Like so many seemingly inconsequential programmes hidden away in the less prestigious corners of the television schedules, Jackanory can tell you more about the sixties than any amount of heavyweight documentaries crammed with news footage and droning political ‘opinion-makers’. It’s probably the only place, for example, where you would have found the first ever English language adaptation of Finn Family Moomintroll, H.E. Todd’s ‘Bobby Brewster’ stories (which you can hear more about in Looks Unfamiliar here), or J.G. Ballard’s Robinson Crusoe In Space sitting alongside traditional folk tales and 19th Century storybooks with somewhat less than enlightened attitudes than their more modern counterparts. As this sheer variety of adaptations (and on occasion original stories) suggests, there was a clear and evolving difference of opinion over what children should be encouraged to read; about which the children watching at home were probably less bothered than anyone else.
Although Jackanory would later welcome any excuse for a big landmark anniversary celebration – notably the three thousandth edition in 1979, marked by a multi-handed reading of The Hobbit with its own celebratory animated intro featuring several of the programme’s most popular characters, and the ‘Silver Jackanory’ book and cassettes in 1991 – back in the sixties, like so many other programmes at the time, it let such occasions come and go without the merest hint of acknowledgement. Broadcast by BBC1 on Tuesday 25th October 1966, the two hundredth edition of Jackanory was nothing more significant or celebratory than Out In The Dark, the second of a five part adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1932 autobiographical novel The Little House In The Big Woods. The following year, two years of Jackanory was given at least a minor hat-tip by Radio Times, if not the programme itself; two hundred episodes, however, warranted no recognition at all. For everyone concerned, it was strictly business as usual.
Or so it appears, anyway. You probably won’t be too surprised to learn that less than a dozen editions of Jackanory still exist out of over eight hundred transmitted during the sixties, and probably only slightly less surprised that these do not include any instalments of The Little House In The Big Woods. The Radio Times listing, which describes it simply as “an American children’s classic; it is a true story of family life a hundred years ago in the lonely and often dangerous backwoods of Wisconsin”, gives away little other than that there appears to have been no celebratory branding whatsoever; the anniversary wasn’t even mentioned in the ‘highlights’ pages for that week, so clearly it was just another edition of Jackanory. There wasn’t even a generic scribbled woodcabin shoved in alongside any of the listings.
What little it does give away, though, allows us to get at least some sense of what it might have looked and indeed sounded like. While attempts to find out anything about narrator Red Shiveley have drawn a surprising blank – and as Jackanory occasionally used artists, academics, jugglers and all kinds of other performers as well as actors, I’ve checked in all the likely places for all of them too and still found nothing – certain of the other credited names are more familiar. Despite the microscopic budget and even more microscopic studio space, original producer Joy Whitby was always keen to give each story an appropriate visual and thematic flavour, so there were most likely some rough-hewn wooden props or bits of scenery scattered about for a hint of a Home On The Range feel. The illustrations were provided by Mina Martinez, an artist who was regularly used by the BBC Children’s Department around this time, and on Jackanory in particular; although none of her work on The Little House In The Big Woods is easily accessible (if it even still exists at all), there’s enough evidence of her distinctive style in Jackanory and Play School story books to give a reasonable idea of what her renderings of 19th Century Wisconsin might have looked like.
Music – presumably an intro and outro piece and brief links – was provided by Jack Fallon, a jazz violinist who is perhaps best known for playing on The Beatles’ Don’t Pass Me By, while at least two instalments credit Play School presenter and aspirant folk-rocker Rick Jones as ‘singer’. It’s unclear from this information alone whether the two performed together or separately, and indeed whether the contributions were traditional numbers or some of Rick’s own compositions. It’s worth noting, however, that Rick’s The Flowers Are Mine – with suitably jangly Country And Western influences and outdoorsy lyrics to match, and also later performed several times on Play School – was released as a single by Fontana not too long afterwards. Could it have received an early outing here?
So no, we don’t really know very much about the two hundredth edition of Jackanory, but we can at least take an educated guess at what it looked and sounded like. It’s still – from a modern perspective at least – a curiously low-key way in which to mark what would now be considered a significant event, but given that the one hundredth episode had featured a story about ‘Golliwogg’, maybe we can let that pass.
You can find a feature on Jackanory in the sixties in my book Well At Least It’s Free.
This article is dedicated to Andrew Adonis, and his enthusiastic championing of the fact that there is significantly more to the BBC than a handful of news programmes that won’t do as he tells them.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks