1 9 6 5 – 1 9 9 6 (UK)
3500 x 15 minute episodes
Jackanory began in December 1965 as a short-term experiment. Lee Montague presented the first programme on Monday 13 December. In 1990 it celebrated its 25th birthday. During that 25 years, more than 650 books had been read, 400 well-known actors and actresses had appeared and there had been folk tales and legends from 44 different countries.
The idea behind the BBC programme was simple: to tell the best possible stories, of all kinds from all parts of the world, and to have them told by the best storytellers available.
The programme started with a kaleidoscope image. Originally this was just a pattern of flowers but later pictures relating to the story dissolved into a close-up of whatever the relevant object was.
The title came from an old rhyme: “I’ll tell you a story of Jackanory, And now my story’s begun …”
When Jackanory started it was quite difficult to find storytellers who wanted to participate. Nobody was very interested. But by the time of its 25th birthday, the roll call of story-tellers was like a distinguished ‘who’s who’ of the British theatre: Margaret Rutherford, Wendy Hiller, James Robertson Justice, Kenneth Williams, Geraldine McEwan, Joyce Grenfell, Judi Dench, Alan Bennett, Billie White law and many, many more.
There were also people from outside the world of the theatre, especially in the late 60s. Bob Roberts, who had been the skipper of a Thames sailing barge, told sea stories. Sir Compton MacKenzie told Greek myths and legends. Edward Ardizzone told his own Little Tim stories and Eileen Cowell, a librarian and an authority on storytelling and children’s literature, told English fairy tales.
Wendy Wood, a fanatical Scottish Nationalist who believed in fairies and who was a wonderful natural storyteller, told Scottish traditional stories on a number of occasions.
Bernard Cribbins holds the record for appearing the most times between 1966 and 1992. He took part in 111 programmes. The late Kenneth Williams followed him with 69 programmes between 1969 and 1986.
Williams’ ability to create a range of varied and wonderful voices and facial expressions made him a firm favourite. He had been loath to accept the first offer he was made as he believed it involved wearing a special Jackanory hat!
Most Jackanory storytellers used an autocue system to read the script without appearing to do so. Some purists felt this was cheating, but 14 minutes of text is a lot to memorise and two programmes were often recorded in one session. Still, some readers could not use an autocue or chose not to.
Wendy Hiller, who read Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit stories in the second week of Jackanory, was too short-sighted to see the autocue. She had the script typed in jumbo type and stuck into a false book.
Although Jackanory started in a very simple style it soon became more elaborate, involving proper sets and complicated props and effects.
The stories have been presented in everything from a bare studio to one filled with packs of dogs (Judi Dench’s reading of Phillippa Pearce’s A Dog So Small) and in 1988, Rik Mayall’s anarchic reading of Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine (which concentrates on George’s attempts to get rid of his granny) caused a storm of mail to the BBC.
When it started in the 1960s its detractors said it would discourage kids from reading. The opposite was true. If a story was told on Jackanory it encouraged kids to read the book and maybe read more by the same author.
The stories were generally illustrated with pictures drawn by distinguished illustrators including Quentin Blake, Gareth Floyd and Barry Wilkinson.
Sometimes film inserts were used and sometimes there were no pictures at all, for instance in the original telling of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man by Denholm Elliott in 1972. It was told again in 1986 by Tom Baker.
As well as reading established stories, Jackanory has commissioned new work. Two memorable characters created for the programme were John Grant’s ‘Little Nose’ – a baby woolly mammoth, and Joan Aiken’s ‘Mortimer’ – a furniture-eating raven.
In 1972 a sister series of short plays, The Jackanory Playhouse, was introduced and in 1983 an original Jackanory creation, Joan Eadington’s Johnny Briggs, was spun off to a series of his own.
Jackanory was eventually bumped from its weekday teatime slot to 8.35 am on Sundays, before the BBC finally pulled the plug on the programme in 1996 when it announced that 30 jobs in children’s television would go, with more repeats to be shown.
James Robertson Justice
Sir Compton MacKenzie
John Le Mesurier
HRH Prince Charles
and many, many more