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Comic Strips and Chips

Inky (Gordon Griffin) and Elsa (Elsa O'Toole) have decided that it's time to start a new comic; being the early 1980s, the only way to get anything done is through the magic of an 8 bit computer, so this is where Inky and Elsa enlist the help of Chips.

A huge, yellow behemoth of a computer, Chips is a curious concoction of monitors, coat hanger aerials, flashing lights and levers. Living within Chips' digital belly are the blocky computer men, Smasher and Basher who help to demonstrate various puzzles and animations. Oh, and Chips' abilities even stretch to making drinks and toast, so there's little doubt of his value to the team.

The team, however, isn't complete until the arrival of its final member. Rover (Andrew Secombe) is a bipedal dog whose tragic background has seen him kicked out of his previous owner's house. Luckily, he turns up at Inky and Elsa's and despite the initial language difficulties (Rover can only communicate through mime), they decide to take him in.

Together, this group look at themes such as water, life underground, morning, night time and rainbows to help form the basis of individual issues of Chips' Comic. With the structure of a theme in place, it's up to Inky, Elsa, Rover and Chips' to create the features for the comic and these are neatly delivered by a number of specialist pages.

The "Do It Yourself' page usually finds one of the team getting to grips with an activity e.g. setting an alarm clock. The "Puzzle" page tests the viewers' knowledge on subjects such as which plant foods grow above or below the ground. The "Animal" page decides to investigate subjects such as where milk comes from. The "Poetry" and "Story" pages are fairly self-explanatory and, finally, "Rover's Report" finds Rover going out into the world on his motorbike to visit balloon factories or, through the power of green screen, the rainforest.

With all of this information uploaded into Chips – as long as he isn't busy making drinks – production of the comic can start once Inky has pulled all the right levers. And, the true beauty of Chips' Comic is that the comic produced is then available in all good newsagents for the viewer to buy.

Drafting the Comic

Chips' Comic consisted of two series of 10 episodes which were 25 minutes long and aired on Channel 4 in 1983 and 1984. The first series was transmitted at 5.30pm on Wednesday evenings whereas the second series went out at 1.30pm on Saturday afternoons. Channel 4 repeated the series up until 1985, but repeats were still aired on Welsh language channel S4C as late as 1987. Mo Harter acted as producer on the series with children's playwright David Wood in the role of producer. The series – originally touted as Comput-a-Comic – was produced by Verronmead in association with Primetime Television and was the first slice of original children's programming for Channel 4. The initial inklings of the series came, like all the best ideas, from a need to advance what television was capable of as Mo Harter explains:

"I witnessed the fascination TV held for children, my own son in particular, and felt it could be developed more positively, including learning, entertainment, involvement, music, be inclusive of a wider range of children and of mixed abilities. My son, Matthew, had learning difficulties and it was clear that television was a resource that was not serving him, or children like him. I had been inspired by "Vision On", a predominantly visual programme which held the attention of both deaf and hearing children with its strong visual appeal. I then took my children to see a play by David Wood and felt he had a way of capturing and holding the attention of children whilst entertaining them. I approached him hoping he might be interested in developing a children's TV series and he was"

David Wood remembers being intrigued by Harter's vision and keen to investigate getting the show off the ground:

"The fact that I had performed in children's programmes for the BBC, including Play Away and Jackanory, meant that I knew a little about children's TV programming, and quite fancied the idea of becoming involved in Mo's project. But, to be honest, I wasn't sure that we stood a chance of creating something that the BBC or ITV would be interested in. It was really the announcement that Channel 4 was starting up, with a brief to employ independent producers, that spurred us on. Other people came on board as advisers and creative contributors, and soon the dream became a reality"

A strong formula was required for the series to meet Harter's aspirations and achieve everything required, so the team quickly got to work as she explains:

"David developed the format and we then involved an Educational Adviser and a children's illustrator. We adopted the underlying principles of good communication – ideas presented with a strong visual appeal, reinforced with music, puzzles, rhyme, the fun of finding out about things, doing it yourself etc – each programme had a strong theme. I believe the educational word was "schematic". My own research revealed that very few ideas could be learned or understood by a children's audience in one programme). We presented one or two and reinforced them with music, humour, visuals, poems etc"

Helping to bring further life and colour to the series' concept was Jan Pienkowski who was already known to practically every child in land. Woods had previously worked with Pienkowski and was keen to get him on board:

"Jan, of course, was well known as the illustrator/co-creator of the Meg And Mog books and novelty books like The Haunted House. I had written and directed the stage version of Meg And Mog, so, with Mo's blessing, invited Jan to contribute graphics and video idents for the show. At the time these were quite advanced for television!"

Chips' Comic wouldn't be Chips' Comic without the physical comic that viewers could go and buy, so it's a central part of the series' story. The comics were produced alongside each series and continued for a short while afterwards. Woods came up with the idea to tie the series' ethos in with a physical comic, but he concedes that it wasn't necessarily the easiest approach to take:

"A real-life comic, available in the shops, echoing the television programme, week by week, was an idea that we soon realised would be very difficult to achieve. For one thing, the production deadlines for television and for the publishing of a comic are totally different. We had to provide the material for the comic long before we recorded the television programme. This meant that we had to commit to the programme content way in advance. Sometimes, not very often, an item would have to be cut from the programme, but would then later turn up in the comic! Having a printed version of the programme was all part and parcel of the educational aims. The comic, in the hands of a child with, or without, learning difficulties, would reinforce the content seen on the programme, and perhaps encourage the child to look and read and assimilate more than was possible from just one viewing of the programme.

We talked to various people before becoming involved with IPC, a major producer of comics and magazines. We enjoyed our association with them, and they made every effort to be faithful to the characters and ideas in the programme, finding inventive ways of adapting them for the printed page"

Helping to tie the content and comic together was the music which was provided by the musician and composer duo of Juliet Lawson and Peter Hope. Picking up the story, Juliet Lawson looks back at how she got involved in the series:

"In the 1980's I was writing songs with a musical arranger, Peter Hope, and we were asked to submit a demo tape of possible songs for a new children's programme that Channel 4 were making. We had a rather eccentric meeting in a cafe at Waterloo Station with all creative contributors offering up their ideas and Peter and me humming embryonic tunes as a sort of starting point. Peter's and my brief was simply that each episode would be themed (where does petrol come from, getting dressed, keeping your room tidy, fireworks, going to the sea side, visiting a farm to name a few). The producers insisted that we mustn't "talk down" to children and the songs we came up with I think appealed to adults as well as the intended 5 - 8 years old audience that the show was aimed at"

Airing during Channel 4's infancy, Chips' Comic was part of an exciting new lineup which the channel hoped would define its innovative outlook on television. David Woods believes that one of the main reasons Channel 4 embraced the series was due to its educational content and the unique demographic it was aimed at:

"The educational possibilities offered by the printed comic helped considerably, I believe, in us getting the commission to make the programmes from Channel 4. At that time, Channel 4 had no children's department. We went to the Education Department (Naomi Sargant) and received a warm welcome. We thus became the first ever children's series on Channel 4. But we would never have got the commission if the programmes hadn't been educational. The comic became the equivalent of, say, accompanying teachers' notes"

And Harter remembers the early days of Channel 4 as being testing, but very exciting:

"It was very different to working with an established broadcaster – I worked for the BBC for many years. We had to find our own office, install telephones, employ staff, audition actors, find our own postproduction house, director, animator, song-writers – all on hand at the BBC and if not there's a department to help you find what you want. It felt a bit like we were making it up as we went along but it was exciting being part of creating a new freelance community of programme makers and assembling the necessary skills and talents need to make TV programmes. Channel 4 themselves were also making it up as they went along to some extent so were very supportive of us. We were in it together and co-creating something new"

Flicking Through the Pages

Chips' Comic originally aired when I was of an age that even fragments of memories were difficult enough to store, let alone fully fledged memories, so I had absolutely no recollection of the series. Sure, I may have caught a glimpse of the later repeats, but if these memories ever existed they were a stock which had been liquidated shortly afterwards. Thankfully, one of the main benefits of running a blog devoted to the lesser known curios of British TV is that you receive plenty of tip offs regarding shows which are ensconced in a layer of nostalgic fuzz.

And, following a guest article on Chips' Comic, by a loyal follower of my blog, my curiosity was piqued by what was one of Channel 4's early forays into original programming. Despite an initial struggle to find any footage online, I was eventually, thanks to a combination of visits to the BFI and the donation of various episodes, able to gather together enough material to take a closer look at Chips' Comic.

There's an air of familiarity around the structure of Chips' Comic with its use of stories, songs, learning and looking at the world around us, but beneath this recognisable exterior there's the unique joy provided by being able to actually go and buy the comic being produced. Whilst its obvious that Inky, Elsa, Rover and Chips haven't handcrafted the comics, they provide a level of interaction with the viewers that other TV shows fail to match. And it's clear to see, from the opening scenes, that the actors involved and the chemistry between them is going to be one of the driving forces in engaging the viewers.

Gordon Griffin, who had previously appeared in David Wood's play The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See, brings plenty of experience to the series having featured in Z-Cars, Doctor in the House and When the Boat Comes In. Never short of comic shrewdness, Griffin gifts a highly likeable air to Inky as the cheerful handyman – even if he's prone to exclaiming "Sprockets!" which appears to be the series' take on swearing fed through the filter of children's TV!

Elsa O'Toole, meanwhile, arrives in Chip's Comic straight out of training from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School; recalling how new to the whole auditioning lark she was, Elsa even ended up helping David Wood and Mo Harter clear away the chairs after her audition.

Nonetheless, Elsa – all dressed in wondrous 80s jumpsuits and headbands – brings a professional manner to the series to create a big sister character who is blessed with a fantastic singing voice. With a Goon for a father, it's no surprise to discover that Andy Secombe has inherited the comedy gene and his performance in Chips' Comic digs deep into this DNA for a remarkable performance.

Mime is never an easy art form to handle, but Secombe manages to blend articulate facial expressions and pronounced physical movements with an impeccable slickness. And all whilst wearing a suit which must have left him sweltering under the harsh glare of the studio lights. Woods had previously worked with Secombe and knew he would be right for the role:

"Andy had worked for me in both The Owl And The Pussycat Went To See… and The Gingerbread Man. He had played the title role in The Gingerbread Man at the Old Vic. He had a warm and endearing personality, reminiscent of his father, the great Harry Secombe, sang well and was a great physical performer"

O'Toole has warm memories of working not just with her fellow actors, but also the team behind the camera:

"Gordon and I got on like a house on fire, I fell for his dry Geordie wit and ready quips from the first day we worked together…we're still in contact! Gordon knew it was my first TV job and he was a real champ, always so kind and supportive of me. One of the most standout memories, without hesitation, would have to be working with David Wood and Mo Harter, all kind-hearted, huge fun to work with – we never had a cross word and I'm happy to say, we're still in touch…they made it a wonderful experience. I just hope that David and Mo have forgiven the giggling fits, Gordon and I did have a few!"

Griffin has similarly happy memories of his time working on the series:

"It was very important of course that the three of us got on. And we did. We became friends and I'm still in touch with both Elsa and Andy. The show looks fairly simple and straightforward but they were quite hard work. We worked long hours, but it was great fun. I remember looking forward to rehearsals and trying out all the ideas. It was a very happy show to do. In a very long and busy career, I look back on Chips' Comic fondly as one of my most enjoyable jobs"

These superb dynamics are complemented by the quality of the content which allows the series to easily sidestep any accusations of being children's TV by numbers. Naturally, features such as the Puzzle page and the Do It Yourself page may, to an adult, appear to lack complexity, but for children they represent understandable learning with a rewarding payoff. And this can be as simple as learning about alarm clocks with a fun, shaggy dog or discovering how you can create a rainbow with felt tip pens.

Children, however, are wide eyed little beings ready to absorb all about the world around them, so Rover's Report is surely one of the most appealing features of Chips' Comic. And, I'm not going to lie, even in my mid 30s I find them fascinating; who, for example, knew how balloons or felt tip pens were made? Chips' Comic, though, provides this knowledge with visits to the respective factories. And, as for the visit to long defunct supermarket chain, Fine Fare, it presents a fantastic time capsule of shopping in the early 1980s jam-packed with retro products, advertising and even a punk doing his weekly shop.

Providing the soundtrack for all this content, the music is one of the series' finest achievements and allows it to bathe in a melodic greatness. The brilliant theme tune is all honky tonk piano and lyrics about clapping your hands and turning pages, but the true magnificence is found within the songs of the main section. Juliet Lawson and Peter Hope have crafted songs which, for children's TV, have highly complex arrangements behind lyrics about the simple aspects of life.

They're fascinating compositions and exhibit the vast experience the pair bring to the series. Accompanying the music, Chips' Comic also comes loaded with a number of appealing visuals. Most eye-catching is Chips, who appears to be a distant cousin of the computer in Chock-a-Block, but with more personality. And, in an era when many children's TV shows were set in sparse studios, the series' hand drawn black and white backgrounds (with strategically placed Meg and Mog books) are a more interesting setting than one relying on budget enforced minimalism.

Crucially, these visuals act as the final piece in the jigsaw to ensure that the charm of Chips' Comic is firmly in place. After two series, countless comics, annuals and a book/cassette combination, time was called on Chips' Comic and this is somewhat of a shame as I genuinely believe there were still plenty of topics to explore and, more importantly, fun to have with the characters. Harter remembers talks with Channel 4 about a third series, but unfortunately it never advanced beyond the discussion stage. Worth a Read?

Back in the 1980s, new TV channels were an extremely rare phenomenon and, accordingly, this meant that when Channel 4 launched in 1982 it was the subject of intense interest. Getting off to a sublime start with its first ever show being Countdown, Channel 4 was able to maintain this run of form with Chips' Comic. it's a series which encapsulates everything that children's TV does so well: a remarkable combination of cast chemistry, innovative approaches to learning and, most importantly, a sense of fun and exploration which is clean, focused and hard to beat.

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