Yuletide nostalgia from the BBC - Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart returns on Christmas Day with a special edition of Junior Choice. I remember this well - the only programme that would escape my parents' beeline for the off switch in the mid-70s, when shared frequencies meant accidental exposure to Radio 1.
Starting with the birth of Radio 1 in 1967, the show was a rejuvenation of the 1940s Children's Favourites on the Light Programme (the precursor of Radio 2).
We'd be greeted with Stewpot's cheery 'Mornin!', along with the Junior Choice theme tune, a pop version of the (Old) Seekers' Morningtown Ride, performed by a group called 'Stan Butcher, his Birds and Brass'. The format was to play a selection of records aimed specifically at children - the stuff of Children's Favourites - alongside the contemporary pop which might be requested by elder brothers or sisters.
Writing now, it's a bit difficult to get hold of exactly what defined the Children's Favourites type of music that made up over half the show. A hotchpotch of traditional songs, nursery rhymes, and numbers from films and musicals, it's easier to give a list of examples:
- Laughing Policeman (Charles Penrose)
- On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine (Laurel and Hardy)
- White Horses (Jackie Lee)
- Rupert the Bear (Jackie Lee again)
- Nellie the Elephant (Mandy Miller)
- Buckingham Palace (Ann Stephens)
- Teddy Bears' Picnic (Henry Hall's classic supplanted by John Inman's version)
- My Brother (Terry Scott)
Contemporary records were a mix of the ordinary (for the 70s!) such as the Wombles and novelty records like Alexander Beetle (Melanie) and Katie (Tom Paxton). Poor Paxton, he'd probably lost an entire audience of Brits who were little boys in the '70s. Listening to Katie now, I can see that, as an adult, I might have loved the song. No doubt the Junior Choice producer loved it too. As a child though, it made me want to scream. As for Alexander Beetle - the drab delivery of a pointless poem which wasn't even funny - I'd have squashed that insect under the sole of my pumps (Yorkshire for plimsolls) given half the chance.
There's another group of records that fell between Junior Choice's two stools. These tend to be forgotten, and won't get a look-in this Christmas. They're a crossover of musical eras, those hits from the late '60s or early '70s, which by the time we were listening in the mid-70s could well have been from decades earlier, for all we knew.
A roll-call of numbers from this no-man's land would include:
- Jennifer Juniper (Donovan)
- When you are a King (White Plains)
- Where do you go to my Lovely? (Peter Sarstedt)
- Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear (The Alan Price Set)
- Simon Says (1910 Fruitgum Company)
Interspersed between the records were dedications, letters and jingles. Two were ubiquitous, apparently recorded by Stewart on a visit to a children's ward at a hospital - 'ello darling!' and a rendition of Happy birthday:
Happy birthday to you! Squashed tomatoes and stew!
Bread and butter in the gutter,
Happy birthday to you!
I look back on Junior Choice with fondness. Those were the days before wall-to-wall kids TV, in fact the early Saturday and Sunday morning telly was an elephants' graveyard - or, as six-year-old me would have called it, a horses' graveyard - endless repeats of dull black and white series like White Horses and Champion the Wonder Horse.
But more than that: Junior Choice represents a slice of British social history from the 1970s, that decade that taste forgot. It's the decade when the post-war British childhood was being usurped by pop music culture. Of course the pop music won, as typified by Junior Choice's playlist.
By 1978, Ann Stephens singing The Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace sounded hopelessly out of date up against such hits as Dee D Jackson's Automatic Lover or Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. Yet the show limped on for a further four years, Tony Blackburn replacing Stewart in 1980. It was as if Arnold's automated woofs were marking the relentless march of time.