‘Irish children should still be watching Irish TV,’ says Dustin

A wave of nostalgia for the Irish kids’ TV of yore greeted the news that RTÉ will outsource all its TV programming for young people to independent production companies. 

Weeks after she was elected President of Ireland in November 1990, Mary Robinson visited The Den.

Amidst mixed reactions to the finance-based decision from the State broadcaster, one familiar high-pitched voice was raised.

Bosco’s gloves came off in tweets from the puppet’s official twitter account, saying: “Maybe tonight RTÉ will get rid of adult programmes.” The red-haired puppet also tweeted Enda Kenny’s official account asking for the Taoiseach to intervene and followed up the Twitter outburst with a radio appearance where he criticised the thinking behind RTÉ’s decision.

“I just don’t understand, and I don’t think it’s because I’m too little,” Bosco said on The Anton Savage Show on TodayFM.

“Why are children not as important as adults? I think it’s because children don’t vote or spend money and RTÉ doesn’t care about them. I think we should stamp our feet and shout out loud.”

Bosco was echoing the sentiments of the RTÉ Trade Union Group, which said that RTÉ’s decision was a bad one, resulting in the cancelling of 15 freelance contracts, while eight Young People’s Department staff would retain their positions and 11 more would be relocated within RTÉ.

The voice of Bosco, puppeteer Paula Lambert, said she “agrees with Bosco completely”. Ms Lambert, part of the Lambert family whose father Eugene was instrumental in Irish children’s programming, producing shows such as Bosco and Wanderly Wagon, said the national broadcaster has a responsibility to their younger viewers.

She said: “30% of RTÉ’s viewers are children. There should be a discussion about it. This is a huge debate and this should have been a discussion that included the people who pay.”

She also said that it was important to maintain “Irish identity in kids’ television”. From Bosco and Wanderly Wagon to Zig and Zag and Dustin The Turkey on The Den, RTÉ has often featured quality programming aimed at Irish children, penned, produced, and presented by homegrown talent.

Speaking on his RTÉ radio show, Ray D’Arcy reunited with his former Den co-host Dustin the Turkey to discuss the news. The presenter said he didn’t know what to think of the announcement, while Dustin, was more outspoken, echoing Paula Lambert’s fears that less homegrown TV would be made available for Irish children.

“It’s heart-breaking in a way,” Dustin said. “The Den was fantastic, and it was live. There was no script, no researcher. We just did what we wanted. Kids are clever, and they love good TV.

“Irish children should still be watching Irish television.”

Children’s TV scriptwriter and puppeteer Dominic Moore said the “glory days” of young people’s programming was the era of Wanderly Wagon but that, in recent years, resources had become more limited.

‘Wanderly Wagon’ ran on RTÉ from 1967 to 1982.

“Young people’s programming began to slip away,” he said. “I think, from RTÉ’s point of view, it was one of the easiest departments to go.”

The statement from the national broadcaster said the decision was made because of the “challenging financial environment,” but that overall budgets for young people’s programming would not be cut and that RTÉ still welcomed proposals from independent Irish production companies.

Members of Animation Ireland, the trade organisation for Irish independent animation companies, were keen to stress that from their end little would change.

Larger companies, such as Brown Bag Films, who produced Oscar-nominated Give Up Yer Aul’ Sins and Granny O’Grim, or Boulder Media, whose work includes Danger Mouse, employ up to 150 in-house animators.

Paul Cummins is the CEO of Galway-based Telegael, which independently produces animated and live action shows for an international and Irish market. They have produced children’s shows such as Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch and Bubble Bay for clients including Nickleodeon and Discovery Kids.

“Irish animation is going from strength to strength as an employer,” Mr Cummins said.“From the independent sector, we’re very reassured that RTÉ have committed to investing the same amount in commissioning programmes.

“From what we can tell, the only real change will be that links won’t be produced in-house.

“The majority of the programming is acquired anyway, so in a way this will make very little difference.”

Telegael are currently in co-production with an Australian company on a children’s series of half-hour sit-coms, called Drop Dead Weird, which will be aired on RTÉ.

“Children’s animation is so expensive now that programmes have to have a global appeal,” said Mr Cummins. “You can’t make a programme for one market anymore; it simply isn’t cost-effective.”

Dara O Briain and Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh presenting ‘Echo Island’.

From Sneaky Snake to Zig and Zag

Wanderly Wagon

Children’s television series which aired on RTÉ from September 1967 until 1982. Wanderly Wagon followed both human and puppet characters as they travelled around Ireland — and later mythical lands and outer space — rescuing folk, learning about nature, and having adventures. The original premise of the show expanded to follow the characters to magical lands of Irish mythology, and into outer space. The concept was inspired by a family holiday one of the creators had on a horse-drawn caravan in Co Cork. Characters included O’Brien, Godmother, Judge, FortyCoats, Mr Crow, Dr Astro, and Sneaky Snake, as well as two squirrels who sounded remarkably like Bosco.

Bosco

A children’s television programme produced during the late 1970s and 1980s. The show, featuring the eponymous and androgynous red-haired puppet who lived in a box, ran for 386 episodes, ending production in 1987. Bosco became a shared cultural experience for children growing up in Ireland at the time. Many still have fond memories of The Magic Door, The McSpuds, Gregory Grainóg, and The Tongue Twister Twins, and merchandise featuring Bosco remains popular among adults of a certain age — and mindset.

Frank tells Bosco a story. The red-haired puppet has been an outspoken critic of RTÉ’s move to outsource children’s programming, going so far as to tweet Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Anything Goes

A young people’s programme featuring live segments, competitions and cartoons. It ran from 1980 to 1986. Presenters included Dave Heffernan, Kathy Parke, Aonghus McAnally, and Mary ‘Make and Do’ FitzGerald.

The Den

A long-running children’s programme on RTÉ was first broadcast on September 29, 1986 on RTÉ1. It moved to Network 2 two years later. It was initially aired as a continuity strand for weekday afternoon programmes but later expanded during the late 1990s and the 2000s — it was known as Dempsey’s Den, Den TV, and Den2 at various stages.

Guests included then President of Ireland, Mary Robinson.

The Den introduced puppet characters such as Zig and Zag, their puppy Zuppy, Podge and Rodge, Dustin the Turkey, and Socky. Zig and Zag later transferred to Channel 4, Podge and Rodge moved onto adult comedy programming on RTÉ (including their own talk show), while Dustin ran for president and achieved global notoriety by representing Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest. The Den aired for the last time in September 2010.

The Morbegs 

Starred two larger than life-size creatures called Molly and Rossa, who came from a mythical place called Morbeg Land. It transmitted every weekday (and occasionally aired on The Den) over two decades. The show originally started in September 1996 and ended in May 1998 but reruns continued to be shown until November 2008.

Other RTÉ young persons’ productions included: Dilín Ó Deamhas, Pat’s Hat, Pat’s Chat and Pat’s Pals, Jo Maxi (which launched the career of Ray D’arcy), Echo Island (Dara Ó Briain’s first job in television), and, Blackboard Jungle.

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