It seems like a fever dream now, but people born around 1995 – 2002 are among the last people to grow up without smartphones, computers, streaming and endless TV channels. Yep, I’m 22 now and my earliest memories are tape decks, VHS videos, having one computer for the house with a giant monitor that weighed more than a bus and those TVs with the big fat backs. I’m not old by any stretch but if I ever accidentally switch over to a kids’ TV channel now, I’m left wondering where it all went wrong. They don’t make Thomas The Tank Engine by filming little toy trains anymore, Fireman Sam isn’t made out of clay, Postman Pat is wholly computer animated. But what happened to them, and some of the lesser known shows that populate our late nineties/early noughties fever dreams? Well, sit back, I’m about to tell you what happened to some of our childhood favourites.
- Thomas The Tank Engine (with models, not CGI!)
Okay, so you probably remember this programme pretty well, seeing as it remains one of the longest-running kids’ TV shows of all time having started in 1984 and the books the show is based on being started in 1945. When producer Britt Allcroft acquired the rights to make Thomas The Tank Engine stories for television in 1979, it cost her £50,000 and a second mortgage on her home. The series was incredibly successful and enduring, attracting Beatle Ringo Starr to narrate early series broadcast in the UK and US actor George Carlin to narrate American episodes.
The series we remember featured model trains which were controlled by radio and travelled through a world of entirely hand-built train sets. The trains each had a few expressions the operators could switch out, but lacked the budget for moving mouths or mobile humans; instead using wooden figures that a narrator would relay speech from. The early episodes were largely based on the books by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, although original scripts were increasingly used as the series progressed.
These days, Thomas The Tank Engine is completely computer-generated and although there is still a narrator providing background to the shows, most of the characters have their own individual voice actors. Of course, a big part of it was always going to be selling toys, but I’m sure the period when I was watching it was better than any other period. The longest-serving narrator, Michael Angelis, also recently died – he is probably the voice you associate moth with memories of the wshow having taken over from Ringo in the 80s. The show had to become fully CGI after 2008 as it was too expensive to maintain the vast amount of models neededs to produce the programme, and the company associated with it (HiT entertainment) was facing budgetary constraints. You might also remember the (pretty bizarre) movie that came out in 2000 – Thomas and the Magic Railroad. It starred such big names as Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda(!!) and Mara Wilson, though a commercial flop. O, how the mighty have fallen.
2. Kipper The Dog
Do you remember Kipper the dog? This was another absolute classic of British TV based on a picture book written by Mick Inkpen (as if there could be any name more perfect for a writer.) The books were incredibly successful and won awards for their writing and the usual lessons they taught to kids about sharing, kindness, not being rude etc etc etc.
The TV series consisted of ten-minute episodes broadcast on ITV (and by HiT entertainment again!) originally running from 1997-2000 but repeated some years afterwards, with the final VHS compilation coming out in 2004 and a DVD compilation released in 2009. The titular beagle was voiced by Martin Clunes (Men Behaving Badly, Doc Martin) and it had a super smooth, relaxing theme tune.
The most recent episodes were produced in 2013 and available for a digital download only; and since the last book was published in July 2005, I doubt the kids of today would have the same excellent taste in TV we needed to watch it. I mean, it won 3 (Children’s) BAFTAs.
3. Horrible Histories (the good one)
Okay, so 2009 is a little late for the period I’m talking about – but hear me out. The original books (that means the ones with the proper artwork on the front, not just the titles in big, bold print) came out in 1993, with The Terrible Tudors. Those books that we grew up reading are what eventually evolved in the TV programme, which arrived just at a time when we were growing into shows for older kids. So I’m counting it.
The great thing about Horrible Histories (the iteration that ran from 2009-2014) was its multigenerational appeal; the producers tried to stay as true as they could to the books and introduced parodies of shows like Masterchef, Come Dine With Me and Wife Swap among others. It really was all the humour of Little Britain and Come Fly With Me would any of the problematicness those shows have come to be associated with. Testament to that fact is that it was the first children’s programme to win a grown up BAFTA.
There was a strange attempt to repackage Horrible Histories for BBC One with Stephen Fry replacing the puppet Rattus Rattus at the host, though the strong focus on toilet humour probably put off a lot of One Show enthusiasts. Post 2015, the show was also revived without its original cast and proved less successful than its predecessor which captured the imagination of the preceding generation. This is one I still watch, I mean, I’ve got to pass that history degree somehow.
4. The Sarah Jane Adventures
This was a true stalwart of CBBC programming back in the day – it was essentially a second, more modern attempt at an older BBC spinoff of the famous sci fi serial ‘Doctor Who’ known as ‘K9 and Company.’ It had science fiction, it had drama, it made you feel grown-up for watching it but it wasn’t quite as scary as Doctor Who could occasionally be. And yes, I’m disrespecting my own timeframe again, but this fits into the same category as Horrible Histories when it comes to shows kids born 1995-2002 just about grew up with.
The Sarah Jane Adventures, first airing in 2007, followed the adventures of Sarah Jane Smith (played by the late Elisabeth Sladen.) She had been a companion of 1970s Dr Whos Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, which meant you occasionally got a cameo from the current Dr Who in the show which seemed like a once-in-a-generation event at the time.
Essentially, it was Dr-Who-For-Tweens, but that didn’t make it bad. It did have some fever-dream-esque and kind of terrifying monsters like the eyeless/noseless Trickster but it did also have its fair share of comedy ones, like some giant chickens who were going to steal all of Sarah Jane’s memories for something. In any case, it was a fun Dr Who-lite that was one of the standouts of kids programming when I was growing up.