Why Don’t You? was a TELEVISION PROGRAMME (remember that, it’s important) designed to – erm – encourage children to do something creative or active rather than watching TELEVISION PROGRAMMES all day. And to do this they encouraged children to watch their TELEVISION PROGRAMME to get ideas. Hmmm.
To be fair, Why Don’t You? (or to give the show its full title ‘Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead? Catchy, eh?) had its heart in the right place and I’m just being pedantic. Obviously, it was simply suggesting that children watched their programme and then went out and did other stuff for the rest of the day. This was much easier then than now, of course, when only a few programmes suitable for kids were actually broadcast every day.
The premise of the show was a ‘gang’ of kids who hung out together and suggested activities for children (i.e. us who were watching) to take part in; often they showed you ‘interesting’ things to do with the town they were in, to do with local history. For example: an 1985 episode set in Cardiff started with the group standing unnaturally together in front of a monument and then going on a bus tour around the city, all the while telling us stilted nuggets of information. ‘Many towns and cities run special buses around their most interesting places. So, why don’t you ask at your local bus station?’ (See how they would cunningly get the title of the show into their script?)
They’d also read out letters from kids watching at home, who would recommend stuff that they liked, such as cheap science and craft activities, games, recipes (often sandwiches) magic tricks and days out - ‘Here’s an idea from Linda in Bromley’ - interspersed with dreadful jokes and wooden ‘conversations’ between the children.
Despite the fact that it’s very hard to actually find anybody who actually enjoyed watching Why Don’t You? the programme ran for an incredible 42 series between August 1973 and April 1995. It started originally in the school summer holidays but later got included in the schedules for the Easter and Christmas breaks as well. Over the years it also got shown once during the children’s television session in the afternoons and once on a Saturday morning but it was mainly seen as the kids’ TV staple of the holidays.
It was created by director and producer Patrick Dowling at BBC Bristol. Dowling was also responsible for surreal celeb quest The Adventure Game and Vision On, an applauded show for kids with hearing impairments.
The pilot for Why Don’t You? was filmed in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire and featured children from a local primary school. When the first full length series was in production it was filmed in Bristol, with a set built to look like a basement and the children, who half-presented and half-acted their way through it were auditioned for their roles.
Once 1980 rolled around, the base of the programme expanded to include ‘gangs’ coming from a café in Cardiff, a hall in Belfast and a barn in Scotland. This lasted for nearly a decade until the locations changed and other areas, such as Liverpool and Newcastle, were introduced. One of the really great things about Why Don’t You was the fact that there was a huge mix of regional accents featured; something still pretty rare at this time.
Later through the run the show would be given a big boost from one Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk, Doctor Who). Starting off as a bit of a jack of all trades (illustrator, researcher, assistant floor manager, director etc.) in 1986 he was asked to write a replacement script, which was received well. He was given increasingly more to write over the next few years and, when the show moved to BBC Manchester in 1988 he received a six month contract to write the scripts and also, later, became the producer. This gave Why Don’t You? a much-needed re-focus; under Davies’ vision it became more of a drama than a magazine programme (even though BBC Manchester was not really supposed to make dramas).
He wrote more interesting plots for the actors: with many concentrating on long-running Welsh presenter Ben Slade, an eccentric inventor who would spend his time coming up with evermore complex creations. Slade appeared with both the Liverpool and Newcastle gangs - the latter featuring another child who would go on to be part of a very famous double act (more on that in a minute) – before going to forge a very successful career in the world of academia.
When Davies-scripted shows started hitting the air the audience for Why Don’t You grew substantially: going over the two million mark. Davies’ final episode certainly showed a little sign of what the writer would go on to achieve later in his professional life…it featured a murderous supercomputer holding the children hostage…
Probably the thing that everybody from any of the Why Don’t You? eras remembers the best is the irritating theme tune. I’ll sing it for you now:
‘Whyyyyyyy don’t you? Whyyyyyyyy don’t you?
Whyyyyyyy don’t you just switch off your television set and go out and do something less boring instead?
Sitting at home, watching TV
Turn it off, it’s no good to me,
So whyyyyyy don’t you,
GO, GO, GO!
It began as a rock ‘n’ roll style theme tune but later on it morphed into a more boogie-woogie type version (personally I think Jools Holland had something to do with this, as I always do when boogie-woogie is involved.) The accompanying video was part animated, part film, the kind of thing that adults who convince themselves they’re ‘still young at heart’ believe that children think is trendy. It wasn’t.
Over the years the basements, cafes, halls and barns were filled with a succession of child presenters. Definitely the one who went on to become the most famous was a certain Anthony McPartlin. He was part of the group from Newcastle and has gone on to phenomenal popularity on the box with his long-term showbiz pal Declan Donnelly.
Regardless of the actual dullness of the show itself, Why Don’t You? was a children’s television institution between 1973 and 1995 and should really be praised for trying to give children and their parents lots of great ideas for non-expensive ways of filling their school holidays.
Now, I’m just off to ring my local bus station and see whether they’ll take me on a tour of interesting places of my neighbourhood.