live, three-hour Saturday morning show on which Noel was joined by Keith Chegwin and Maggie Philbin. In the same year he promoted a new series which centred on the antics of a number of ghosts who worked for the firm 'Rentaghost' (link), which hired out spirits for various assignments. 

Edward became the Head of Children's Television in 1978 and commissioned  'Grange Hill'  (link), set in a London comprehensive school, in the same year and tried to set the tone with its opening credits :

Edward recalled that he relished the idea that : "You're able to get things across - ideas about behaviour, problems with drugs, problems with bullying, truancy, smoking. All the kinds of things which happen in a comprehensive school were there and it was controversial in the fact that the parents didn't like it at all". They objected to "the language of the children, They didn't use 'bad' language. They said "flippin' heck" a lot, but they didn't use 'nice', 'polite' language". "The parents in those days had not been to a comprehensive school and I think that they didn't really want to admit that that's what went on. It was really carefully researched and was an accurate reflection of what happened, except that the children in comprehensive schools don't say "flippin' heck", they use much stronger language than that, but beginning with the same letter. We did racial bullying, the boy on heroin. We took an awful lot of care of getting everything right, but we did it for the rights motives". (link)

The production team agonised over one episode featuring a sit-in by pupils protesting against their uniform and Edward said : “We will no doubt be accused of encouraging schoolchildren to have sit-ins, but I think it’s been handled well”. He endorsed a storyline about a pupil addicted to heroin, by saying : “We have a responsibility to our audience to warn them about the danger of hard drugs”. The former Editor-in-Chief of Blue Peter, Richard Marson said of Edward : 'He was a staunch champion of Grange Hill and used to say it was one of the few shows which should in theory run forever as almost all kids go to school and so are naturally invested'. In the event, 'Grange Hill' continued for 30 years and was cancelled in 2008 when it was felt, by the BBC, that the show had run its course. 

Starting in 1979 his children's comedy serial 'Grandad' (link), starring Clive Dunn played a caretaker in a community hall who had a large (unseen) dog called Nero, was to run for 5 years. He commissioned 'Junior That's Life' (link) compared by Esther Rantzen in the same year, which didn't take off and only ran for 6 episodes.

In 1981 he promoted 'Maggie', based on a quartet of books written by Joan Lingard during the 1970s. It was set in the city of Glasgow and the series centred on teenager Maggie McKinley and her problems in adolescence as she aspired to further education, a career and an independent life, whilst her parents expected her to take a secure job, get married and "settle down". Much of the action also centred on Maggie staying with her feisty octogenarian grandmother in Inverness-shire who acted as an important confidante to her granddaughter. 

Starting in 1981, his 'Post Man Pat' (link)
was to run for 17 years, a stop-motion animated series which followed the adventures of Pat Clifton, a postman who worked for Royal Mail postal service in the fictional village of Greendale inspired by the real valley of Longsleddale near Kendal.

In 1982 he backed the educational series 'Eureka',(link) about science and inventiveness which was envisioned and written by Clive Doig and Jeremy Beadle, who told the stories behind the inventions of commonplace objects by means of an ensemble cast who re-enacted the moments of invention or performed humorous sketches to deliver key facts and information.

In the same year, the fist his series 'Treasure Houses' was aired on television. Scripted by Dorothy, it explored museums, historic houses and industrial heritage and was presented by Mark Curry from Blue Peter. In 1985, for example, the programme 'The Boaties' covered canals and in the same year Nigel Stock played the Prince Regent in 'Albert, Prince of Treasure Houses'. The last in the series, screened in 1987, focused on Queen Victoria's Holiday Home, Osborne House in 'A Perfect Little Paradise', her get-away-from-it-all holiday home by the sea which featured a 14 year old Emilia Fox as Princess Alice.

In 1983 Edward commissioned 'Tucker's Luck' (link) as a spin-off from  Grange Hill and capitalised on the popularity of one of the series' original characters – Peter "Tucker" Jenkins, played by Todd Carty. It followed the exploits of Tucker and his two friends, Alan Humphries and Tommy Watson, after they had left school and their attempts to find employment and cope out there in the "real world". It ran for three series, but failed to match the popularity of Grange Hill.

Edward's commissioned, 'Henry’s Cat' (link) also started in 1983 and was to run for 10 years. It was an animated children's television series, created by Stan Hayward and directed by Bob Godfrey and starred a yellow feline and his many friends and enemies. In every episode, narration and character voices were provided by Bob Godfrey.

In 1984 he promoted 'The Box of Delights', (link) an adaptation of John Masefield's 1935 children's fantasy novel with the same name. The series was a fantasy adventure about a schoolboy entrusted with a magical box which allowed him to time travel and shapeshift to protect the box from an evil magician. It was an innovative mixture of live action and animation and he series cost £1 million to make and the most expensive children's series the BBC had made to that date, but it was widely acclaimed and gave Edward the satisfaction of winning a number the BAFTA Award for 'Best Children's Programme' (Entertainment/Drama).

In 1985 Edward broke new ground when he commissioned 'Jonny Briggs', (link) the country’s first soap opera for 5-9 year olds It revolved around the exploits of a young boy, the eponymous hero, his pet dog, Razzle, and his eccentric family members and the stories often centred on Jonny's school life, where he and his best friend Pam were constantly in battle with the dreadful twins Ginny and Josie.
In the same year 'Think Again' (link) was presented by Johnny Ball, a series which ran for 4 years and took a sideways look at aspects of everyday life. The the young viewers were constantly reminded through optical illusions of the need to question ‘Why?’ and to ‘Look Again’, for all is not necessarily what it appears to be at first sight. 

Edward stood down as Head of Children's television at the BBC at the age of 58 in 1986 and the Royal Television Society marked his departure by awarding his their 'Silver Medal for Outstanding Achievemen't and the Writer's Guild graced him with the 'Pye Award for Services to Children's Television'. At the age of 83 in 2011, he finally received a 'Children’s BAFTA  Award' for 'Blue Peter'. 

It was in 1978 that Edward secured the rights to dramatise 
'The Chronicles of Narnia' (link) based on four books of C. S. Lewis's series, but had not see this come to full fruition since it was not until 1988 that the serial began its two year run in November with 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'. The series were  nominated for a total of 16 awards, including a Nomination for an Emmy in the category of 'Outstanding Children's Programme' and provided a fitting post script to Edward's career in Children's Television in Britain. The following year saw the publication of  'Blue Peter : The Inside Story', which he had written with Biddy Baxter.

In 1990 he worked as a freelance film director on his last television project making 'All Our Children'. (link) It seems appropriate that having devoted the best part of thirty years of his career in television to making programmes for children, that his last project should be a 12-part documentary about childhood around the world narrated by Judi Dench. In this he indulged his passion for travel and followed newborn babies India, Hungary, Kenya, China and Brazil, as well as Britain, where the first challenges were the same - learning to walk, to talk and to feed themselves, but showed that each baby's experience was unique, because of different traditions and culture. 

Sadly, Dorothy was not to share retirement with Edward and died in 1992, after 42 years of marriage, when he was 64 and she was 71. He continued to travel and inspired by his newly acquired Catholicism, studied for a Diploma in Pastoral Theology and became a Eucharist Minister at St Mary Magdalen, Mortlake, Richmond Upon Thames and took holy communion with the sick and housebound. He continued his ornithology and his collection of binoculars provided the inspiration behind his son Simon's book : 'How to be a Bad Birdwathcher'.

Edward said : 

"I was 'Deputy Head of Children's Programmes' for eight years and 'Head' for eight years after that; I used to watch the whole of children's output every day throughout that period. When I left, I decided to switch off; watching it and not having control over it would drive me mad!"

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Readers' comments :

'Beautifully turned. Many thanks'. Simon Barnes

'It's wonderfully comprehensive and he would be delighted that you honoured him in this way'. Richard Marson.

'Your tribute to Edward Barnes is a thoroughly researched overview of a career that helped to define BBC TV for a generation'. Remy

'Lovely piece'. Stephen, Somerset.

'Goodness, you capture the sheer range and versatility of his career'. Matthew, Northumberland

'Brilliant. What a career'. Helen, Liverpool.

'Really enjoyed reading that; what a full life'. Nagus.

'Excellent and had details I never knew about !' Cameron.

'This is a man who created some of televisions best children's shows and this is an outstanding life story'. Eugene, Ballymena.

'A lovely piece, full of detail and affection'. Nigel, Bolton.

'Great read'. Robert, London.