Doing it for the kids: 30 years of Children In Need
Bear necessity: Regular hosts in the ’80s Sue Cook and Terry Wogan with the first Pudsey Bear
Thinking back to my childhood, November always meant three definite things: darker, colder days, fireworks on Bonfire Night and the BBC’s Children In Need charity appeal. The first two on that list have changed little over the years, of course, but the third, well, unavoidably has. Nowadays, to raise the dosh, the eponymous appeal has caved and looks to the latest chart acts, soap-cum-reality TV stars and dancing newscasters to do the business. But once upon a time, it wasn’t like that.
Back in the day, Children In Need was a highlight of the televisual calendar for me; a one-Friday-night-only carnival of variety entertainment, packed with comedy, music, fun, frolics and celebrities from across the media spectrum. And, naturally, it was also a feast of do-gooding. In our house it was essential viewing – and we all felt a nice warm glow when it came to the moment my dad pledged our donation to the nice operator at the end of the phone line that was constantly advertised on the screen.
However, you’ve got to go much farther back than that for the appeal’s beginnings, all the way back to Christmas Day 1927, in fact, when the Beeb’s new five-minute-long radio broadcast on behalf of the nation’s needy children raised an outstanding £1,143 (£27,150 approx in today’s money). A resounding success then, the broadcast continued every Christmas Day until 1955 when, like much of the nation at the time, it switched over to TV.
The Children’s Hour Christmas Appeal, as it was named, was first fronted by puppeteer Harry Corbett and the unforgettably mischievous, water pistol-firing Sooty. It would go on to feature broadcasting stars such as Eamonn Andrews, Leslie Crowther, ventriloquist Terry Hall and Michael Aspel (who, perhaps fittingly, would later present ITV’s shortlived 1980s telefons called, er, Telefon). It was in 1978, however, that the appeal found its spiritual leader, the one, the only Terry Wogan, and it was in 1979 that the broadcast had its final Christmas airing – the following year it would become bigger and better by being moved to an autumn Friday night. Over the years, it had managed to raise a total of £625,836.
Fundraising through the years: Sooty and Harry Corbett, original hosts of The Children’s Hour Christmas Appeal (left); Sue Cook and Terry Wogan on a Radio Times cover from November 1990 (left middle); and Linda Lusardi and DJ Simon Bates in a Poldark spoof (right middle) and Terry Wogan driving a toy train, both in the name of Children In Need in the ’80s (right)
Renamed Children In Need, the first edition of the appeal in its modern format saw channel controller Bill Cotton free up a whole Friday evening’s schedules on BBC1 for it in November 1980. Broadcast live from the Cunard Hotel, Hammersmith, the show was hosted by Wogan, journalist and newsreader Sue Lawley and That’s Life presenter and future founder of the charity ChildLine, Esther Rantzen. And, undeniably, the change was a good move on the Beeb’s part, as an astonishing £1million was eventually raised. Britain had entered the 1980s, but clearly it still possessed a genuinely charitable heart; and, throughout the decade to come, it would continue to prove it did – if for one night only, at least.
By the middle of the ’80s, with the appeal’s viewers – and, more importantly, the money raised by it – going up each year, Children In Need had found its natural female foil to Wogan’s brilliant blarney, Crimewatch UK presenter Sue Cook. Rarely ruffled and always professional, Cook was a natural at live TV presenting and lent a sober yet empathetic slant to proceedings, especially when introducing films of the good work money donated to the show had already funded.
Others to take on presenting duties included, in the ’90s, Gaby Roslin (upon Cook’s departure), Andi Peters and kids TV entertainer Dave Benson-Phillips; while, more recently in the 00’s, Natasha Kaplinsky, Tess Daly, Fearne Cotton and the rather annoying Alesha Dixon. Throughout the ’80s, however, Esther Rantzen maintained her connection with the appeal by – in conjunction with her burgeoning ChildLine charity – presenting a section on kids that had pulled off feats of incredible bravery. Captivating telly it may’ve been each year, but it did tend to make the average ankle-biter like me feel slightly inadequate.
Mind you, there was nothing inadequate about 1983 co-presenter Joanna Lumley’s fulfilled pledge when a milestone of money-raising had been reached that year – yes, Purdey performed a striptease live on air (see below). Tel wasn’t the only man to be left hot and bothered; millions of dadfolk up and down the nation were left rough and ready by that particular golden TV moment.
All the same, there’s no avoiding the fact that, down through the years, there’s only been one chap who’s seriously rivaled the inimitable Wogan’s star-status when it comes to all things Children In Need. I speak, of course, of the practically-perfect-in-every-way Pudsey. Born in 1986 and debuting on that year’s show, the yellow teddy bear with the white and red-polka-dot bandage over his right eye – surely one of the world’s most famous teddy bears – was created by designer Joanna Ball, his name deriving from Ball’s hometown, Pudsey in Yorkshire (now part of Leeds).
Originally, Pudsey was only intended to appear on the show that year, but the lovely, soppy people of Britain (adults as well as kids, for sure) fell in love with him and, in no time, he became the thing’s icon, especially when he was incorporated into its official logo. And, over the years, cuddly recreations of Pudsey and his BBC-approved line of merchandise have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Indeed, old Puds even had a face-lift in 2007. No longer appearing on our screens in a hand-drawn animated manner but via CGI, he also seems to be younger and sports multi-coloured spots on his handkerchief; yet essentially still seems to be the same Pudsey. Actually, last year he was accompanied by a brown girl-bear wearing a ribbon on her head and called Blush – has he got a girlfriend? Answers on a postcard for that one. For what it’s worth, apparently the Beeb treasures two Pudseys above all others; the original, and a more recent recreation, signed – like it or not – by both Tony Blair and George W Bush.
As for Children In Need itself, well, it’s not just a permanent fixture of the UK television firmament, but surely, unquestionably a national institution. It became a registered charity in 1989 and the money it raises is carefully siphoned off to smaller, deserving kids’ charities and initiatives throughout the UK and Northern Ireland – and, given that nowadays its TV, radio and online appeal and merchandise raises around £20million a year, it’s a big deal.
Teddy boy: the three ages of Pudsey – the original cosying up with Joanna Lumley (left); the classic debuted in the mid-’80s (middle) and the modern version from 2007 onwards (right)
Yet it’s never merely been about the giving when it comes to Terry and Pudsey’s big Friday night. Down through the years, Children In Need has delivered some memorable telly moments. In addition to Joanna Lumley’s striptease, there’s also been Doctor Who specials (each featuring at least two Timelords) to mark the sci-fi drama’s 20th (1983) and 30th (1993) anniversaries – indeed, that tradition has been revived in recent years during David Tennant’s stint in the TARDIS.
Moreover, in conjunction with her co-hosting 1987’s appeal, Anneka Rice’s time-limited-do-good-mission-show Challenge Anneka was launched on that year’s show – the pertly posteriored one’s programme ran for five years on the Beeb following its debut. And let’s not forget that the classic 1997 BBC Music promotional film that featured stars from across the musical spectrum singing Lou Reed’s Perfect Day was released as that year’s official Children In Need single (ignoring the fact, of course, that song may actually be about heroin addiction). Aside from Girls Aloud and S Club 7 in recent years, other artists to have officially sung for the charity include Paul McCartney, Pet Shop Boys, Suzi Quatro and, yes, Bronski Beat.
No question then, Children In Need’s history is a wonderfully whimsical one to look back on; not least for me, perhaps, because while its focal point is do-gooding for children’s sake, its development coincided with my own childhood. Growing up in the provinces rather than in London, as I did, I always enjoyed the unique crossovers from Televison Centre in Shepherd’s Bush to the ‘BBC regions’ that took place on the night; in my case this involved watching the usually straight-laced but good-natured BBC Midlands Today newscasters Kay Alexander, Sue Beardsmore and the late Alan Towers letting their hair down and trying to maintain control while collecting cheques from the partying masses outside Brum’s BBC Pebble Mill.
Nowadays, though, while the Children In Need charity itself and the funds it raises have never been healthier, the on-night appeal really isn’t what it was – it doesn’t transfer to the regions for quite the cosy, amateurish, off-the-hoof fun it used to; you don’t tend to get skits of the quality of, say, the Blackadder one from 1988 below; and never does someone of Joanna Lumley’s (ahem) figure take her kit off at the drop of a hat. Yet, for all that, there’s still a one-off, unique appeal about the thing, the casts of West End musicals still drop in after performances to belt out a standard around midnight and the mighty Terry is most assuredly still brilliantly at the helm. Plus, let’s not forget, the whole thing itself is there raising money for great causes year in, year out.
So, go on, why not tune in tomorrow night once more and donate that tenner you just found down the back of the sofa? All right, times are hard right now, of course they are, but almost always there’s someone – and, in this case, a child – worse off. After all, who knows, maybe Lummers’ll come on this year and finish off the job she started in ’83. Fingers crossed, eh, Pudsey…?
Children In Need 2010 begins at 7pm tomorrow night on BBC1