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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

This summer I stumbled across bits of my childhood entertainment on YouTube.

Back when Bill Bixby was getting unlikably angry on CBS, he also hosted a kids’ version of Masterpiece Theater on public television called Once Upon a Classic.

Most of its drama specials and serials from Britain were based on classic (i.e., public-domain, no need to pay for rights) literature. When the supply ran low, however, the show broadcast some original shows, which I vaguely remembered.

There was also a Saturday-morning (or early afternoon) anthology show on one of the American commercial networks that broadcast an English slapstick comedy series called something like “The Jiffy Kids.”

That turned out to be “The Chiffy Kids,” and “Chiffy” referred to the Children’s Film Foundation (later Children’s Film and Television Foundation) in Britain. Financed by a tax on cinema tickets, the foundation cranked out a steady stream of domestic drama and comedy for school-age audiences.

TV Cream explains the CFF films’ place in British culture:
A joint enterprise between Rank Film Distributors and the most out-of-touch government you ever did see,…the Children’s Film Foundation turned out mini-masterpieces of pre-pubescent crime-solving about five times annually for over 35 years. . . .

crooks were foiled, bullies were trounced, pompous council officials were brought to rights and wacky inventions exploded on a regular basis on some waste-ground just outside London in much the same manner for over three decades, with a few, mainly cosmetic, alterations – the widening of the trousers, the democratisation of the protagonist’s accents – along the way.

The CFF films remain one of those odd cubbyholes of popular culture that are fondly recalled almost by default – not because of any inherent greatness in the films themselves, or any general joy to be had in watching them at the time, but more because they were so heavily plugged by local fleapits, the Beeb and well-meaning headmasters at end of term film shows, that they formed a part of the patina of everyday life, in the manner of the Toffo ads or Nationwide. In short, they were always on, we can’t not remember them.
And through 1970s American television’s need for material that might seem vaguely educational, or at least not completely commercial, some of those movies got broadcast here, too.

Then came the 1980s. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher‘s Tory government ended the tax that provided the funding for the C.F.F. In the US, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s Republican governments pulled back on standards for children’s television.

The foundation tried to revive itself in 2006 with a new website listing all its productions. But that soon became a cobwebsite.

Before disappearing, the foundation created a YouTube channel with the handle CFandTF to show the first five or so minutes of many of its movies. The channel is no longer active, but the individual shows can be found by their titles. Certain clips last just long enough to trigger memories in my brain: The ominous truck in “The Battle of Billy’s Pond”! The odd politics of “Robin Hood Junior”! And of course “The Chiffy Kids” as interior decorators! (In terms of a compelling plot, that’s rather like, “In this one, the Stooges are firemen.”)

Now if only I could find any mention of the Westinghouse Television special from about 1978 that involved Huck Finn being picked up in a helicopter to participate in interviews with modern troubled youth? He talked with pregnant teens and played basketball.

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