Have confidence in your maskless Government Ministers.
Have confidence in your maskless Government Ministers.
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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”.
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.“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.