Crackerjack! A TV legend
PUBLISHED: 09:09 10 October 2018
Children's variety show Crackerjack was a highlight of the TV week, entertaining children and families for 29 years. Lynne Mortimer talks to Suffolk author Alan Stafford about the inside story of the teatime TV classic
“It’s Friday, it’s five to five and it’s Crackerjack!”
Alan Stafford’s newly-published book It’s Friday, It’s Crackerjack has the power to surprise − and it turns out that the show actually started out on a Wednesday, before being shifted to Thursday and then, when Blue Peter went to two editions per week, to Friday.
Friday was its natural home. The tiredness of a hard week at school melted away as children settled down to watch the riotous fun of Crackerjack.
The book is home to a wealth of information and delicious anecdotes about the BBC’s hugely popular children’s variety show and the people involved in it.
Alan Stafford, who was born, brought up, and still lives in Ipswich, with his wife, Andrea (to whom his book is dedicated), is well-known in comedy-writing circles, having penned gags for, among others, the popular radio show News Huddlines which ran from 1975 until 2001. He has also written radio scripts, and has a previous book Too Naked for the Nazis, a biography of sand-dancing trio, Wilson, Keppel and Betty which won an award... for the oddest book title of the year.
Another surprise is the meaning of Crackerjack. Like the child Alan tells us about who was answering general knowledge questions in Double or Drop (a game involving cabbages), I thought a “crackerjack” was a firework. Wrong. Have a cabbage. In fact, a crackerjack is “a thing or person of the highest excellence”.
More than 50 years it has taken for me to find that out.
Meanwhile, Alan reminds us in his prologue: “A Crackerjack prize is a thing of legend. Something beyond mere monetary value. An object craved by the many and owned by the few. It is, quite simply … a pencil.”
And yes, how I craved it! For me, as an eight-year-old, it was riches beyond a Blue Peter badge.
In the course of his meticulous research, Alan Stafford has spoken to former hosts and performers including Michael Aspel, Pip Hinton, Jillian Comber, Little and Large, Jan Hunt, Bernie Clifton, The Krankies and many more. He has pored over the BBC’s written and microfilm archives, watched videos and surfed online resources.
With so many recorded interviews, Alan went for long walks armed with his recorder, headphones, notebook and pen, to listen and make notes as he strode through the woodlands near his home.
It’s a big step away from his early days as a gag writer for the BBC Radio 2 comedy show The News Huddlines when he would dash out of the house early in the morning, buy a newspaper, type out a few topical gags and post them off before going to work.
Alan’s ambition to write was sparked when he was at teacher training college (Alan is a qualified music teacher - he plays piano and flute) and wrote a sketch for the end of term revue which went down very well.
In order to hone his skill as a writer he took up amateur acting. “I thought performing would help with writing and it did.
“There is a discipline to writing gags and because I started with them, it gave me that discipline.” He would later get into radio plays and book-writing.
“I am not self published...,” says Alan firmly, adding with a broad grin: “...I am self-promoted.” It’s true. He has been caught up in a whirlwind of interviews, radio and print, and had an official book launch a few weeks back.
“I was looking around for ideas. The book about Wilson, Keppel and Betty ended up telling the story of Vaudeville and British Variety up to the 60s. Crackerjack, the first TV children’s variety show, ran from 1955 to 1984 and it takes the story on.”
Johnny Downes was Crackerjack’s first producer and it was he who proposed using the BBC’s Shepherd’s Bush theatre for a teatime, live, children’s variety show. A very big TV star at the time, Eamonn Andrews, was the show’s host. Jack Douglas was the first straight man to Joe Baker’s fall-guy.
Ronnie Corbett was on the show for three series. Alan says the comedian, who would soon go on to even greater things, felt he was too much on the receiving end of the slapstick.
In 1960 came perhaps the most memorable pairing of Leslie Crowther and Peter Glaze and while Crowther would leave to become king of the gameshows, Glaze stayed on to work with Rod McLennan, Don Maclean and Bernie Clifton.
Also included in the Crackerjack roll of honour are writers such as Dick Vosburgh (who wrote for Ronnie Corbett, David Frost, Frankie Howerd, Bob Hope and countless other comedy stars) and Bob Block who started out on the radio comedy Life with the Lyons, and later penned Rentaghost.
Tony Hare, who lives in Ipswich and has written extensively for Roy Hudd, became involved with writing Crackerjack in the 1970s. “He was very keen on pop music and would each week predict what would be ‘top of the pops’ and put the number into the sketch,” says Alan. In a comedy take on Phantom of the Opera (before the musical) Hare included Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
In his introduction, Alan writes: “As a child, Crackerjack was a show that I loved. And, as it turned out, so did the people who worked on it. Everyone I talked to (even those who I feared wouldn’t want to be reminded of it) spoke of the show and the team that helped put it together with genuine affection. For many, it was one of the happiest times of their lives.
I hope I’ve captured some of that happiness.”
He has. It is a book to treasure; funny, nostalgic, full of great stories about fascinating people, a crackerjack!
• It’s Friday, it’s Crackerjack - the inside story of a teatime TV classic by Alan Stafford is published in hardback by Fantom Publishing. Available in selected bookshops and online.