A look at the UK version of America’s most offbeat children’s channel
September 1993 saw the inauguration of transmissions on the Astra 1C satellite, positioned at 19.2ºE. From then on, British multichannel television came of age. BSkyB promoted its wealth of channels as the Sky Multi Channel package which not only included Sky Sports and Sky One, but also new arrivals like UK Living and Discovery. This along with UK Gold on Astra 1B, and The Children’s Channel on Astra 1A.
Among its new channels on the Astra 1C satellite was MTV Networks’ children’s channel, Nickelodeon. Whereas the original US service commenced in 1979, the UK version would follow suit fourteen years later. Compared with the offerings on The Children’s Channel (more akin to traditional outlets like Children’s ITV and CBBC), its wacky approach introduced our living rooms to a number of offbeat productions. Many of which later seen on our terrestrial channels.
Given that transponder space in the analogue era was limited, Nickelodeon’s UK service shared its channel with JSTV. Broadcasting from 7am to 7pm, its after hours counterpart was originally going to be Nick at Nite. This would have offered programming for older audiences, mainly reruns of classic 1950s and 1960s programming. By 1995, it shared its transponder with the German version of VH-1, before its move to a slot on the Astra 1D satellite. Paramount would follow Nick after 1995 at 7pm.
Today, its UK service is on channels 604 and 605 on the Sky Digital electronic programming guide. The latter is a +1 channel, with on-demand services on channel 632. All three channels are on the Astra 2A satellite. On 606 is their sister channel Nick Toons. It has outlived The Children’s Channel, who shared their transponder with The Family Channel (Challenge TV since 1995).
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In its original twelve hour slot, cartoons would be shown in the early hours and repeated at after-school hours (4pm), head-on with CBBC and Children’s ITV. By 5pm, live action programming included original dramas and comedies. Each of its animated features were accompanied by a Nicktoons ident.
Rugrats: the most fondly remember Nicktoon – on terrestrial as well as satellite and cable channels. The cartoon focuses on the adventures of Tommy, Chuckie, Phil, Lil (semi-identical twins) and the despotic Angelica. Noted for her blonde pony tails, she was the most spoilt one, referring to the rest of the tots as “dumb babies”. She had a penchant for picking on Chuckie.
Tommy – the main male lead – was the child of Stu and Didi Pickles, the former noted for his inventions, the latter for referring to each point from the Lipschitz manual. Phil and Lil’s parents, Drew and Charlotte were busy professionals, the power-dressing type always on the cordless phone. Chuckie Finster was the most nervous member. They would be supported by Spike, a licky dog.
The series ran for thirteen years, with the soundtrack created by Bob and Mark Mothersbaugh – formerly of Devo. Films were spawned too. Its most iconic episode, for my money, was The Broccoli Trial, where Angelica sends her parents to court, for forcing her to eat the floret vegetable.
Doug: whereas Rugrats not only looked at the world from a toddlers’ eyes, Doug celebrated difference. Doug Funnie was proof that a sartorially challenged teenager could outwit bullies and finish up with the girl of his dreams. His love was Patti Mayonnaise, fairly tall girl with a perm and a short skirt. Everywhere he went, his trusty dog Porkchop would follow him. His nemesis was Roger Klotz, a tall leather clad bully. His best friend, Skeeter Valentine.
Doug’s home town is Bluffington, a satirical nod to American small town life – Springfield on Mogadon perhaps. Bluffington is also dominated by the rich Bluff family which gives the town its name and its mayor, who in most episodes always said “vote for me”. He spends the best part of his adolescence with Skeeter, often at The Honkerburger, or listening to The Beets. On some occasions, he would daydream and imagine himself as Quailman (Porkchop was Quaildog).
Like Rugrats, Doug spawned a feature film entitled Doug’s First Movie. It was picked up by UK terrestrial channels. In Nickelodeon history, it was the channel’s first Nicktoon. Further episodes were taken up by the Disney Channel, but the original voice of Doug Funnie left, after issues with the programme content.
Clarissa Explains It All: whereas Nickelodeon was best known for animated features, a live action programme explored sibling rivalry, in surrealistic tones. When my sister first saw the programme title in a copy of the Manchester Evening News, she thought it was an advisory programme. Like Philip Hodson’s Growing Pains slot on Going Live!.
How wrong we were. It was centred around Clarissa Darling trying to fit in a dysfunctional family. Yet her mother was a teacher and his father an architect – typically middle class professions. Her brother Ferguson (Fergface in her words) was gifted and conceited. Her boyfriend Sam would enter her bedroom via a set of ladders. Whilst my sister enjoyed each episode, I became more than a passive viewer. The teenage S.V. had a crush on the female lead played by Melissa Joan Hart.
Clarissa would find ways of tackling each episode’s issue by programming video games on her Amiga 2000 computer. Her dress sense was bizarre with lurid colours forming part of her outfits. In each episode, she offered ‘tips’ on dating, sibling rivalry, and social commentaries. One episode would see Ms. Darling watch television for a whole weekend. Another, babysitting the spoilt Elsie Soaperstein.
Clarissa Explains It All was Melissa Joan Hart’s first success, leading Ms. Joan Hart and her family to form the production company Hartbreak Productions. With her independent production company, she created the dramatisation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a spin-off from the film based on the Archie Comics strip. She is still active today and appeared in the U.S. version of Dancing with the Stars.
The Adventures of Pete and Pete: originally started in 1989 as a one minute short, The Adventures of Pete and Pete grew into a fully-fledged series with three seasons of 30 minute long episodes. Based around the Wrigley family, there was Big Pete, the narrator of the series and voice of reason. Little Pete got in to scrapes and made irrational decisions. A tattoo on Little Pete’s forearm, known as Petunia, a woman in a red dress, and his mother’s steel plate got an opening credit.
Friends of the family included Ellen Josephine Hickle, an expert on Greco-Roman wrestling. Big Pete’s friend, Bill Korn had a knack for practical jokes and reported a school bus driver for kidnapping a bus load of childrens. Enemies included “Endless” Mike Hellstrom, “Hat Head” and “Paper Cut”.
The Adventures of Pete and Pete was much lauded and demonstrated Nick’s knack for children’s comedy at the time. A feat also true with…
Kenan and Kel: featuring two friends set in Chicago, Kenan Richmore worked in a grocery store. His best friend, Kel Kimble, had a penchant for orange soda and he was a bit on the clumsy side. This was expressed by their favourite catchphrase “Orange Soda! I do I do I do-oo…”
Both actors, off-screen, were Kenan and Kel anyway – Messrs Thompson and Mitchell respectively. The theme tune, entitled “Aw, Here It Goes” was sung by Coolio. Kenan and Kel was created by Kim Bass, whose other production was a female counterpart known as…
Sister Sister: as with Kenan and Kel, Tia and Tamera’s first names were the same off-screen as well as on-screen. In the programme, Tia and Tamera were separated from birth with one of them being adopted. In real life, they were sisters. Tia was the most intelligent of the two, whereas Tamera was more outgoing and impulsive, and a fan of Coolio.
Their parents were Lisa, a fashion designer, and widowed father Ray, a chauffeur. The series ran for six seasons from 1994 to 1999 with Channel Four picking up the terrestrial rights in 1995. The series was set in Detroit with the pilot episode showing the sisters reunited at Summer Camp.
The Ren and Stimpy Show: no mention of Nickelodeon’s complete without the madcap adventures of a chihuahua and a cat. The chihuahua, Ren, was asthmatic, whereas its feline counterpart Stimpy (Sunday name of Stimpson J. Cat) was dim-witted. Both stars would get into scrapes with differing situations.
Though against the volition of its Canadian animator John Kricfalusi, Ren and Stimpy was a merchandising success for MTV Networks. There was spin-off video games, soundtrack albums and the usual associated tat (sorry, I meant stationery). Ren and Stimpy was often shown between 6 – 7pm, aimed at older viewers. Due to its anarchic nature, it was influential in inspiring Beavis and Butthead and Hanna Barbera’s Two Stupid Dogs.
It was also an export success for MTV Networks with BBC Two taking on the series at a similar slot to Nickelodeon.
Sometime before the channel’s 7 o’clock curfew, often with The Lurve Doctors in the Trocadero’s continuity booth…
Are You Afraid of the Dark?: Nickelodeon’s fondly remembered horror drama focused on the activities of The Midnight Society. Throughout ten years and seven seasons, each episode was set in a secret woodland location, where one of the members told a scary story. Each story was based on urban myth or fairy tales in the public domain.
There was two generations of The Midnight Society, each member having a character of their own. One was founder member Gary, a bookish individual with a thing for magic. His crush was Sam, a girl whose stories had a romantic theme. There was Stig who had problems with personal hygiene, and Betty Ann, who had a penchant for twisted ales, a la Twilight Zone.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? made its début on Canadian channel YTV on the 31st October 1990 (rude not to being Hallowe’en of course!), before being picked up by Nickelodeon a year later. It made its debut on the UK version of Nick in 1993. On terrestrial, it was picked up by Children’s ITV – being seen on both YTVs – the one from Canada, and the one whose programmes came from Emley Moor.
The Secret World of Alex Mack: also from Canada’s YTV, our hatted hero had powers of telekinesis and a capacity to morph into a puddle of water. She gained her extraordinary powers thanks to a passing lorry. After avoiding a collision with a lorry, she is accidentally doused with the secret chemical GC-161 on her way home from school.
In the second season, we see her father trying to research the properties of GC-161. We also see her switch bodies, and demonstrating her special powers to fellow classmates on a trip to a chemical plant. By the final episode, we see her being given a cure for her condition.
A number of spin-off books was released for younger readers. Between 1995 and 1998, 34 Secret World of Alex Mack stories were published.
Wishbone: television and film has played host to the finest canine actors. From the 1990s onwards, there was one dog breed popular with producers owing to their intelligence: North Devon’s finest export, the Jack Russell Terrier. Kelsey Grammar had Eddie in Frasier, whereas Nickelodeon’s dog star was Wishbone.
Played by Soccer, the loveable dog was seen in adaptations of fairy tales. Our dog would be seen sifting through (rather than the JRT trait of ripping) literary classics such as The Phantom of the Opera. These would be presented in a contemporary light; for example, in The Phantom of the Opera, Wishbone solves a mystery where a librarian was presumed dead. Alarm bells rang when a cache of books went missing, leading our dog to assume the role of Viscount Raoul de Chagny.
Wishbone’s owner was Joe Talbot, teenager and only child of parents Steve and Ellen Talbot. Soccer, who played Wishbone appeared in almost every episode from 1995 to 1998.
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?: in print, pixellated and televisual form, the Carmen Sandiego franchise was quite a big earner in late 1980s and early 1990s America. Virtually unknown in the UK till Nickelodeon’s arrival, it began as a video game franchise, with the animated series arriving to UK screens in 1995.
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? was aired on Fox TV in 1994 and the UK version of Nick a year after. Carmen Sandiego was a female detective for the ACME Detective Agency, and his aim was to stop V.I.L.E from stealing the world’s artefacts. V.I.L.E was a gang who would have thought nothing of TWOCing the Tower of London. Her assistants by Ivy, Zack and CHIEF. The CHIEF stood for Computerized Holographic Imaging Educational Facilitator.
The television programme was launched in 1994 after the 1990 Children’s Television Act [U.S.]. This Act, enacted by the Federal Communications Commission, ensured that all children’s programmes had an educational element. Each channel was compelled to have a minimum of three hours educational output. Given the success of the Carmen Sandiego franchise, it was almost penned for a televisual spin-off of the video game series.
G.U.T.S: Nickelodeon wasn’t all about cartoons and offbeat comedies. There was also this action sports programme aired between 1992 and 1995. With the tagline “do you have it?”, youngsters took part in athletic events at Nickelodeon’s Extreme Arena (within their Orlando FL studios). These included skills in popular sports like baseball, American Football, Association Football and basketball.
In a slot known as ‘Spill Your Guts’, contestants could introduce themselves and say what ‘having the guts’ meant to them. More ambitious events were gradually introduced to the programme. Several events included Jump Ball, Vertiboggen and Moon Race – Gladiators for younger viewers and participants.
The final part of GUTS was Aggro Crag, a temperamental climbing wall. They would dodge lightning storms (strobe lighting), fake snow, avalanches and “nuclear flying crystals”. Later episodes would see Aggro Crag prefaced with ‘Mega’ and ‘Super’.
Thanks to the growth of pay TV across the globe, GUTS went international under alias of Global GUTS. Contestants came from the CIS (well, made up of Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine), the United Kingdom and Germany as well as the U.S.
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During school hours, Nick Jr (or Nick Junior if you prefer) was a late morning/early afternoon takeover of the UK Nickelodeon service. Programming was geared towards under fives, designed for watching with parents or babysitters.
For a time, Nick Jr was a good source for reruns of classic children’s programming from the BBC. One example was The Family Ness. There was also imported programming such as Bananas in Pyjamas, an Australian production. Known as B1 and B2, the two bananas would be seen with three teddy bears (Amy, Morgan and Lulu) and The Rat in a Hat.
Continuity between programmes fell under the Nick Alive banner. Its announcers would link between programmes in a satellite studio in the London Trocadero on Coventry Street. Some of which later found fame on the terrestrial channels including:
Lucy Alexander: few people may remember her Nickelodeon years. Today, part of BBC’s long-running property programme Homes Under The Hammer (2003 – to date) with Martin Roberts.
Helen Chamberlain: later became Soccer AM’s professional Torquay United fan after Russ Williams and Jane Hoffen left the programme on Sky Sports 2.
Rick Adams: the male lead announcer on Nick Alive. Rick would later join The Big Breakfast and become an online DJ.
Mounya and Yiolanda: collectively known as The Lurve Doctors [sic], they were also agony aunts for the channel’s early teen viewers and often seen on its last hour of broadcasting.
Sarah Cawood: shortly after Nick, she co-presented Channel Four’s The Girlie Show, later presenting a host of light entertainment programmes. Prior to taking a career break, she co-hosted the breakfast show on Heart East Anglia with Dave Taylor.
Mike McClean: cut his teeth on Nickelodeon prior to being the roving reporter on The Big Breakfast and This Morning. He is a comedian by trade and has performed at many live functions.
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Do you have fond memories of the early years of Nick’s UK service? Did the activities of The Nightmare Society give you goosebumps? Was Clarissa Darling an acceptable fashion role model or a teenage crush?
Feel free to comment and have a good reminisce. Before you do, please remember to place your Sky viewing card into the slot of your decoder.
S.V., 01 March 2015 (St. David’s Day).