Media nostalgia is a strange, self-generating thing. Sometimes it seems as if you just have to make a desultory appearance on children’s television for a few months in a funny hat, wait a quarter of a century, then dine out for the rest of your life as a student union-endorsed “ledge”. A toddler’s TV gaze acts as a magnifying glass for micro-talents: the struggling actor vaguely pretending to be a bus conductor after missing out on that second callback for The Ascent of F6 suddenly increases in stature to rank alongside Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough and Bob Wellings as a titan of the tube. Years later, clipshow comics seal them in ironic amber so opaque it’s hard to see what, if anything, was there in the first place. Fortunately the science of nostalgia has moved on in the last decade, and we can have a go at separating the wheat from the chaff.
Fred Harris – 100% whole wheat – had the ideal qualifications for a children’s presenter. A former teacher with a degree in maths and psychology, his educational chops were rock solid. He was also a performer of great versatility, especially musically, having spent a chunk of the ’60s as the drummer in a shambolic Shadows-style instrumental outfit in his native Monmouthshire – although he claimed the results were “so bad we had to change our name every week.”
His first appearance on the junior viewer’s radar was in 1973, when he co-presented lunchtime pre-school song-and-story parade Ragtime with Maggie Henderson, graduate of several musical TV reviews including the Clive James-penned late-night satirical misfire What Are You Doing After the Show? The pair crooned their way through all manner of crowd-pleasing standards from Alexander’s Ragtime Band to I Am a Mole and I Live in a Hole, and despite the retrospectively suspect inclusion of an Indian-accented wooden spoon companion called Mr Curry, the show won an SFTA award in 1974. Induction onto the Play School staff soon followed, the start of a long association with the BBC flagship in which Fred distinguished himself with a playful humour over and above the programme’s already loose-limbed avuncularity, performing esoteric numbers like Little Ted Bear From Nowhere in Particular, and securing outtake immortality with a widely screened Humpty-kicking mock tantrum over the toys’ inability to sit up straight unsupported.
A parallel career in grown-up comedy began about this time as Harris joined the tightly-knit repertory company behind Andrew Marshall and David Renwick’s media assaulting Radio 4 sketch show The Burkiss Way, which employed a cheery Light Ent. mantle to smuggle all manner of Pythonesque subversive weirdness past the station controller, and as a result ended up being scheduled either around midday or midnight. The TV incarnation, End of Part One, suffered even worse treatment, cordoned off into the Sunday teatime slot, usually the domain of third-division toothless sitcoms or “heritage” children’s comedy drama. LWT programme director Michael Grade, who would make quite a few enemies out of purveyors of surrealist satire, reckoned four o’clock was “a fine time to catch a stay-at-home audience,” whatever that meant. Marshall and Renwick weren’t convinced. “If we can’t get a decent time slot,” complained Renwick, “there’s not much point going on.”
They didn’t, and two magnificent series were their lot. End of Part One‘s idiotic scheduling did, however, delight younger viewers who might otherwise have missed it. They watched Harris and company’s otherworldly intrusion into the Lord’s Afternoon enthralled over their bowls of cling peaches in heavy syrup, giddy with elated confusion on seeing Harris effortlessly switch from performing Ten Chimney Pots All In a Row (When Along Came a Fussy Old Crow) in the week to doing pitch-dark spoofs about nuclear holocaust on Sundays. The boundary between the children’s playpen and the world of grown-up irreverence was crossed. There was more to Uncle Fred than met the eye.
Still more was to come. At home, Harris brought his musical and technological interests together in true Renaissance Man style, building his own musical instruments – “everything from electrical organs to saxophones” – at his Southampton workshop. He even had a scientific take on the classics. “Many musical works work out most satisfactorily for pocket Einsteins,” he enthused to the TV Times in 1978. “Bach dovetails in perfectly. At the end of his works they should write QED.”
All this made him the ideal candidate to front a new strain of educational programming. In the mid 1970s, schools’ television, partly inspired by what Sesame Street had done for literacy, was on the lookout for fresh and funky ways to get primary school kids au fait with their times tables. When ATV launched Figure It Out in 1975, a jaunty, fast-paced amalgam of sketches, gags, characters and cartoons, Fred was the man chosen to share presentation duties with Jane Alford, helping “enthuse, amuse, motivate and stimulate” anklebiting algebraists. And when, three years later, they replaced it with the altogether weirder and more abstract Leapfrog, the one on-screen constant was, of course, Fred. The same year, he helped adults get to grips with their garage estimates in Sunday morning “sums-made-simple series” Make It Count, assisted by a six-foot calculator on loan, mysteriously, from the Royal Army Pay Corps. For over half a decade, young and old brushed up on their long division with Harris helping them carry the seven.
He was still there when calculators mutated into that first, simultaneously daunting and cuddly, wave of British home computers. The early 1980s buzzed with the frenzied clack of real ale drinkers in chunky knitwear typing strings of code into cream-coloured breeze-blocks from spiral-bound doorstop manuals and cursing under their breath. Micro Live was their Panorama, their Omnibus, their high. At the show’s sturdy centre was Ian MacNaught-Davies, a no-nonsense man of the world who’d spent the 1960s climbing up everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Old Man of Hoy. Fred, a relative latecomer, was free to cover the lighter side of silicon hobbydom, from drum machines to Deluxe Paint, although he did get in the odd round of had-bitten journalism, notably pressing Sinclair representatives on the disappointing nature of their doomed second generation Spectrum machines. He continued to be an approachably informed presence on digital matters for the rest of the decade, even getting his own show, Me and My Micro, which enabled him to indulge his potting shed enthusiast tendencies much as Bob Symes had with the world of model making a decade before.
Fred Harris’s career is, as you can see, a bugger to summarise. Perhaps this is why he’s so fondly remembered by a generation – his varied CV is that of a genuinely versatile performer, not just a keen, jobbing one. Where so many TV makeweights discharged their duties in perfunctory style as the script demanded, with Fred Harris there is (let’s use the present tense – he was still active on British Forces Broadcasting’s “broom cupboard” slot a couple of years ago) a quiet but unmistakable sense of a mischievous intelligence beyond the on-screen matters of the moment.
In a TV environment were presenters are increasingly keen to act as dumb as they assume the viewers must be, the quietly overqualified host is a cherishable commodity. Far from being alienated, children relish the presence of an independent mind between the autocue and the camera. Without making a big show of it, presenter and viewer are in cahoots. The “enthusiastic amateur” approach isn’t necessarily a recipe for stardom, just vividly enjoyable, memorable television. Kids may name their union bars after any old fool with an Equity card when they get a little older, but at the time they can spot a careerist a mile off. Even today, the phoneys and charisma dodgers seldom last long in children’s television. They just move swiftly into adult broadcasting, where folk are far more gullible.