Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Impact of 'Vision On'

Over the Christmas period I read about the death of Pat(ricia) Keysell, a mime artist, presenter and campaigner for deaf people.  She had only retired this May at the age of 82.  When people look back nostalgically at the children's television programmes of the 1960s and 1970s they often reference things like animated stories such as 'The Clangers', 'Mr. Benn' and 'Camblewick Green' even the psychdelic 'Crystal Tipps and Alastair' or look at incidents on the magazine programme, 'Blue Peter', still running today.  However, one programme which had a greater impact, I think, than most people give it credit for was Pat Keysell's project, 'Vision On'.  The series ran from 1964-76.  It started as a fortnightly then monthly programme, but really came into its own in 1966 when artist Tony Hart (1925-2009) joined the programme.  'Vision On' did a difficult thing being a programme that both children who could hear and the deaf could enjoy.  Keysell's ability to sign as she spoke in many ways was radical but of course it became a natural part of the programme and we gave no thought to it.  To a great degree having the presenter sign was less of a distraction than having signers on the edge of the screen as is often the case these days.  Quite naturally your eye is drawn to the presenter in the centre and it was good that both forms of communication came from her.

Being aimed at deaf children a lot of the programme was visual with Hart's art making a great contribution to this.  'The Gallery' section in which children's pictures were shown was such an element of popular culture that the music used for that section and the camera moving between the pictures was reused in the 2000s in a commercial, I think for cars, some thirty years on from when it was last used on 'Vision On'.  One element of 'Vision On' that seems to get forgotten is the role of Pepe/Epep played by Sylvester McCoy (born 1943).  Pepe lived in a mirror and we thought this was great as he went into a reverse world.  The humour was all visual, it was a modern version of the silent movie physical comic characters like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.  McCoy had done 'Dangerous Brothers' style comedy on stage with Ken Campbell in the 1960s but he is best known for being the seventh Doctor Who (1987-9; 1993; 1996).

Why then do I think 'Vision On' had an impact?  Well, partly it is because if anyone played 'The Gallery' music even now anyone my age or older would know what it was referencing.  Even if they could not remember the programme's name they would know it referred to sent in children's art work.  The larger impact came with Tony Hart's career with programmes that followed 'Vision On' just focused on him producing art, 'Take Hart' (1978-85); 'Hartbeat' (1986-94) and 'Smart Hart' (1995-2001).  In addition, the numerous children's art programmes that are now on, such as 'Mr. Maker', 'Art Attack', et al, owe a great deal to Hart's style.  Even the sets with the spacious studio style setting let alone the assisting animated characters, 'Take Hart' introduced the renowned plasticine animated character, Morph, owe a great deal to 'Vision On' and what Hart did subsequently.

In terms of the Sylvester McCoy style silent comedy, the main character to follow this has been Mr. Bean (series 1990-5; movies 1997 and 2005; animated series 2002) played by Rowan Atkinson with very minimal dialogue and a lot of the sight jokes and physical humour that Atkinson had honed while appearing on 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' (1979-82).  Similar is 'Uncle Max' (2006) played by David Schneider who had appeared in an episode of 'Mr. Bean'.  This was another almost silent physical comedy series, the physical pratfalls no doubt aided by Schneider having a black belt in judo.

What about the aspect of communicating to deaf children which is really what launched 'Vision On'.  To some degree in the age of teletext from the 1980s onwards and captioning available on numerous programmes there might seem to be less need.  There is now signed accompaniment to many programmes though often shown late at night.  These programmes seem to be the serious stuff like the news rather than children orientated programmes.  The one programme which I do see as the heir of 'Vision On' despite a hiatus of many years, is 'Something Special' (started 2005).  It is aimed at a younger age group than 'Vision On' was,  but like that it involves the presenter both speaking and using sign language, in this case not sign language for the deaf, but makaton which is a sign language to aid communication with children with mental disabilities, notably Down's Syndrome.  In the way that 'Vision On' was developed and sustained by Pat Keysell, 'Something Special' comes from producer Allan Johnson formerly a teacher for children with special needs and he has found a great presenter in Justin Fletcher who like Keysell is able to speak, sign and do other activities all at once.

Both 'Vision On' and 'Something Special' have been commended in their day and won awards.  It seems a pity that it has to take one very energetic person once a generation to get these programmes made.  One key aspect is that they draw the attention of the majority of children who have no disability to those children who do and how they may see the world and be communicated with.  Perhaps in the very selfish 1980s and 1990s this was why such programmes were missing from our screens.  These programmes are not simply about communicating to the people with the disability but more widely to society.  This may seem rather worthy, but I certainly feel it is a role of public sector broadcasting from the BBC.  No-one would question these days (bar idiots like the BNP), for example, that children's programmes show children of all ethnicities and events linked to different religions as they do.  In addition, as 'Vision On' and 'Something Special' have shown they need not compromise on interest or pace no matter who is watching. 

I think the BBC missed a trick when 'Vision On' ended.  Having established that communicating to the audience in different languages they should have taken this further and had people speaking different languages presenting or someone signing in a drama series.  I know towards the end of its run, 'Grange Hill' (1978-2008) did feature disabled characters, but before 'Something Special' we have not seen presenters communicating to their audience in anything but spoken English.  The only examples I can find are the puppet series 'Tots TV' (1993-98) which, as the title suggests, was aimed at pre-school children and featured a French-speaking character Tilly (this puppet spoke Spanish when the programme was shown in the USA) and 'Dora the Explorer' (from 1999) a cartoon series from the USA which features English-speaking, Spanish-speaking and bilingual characters.  I certainly know from the boy who lives in my house that that enabled him to grasp a lot of basic Spanish in his first couple of years at school.  There is room in the scheduling especially now, in contrast to 1976 when there were only three channels, there are now 6 BBC television channels alone, two just aimed at children, for more programmes that speak to the audience in different languages.  Pat Keysell left a strong legacy, I just hope that more of it can be picked up by television companies and used.


Anonymous said...

What an intelligent & considered argument... Totally agree & share your nostalgia for Vision On... Much undervalued & unappreciated.

Thank you for re-igniting the memories after I'd stumbled across your blog whilst looking for material about Pepe, Sylvester McCoy's character in Vision On.

Do you remember that the logo was Vision On on its side, written twice in the shape of a vase?

Many thanks


Rooksmoor said...


Thank you in turn for reminding me of a couple of items. I certainly had fogotten that Sylvester's character's name was Pepe. I ran into him in a cafe in Hampstead in the late 1990s and wish I had gone over and spoken to him about it.

I do remember the reflected logo, but had not thought about it in ages, thanks for bringing it back to mind.