Monday, 6 December 2010


Something a bit less well known, Bitsa was an arts and crafts programme that aired from 1991 to 1996 on Children's BBC. A huge fan of 'Take Hart' with the late-great Tony Hart and his plasticine side-kick, Morph, Bitsa offered a less formal approach with fun and energetic presenters, colourful set designs and wacky creations made from everyday items. Being a kid who constantly built things, this programme was an instant hit with my overactive imagination. Indeed, I even wrote in to the show and received a much cherished signed photo of the presenters along with a yellow instruction booklet containing a selection of things to make.

The show's format involved the two presenters demoing a 'make' before getting the scissors, glue, paper etc out themselves to take you through the construction process. All of this usually happened within the colourfully designed studio; however, on occasion, they did get out and about.

About half way through the programme, 'Hands' would take centre stage, see below:

For some, this robotic character stashed away backstage, sporting a fez and what looks like a Hitler tash from a distance was profoundly disturbing as he suddenly came to life in a torrent of nonsensical noises. However, I adored this quirky segment with Hands being a highlight of the show for me that I couldn't wait to see. Moreover, the simplicity and fun of his creations were attractive as I could knock them together in minutes. Legendary stuff.

The other highlight of the show for me was at the end when the two presenters had a 'big make' to do against the clock. This was a rather chaotic and exciting finale with the presenters running to the main area of the set  and consulting a machine where children would appear on a screen and say numbers. These numbers corresponded to large boxes of materials on the set's shelves which the presenters would take and throw all over the ground to create a random assortment of items with which to accomplish the task set. To inject even more energy in to this part of the show there was also the 'ticking clock' which involved the entire stage backdrop coming to life in a flurry of colour and cogs. With the presenters running around in this now-messy set, the music constantly increasing in tempo and a highly animated and colourful backdrop, this was pure excitement from start to finish.

To sum up, I adored Tony Hart but the pace and excitement this show injected in to the arts and crafts format was wonderful and, for me at least, ranks up there with the best of children's TV.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Crystal Maze

The word 'epic' would aptly describe The Crystal Maze, one of the greatest game shows to have ever graced our television screens. Requiring a £250,000 investment to build Europe's largest ever set, it was an incredibly ambitious project for Channel 4 that paid off as millions of viewers tuned in every week.

The story goes that producers wanted to make a UK version of Fort Boyard but, with the fort not being available in time for the pilot, a new show had to be conceived. Originally presented by Richard O'Brian, the show involved 4 zones (initially called Aztec, Industrial, Futuristic and Medieval) and the presenter would take a team through each of these in an order that changed from show to show.

Whilst in a particular zone, the team captain would nominate themselves or another one of their team to participate in a 'mental', 'physical' or 'skill' game. The participant would go in to a room and everyone else would have to wait outside with a varying ability to communicate with and see the person playing the game. The object of the game was to complete it in the allotted time - with the duration dependent on game's difficulty - so a 'Time Crystal' could be obtained. However, if they didn't choose to come out or complete the game before the time was up, they would be "locked in" by the presenter and the team would have to decide if they wanted to "buy them out" immediately or later on with one of the 'Time Crystals' they had already won.

All of this would continue around all four lavishly designed zones before they moved to 'The Crystal Dome'. Here the presenter would lay out all the 'Time Crystals' they had won and explain that each one represented 5 seconds in 'The Crystal Dome'. The team would then enter the Dome via a draw bridge that emerged out of a little moat that surrounded the construction. The door of the Dome would close behind them and the presenter would turn on fans sending gold and silver tickets in the air before blowing his whistle to signal the team to start collecting. The time would count down as the team collected tickets and tried to maximise the amount of gold ones they collected and minimise the number of silver ones. After the time was up, they would exit the Dome and the presenter would announce their overall gold ticket score - any silver tickets collected were subtracted from this total. If the score was 100 or more the team won special prizes they had selected off-camera before entering the Dome; if their score was 50-99 then they received a runner-up prize; and, in all cases, they got a "I cracked the Crystal Maze" memento. Running from 1990-1995 the show had 6 series, Richard O'Brian was replaced by Ed Tudor-Pole in series 4 and, in the same series, the 'Industrial' zone was changed to the 'Ocean' zone.

There were a number of things really brought the show alive. Firstly, whilst Ed Tudor-Pole was alright, Richard O'Brian was a perfect presenter for the show with his colourful personality (and clothes!) and an undercurrent of madness that was so engaging. Secondly, the sets were imaginatively designed and visually stimulating. Thirdly, the show was kept at a high pace and, as a result, burst with energy as the presenter and team ran from Zone-to-Zone. Fourthly, the type of game always varied so you never got bored. And, finally, it was hysterical to watch teams often displaying a level of idiocy not thought humanly possible - search on YouTube and you'll find plenty of clips for this type of thing.

All in all, this show was top draw and, looking at the way television has gone since, I am sad to say that we'll probably not see the likes of this again...though I always like to be proven wrong.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Chelsea Buns

Buns, glorious buns...I can think of no other baked good to better represent this particular food group than the mighty Chelsea Bun - a sticky soft dough riddled with mixed spice, sweet currants and sultanas and zesty candied peel. Shop-bought versions are delicious but homemade ones are heavenly as, still warm from the oven, they yield sumptuously to the bite and deliver wave after wave of texture and flavour that I find goes particularly well with a cuppa.

As for the history of the Chelsea Bun, it is a contested one that goes back at the very least to the 18th century. Laying claim to the invention of the Chelsea Bun are two bakers called the Bun House and the Real Old Original Chelsea Bun-house. Both were located on Grosenvor Row, Pimlico which, confusingly, doesn't happen to be in Chelsea.

Here's the bread-machine recipe I use to make my Chelsea Buns (ingredient's list taken from the 'Bread and Bread Machine Bible' by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter):



1tsp yeast

1lb 2oz strong white flour

3oz caster sugar

0.5tsp salt

2oz butter

1 medium-sized egg

8fl oz/225ml semi-skimmed milk


1oz butter, melted

4oz sultanas

1oz currants

1oz candied peel

1tsp [I use 1.5tsp or more] mixed spice

1oz light brown sugar


2oz caster sugar

4tbsp water


1) To make the dough, in this order add yeast, flour, sugar, salt, butter, egg and milk to the breadmachine. Put the machine on 'dough cycle' and remove the dough after the allotted time.

2) Pre-heat the oven to 60-70 degrees C and grease the base of a square tin.

3) Make the filling by washing and drying the dried fruit and combining them with the sugar and spice.

4) Roll out the dough into a rough 30cm x 30cm square and cover one side with the melted butter.

5) Spread the fruit filling over the butter dough surface leaving a 1cm gap along one side - I usually leave the right side free.

6) In Swiss Roll style, start to roll up the dough beginning at the side that is opposite the one that has the 1cm gap.

7) Gently press along the length of the roll to seal before taking a knife and cutting in to rounds - the size of which will depend on how big you like your buns.

8) Place the rounds in the tin with their layered profiles facing upwards and put in the oven to prove for 20-30 mins or until they have roughly doubled in size - all ovens are different so the trick here is to keep on checking the buns progress.

9) Remove the buns after proving and turn up the oven temperature to 200 degrees C. Place the buns back in to the oven and bake for 10-15 mins or until golden brown - again, the trick here is to keep on checking.

10) Make the sugar glaze by first melting all the sugar in the water with a gentle heat and then boiling for 1-2 mins without stirring until a syrupy consistency is reached.

11) When the buns are done, take them out of the oven and cover their golden brown tops with the sugar syrup.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Victoria Sandwich

The Victoria Sandwich is an icon of British baking and has been doing the rounds at the likes of picnics, fetes, parties and cricket teas since time dot. Moreover, it's not too hard to understand the reason for this: it requires little ingredients, is simple to make - especially when using an all-in-one recipe - and, of course, tastes fabulous.

Presentation-wise, a Victoria Sandwich is filled with a jam filling and, for the more indulgent among us, an additional layer of whipped cream. Alternatively, as I know from many Birthday cakes my Mother made for me when growing up, the Victoria Sandwich can provide the perfect basis for cakes with elaborate icings and decorations.

The following is a tried-and-tested recipe for those who fancy a spell in he kitchen.


3 eggs

Self-raising flour

Caster sugar



Whipped cream (optional)


1) Get out eggs, flour, sugar and butter well in advance of baking so everything is up to room temperature and the fat is nice and soft.

2) Preheat oven to 200oC.

3) Grease and base-line two 8in (20cm) round cake tins.

4) Place eggs on scales and weigh out equivalent amounts of flour, sugar and butter.

5) Cream the butter and sugar before adding the eggs one at a time and stirring in.

6) Steadily add flour and fold it in so as much air as possible is incorporated.

7) Turn out mixture into prepared tins dividing it equally.

8) Place in the oven and bake for 20-25 mins or until it springs back to the touch or slightly shrinks back from the sides of the tin.

9) Remove from oven and leave to cool a bit before turning out on to wire racks.

10) Once cooled completely, add a layer of jam to one of the sponges. If you wish to add a layer of whipped cream, take the other sponge, invert it and spread with cream.

11) Combine the two halves so the filling is sandwiched between the two sponges and finish by dusting the top of the cake with icing sugar.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Custard Creams

The Custard Cream is one of the best looking biscuits out there. Indeed, growing up and peering in to the biscuit tin, it was always of particular interest with its baroque-looking design immediately setting it apart from everything else. I imagined it as some sort of extremely tasty relic from a bygone era. In recent times, I have come to understand that the designs are in fact of Victorian origin - yet another one for the pub quiz!

Taste-wise, if you let your inner Cookie Monster out and dive straight in, a combination of softness and crunch will be delivered to your taste buds as you munch your way through two relatively thick crumbly biscuit layers and a delicious vanilla-flavoured cream centre. Alternatively, for those more patience, a twisting action can be used to dislodge one of the biscuit layers for nibbling before moving on to the cream filling which can be enjoyed by itself by either licking at it - developing those vanilla flavours slowly and steadily - or by whipping it off in one - getting a full-on vanilla hit. Finally, for all the die-hard dunkers out there, you'll find that the Custard Cream has a decent dunking tolerance and, once dunked, has a much sweeter, richer flavour - albeit without the same crunch.

Other things worthy of note are that, in 2007, TRUfree conducted a survey of 7,000 people and found out that the Custard Cream obliterated its competition with nine out of ten people voting it their favourite. On the back of this success the Custard Cream entered the Oxford English Dictionary under the definition of "noun, biscuit with vanilla-flavoured cream filling". Furthermore, its biscuit ranking was bolstered earlier this year when conducted a survey of 6,000 people to find out the nation's favourite biscuit and the Custard Cream came out number one. All in all, not bad going for a biscuit that has been with us since time dot.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Marmalade (on Toast)

I adore marmalade, particularly Frank Cooper's stuff with big lumps of orange peel in it and a wonderfully full-bodied tang that, unlike others, isn't sidelined for masses of sugar.

As with Corn Flakes, marmalade was introduced to me via my Father who often chose to adorn his toast with it. Admittedly, my young taste buds didn't get on too well with the tang of marmalade at first and I often opted for sweeter preserves. However, I did persist with marmalade and I always felt tremendously grown up when I joined in with my Father. Needless to say, these days I consider marmalade on toast to be one of finest eating experiences as the crunch of toast is married with the bite of orange peel, a subtle sweetness and powerful zesty notes all carried along on a creamy layer of buttery goodness.

As for the packaging of the Frank Cooper's product pictured above, it hasn't changed from how I remember it as a child. It proudly displays the Royal Seal, has a simple black and white colour scheme, uses formal block typeface and features "Frank Cooper" in a handwritten-looking font to communicate a product of maturity, quality and class. Fantastic stuff.

See also:

Premier Foods (owner of Frank Cooper brand)

A good old English cuppa

From as early as I can remember, my family and I have drunk tea by the gallon. The only difference over the years being that I have worked my way down from a sweet-toothed 3 teaspoons of sugar to none at all.

Indeed, it may be stereotypical but we Brits love our tea. It's a drink with the ability to revive even the most weary of spirits and act as a social bridge with the uttering of those timeless words: "Do you fancy a cuppa?".

Growing up, I was really only aware of two brands of tea: PG Tips and Tetley. This was mainly down to the fact that both were supported by excellent advertising. Tetely had the chimp family and Tetley had its Tea Folk.

In more recent times, Tetley have faded away from public consciousness down to forgetful advertising and packaging that looks more like a box of Cleenex. On the other hand, PG Tips are still going strong with colourful packaging and advertising featuring the comedian Johnny Vegas and the puppet character, Monkey. Unfortunately for Tetley this has reflected itself in sales and I think they are hoping that the revival of the Tea Folk will help remedy the situation. Personally, I think it may as a trip down memory lane will reconnect many with a brand that they have probably largely forgotten about.

Anyway, below are some classic PG Tips and Tetley ads for your viewing pleasure. Of course, I love the Wallace and Gromit and Chimp ads for PG Tips but my favourite of all is Tetley's "Lovely Day" ad. No words are muttered by any of the characters; it's all in Sydney's expression as he cradles a cuppa and with a few sips goes from a bleary-eyed-just-out-of-bed look to one of full of energy. Together with lovely artwork, a great choice of music and the classic strapline "That's better. That's Tetley" at the end, this is a wonderfully heart-warming ad.

See also:

PG Tips

Tetley Tea

UK Tea Council

Tea Advisory Panel

The Broom Cupboard

Simple in concept but highly entertaining in execution, The Broom Cupboard with its cosy but colourful and energetic presentation is an icon of British children's television. Of course, synonymous with The Broom Cupboard is the double act pictured above.

Youthful and fun, Andy Peters was accompanied by the character of Edd the Duck. This was a clever addition as Andy had limited movement in the Broom Cupboard but Edd could burst on and off the screen in a flood of quacks adding an extra layer of dynamism. Moreover, as with the equally beloved pairing of Phillip Schofield and Gordon the Gopher, there was great interplay between Andy and the unruly, childish character of Edd. Finally, a guy called Wilson dressed in a black dinner suit and white gloves would appear from the right; however, you only ever saw, at most, hands, arms and a bit of body - never his face. This was another clever move as Wilson's hidden identity added mystery to the presentation that caught my over-active imagination hook, line and sinker.

Anyway, here are some YouTube videos capturing Andy and Edd in action:

Children's BBC Idents

I feel very lucky to have grown up in what was the brief golden age for children's programming (80's and 90's) when, in particular, Children's BBC was in its prime from its presentation to the programming it featured. I genuinely feel sorry for kids these days as the quality of children's programming has plummeted to inconceivable lows with the likes of CBBC and CITV but poor imitations of their mighty predecessors.

One of my memories of children's programming was the ident which flew on to our screens with colour, funky tunes and a feeling of fun. The ident pictured above is the one I remember most vividly but there are lots more so I thought you might enjoy the following YouTube video:

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Kellogg's Corn Flakes

"The Sunshine Breakfast", what slogan could be better for a country in which its inhabitants routinely complain about the bad weather. Indeed, I wake up to a bowl of sunshine nearly everyday with Kellogg's Corn Flakes taking pride of place in my breakfast cupboard. Without hesitation, I would go as far as saying that this is one of the best cereal products out there with everything from the packaging and taste to the TV advertising on the money for me. Moreover, being a British food icon through-and-through, Corn Flakes always makes me feel at home when I see a box of the stuff on my travels. This was picked up on in Douglas Adams wonderful 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy' (if you don't know what this is, please Google immediately or wait for my post on it!) where Arthur Dent (a human) is travelling through space with some new alien friends after the Earth, along with its inhabitants, gets blown to smithereens. When Arthur suddenly yearns for something he can relate to, what is imagined? A box of Corn Flakes and a good old cuppa.

Like many of the foods I now enjoy, my love for this cereal was passed on from my father who would regularly tuck in to a bowl of Corn Flakes with chopped banana and raisins scattered on top. Sweet toothed, this combination of cereal and fruit went down well and made my mother rather happy to see me eating something relatively healthy; however, these days I find the likes of banana, whilst very tasty and texturally interesting, overpower the cereal's taste. Eaten as they are with some milk, you get that texture sensation of beautifully crunchy cereal on top and a varying degree of mushiness at the bottom according to soak time. The flakes are delicate and disappear in your mouth in no time, however, they have just the right amount of sweetness and a distinct flavour of corn.

Packaging-wise, the design still proudly sports the iconic image of the rooster, named Cornelius (Corny) Rooster, in green, red and gold that keys in so well to that healthy, wholesome image of country living. At the bottom right, the box now depicts Corn Flakes exploding out from a bowl like rays of sunlight in order to reinforce the slogan. Also, at the top it reads "If it doesn't say Kellogg's on the box, it isn't Kellogg's in the box" to warn the consumer against the plethora of cheaper Corn Flakes that have entered the market - products that I have tried on the odd occasion and have always turned out to be inferior. One nice addition, shown in the images above, is the way those clever people at Kellogg's have designed the box so, with by a bit of origami, you can reseal it - bag included -without the need for any ties or clips. Overall, by using only a few prominent colours and uncluttered imagery, the impression you get is one of a very clean, grown-up design that also catches the eye as you scan through the shelves.

Before I finish, I want to spotlight the following piece of Kellogg's Corn Flakes TV advertising because I remember it so fondly. This ad led me into a full blown Corn Flakes eating obsession due to the suggestion that they were Santa's cereal of choice. From the set design and lighting that oozes a warm Christmas feeling to the adorable child actor and Santa that meet over a treasured bowl of Corn Flakes, this ad is simply entrancing.


See also:


My two pennies worth: What’s with all this CGI stuff?

After my article on Wallace and Gromit, a fine example of a more traditional animation technique, I thought I would turn my attention to the matter of CGI.

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s on a steady diet of classic hand-drawn animation, stop-motion and puppetry; however, as time went on, more and more computer-generated work started appearing. These days, animation is awash with this stuff because, compared to other forms, it is cheap.

My problem with CGI is that it leaves it looks and feels synthetic. For me, more traditional techniques deliver a richness of colour, warmth and feeling of artistry that CGI simply can’t match. Proponents of it often comment on its ‘realness’ but nothing could be further from the truth to my mind. As a regular guy who has watched an awful lot of animation, I would argue any day of the week that the physicality of something hand-drawn or sculptured communicates a far stronger feeling of ‘realness’ to the viewer.

In many ways I think CGI should come with a restraining order as used here and there – not everywhere - in subtle ways it can be a powerful tool in an animator’s arsenal. Then again, there are always those production costs I guess.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Wallace and Gromit

If I was going to start my blog anywhere it had to be with the 'cracking' Wallace & Gromit – sorry, I couldn't help myself. I usually don't go in to the whole thing of 'this is the best', but when it comes to animation, for me, Wallace & Gromit tops them all. I grew up watching their short films and they played a big part in inspiring a love for animation that has stayed with me throughout my life.

To give a quick overview of W&G, it is a stop-motion animation centred on two characters of the same name: Wallace, an eccentric Englishman that creates all sorts of overly contrived inventions; and Gromit, Wallace's pet dog come co-worker. Created by animator Nick Park, W&G made its first on-screen appearance in 1989 with a 22 minute film entitled “A Grand Day Out”. Nick Park produced this for a company called Aardman Animation whilst still studying at the National Film & Television School (NFTS) in Buckinghamshire. This animation proved to be a big hit with the public and in proceeding years two other short-films were commissioned: “The Wrong Trousers” (1993) and “A Close Shave” (1995). More recently, W&G made their first big-screen appearance with “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005) before returning to their old short-film format with “A Matter of Loaf and Death” (2008). Indeed, this November on BBC One, W&G will be returning to our screens in a series called “Cracking Contraptions” in which inventors and their inventions are spotlighted.

I guess what I have found so endearing about these characters is that they are relatable. From the typical British terrace house setting to the traditional foods and brands that feature in their films, there are so many things about W&G that I can identify with from daily life. Also, as a person that has always loved to design and invent things, the crazy inventor character of Wallace was an instant hit – what kid wouldn’t be taken by the idea of building a spaceship in their basement? Moreover, the films contain some excellent visual humour and the plot lines are fun with a very entertaining half-believable-half-wacky construction.

Indeed, I could go on all day about them but, resisting this urge, I will finish by saying that W&G is a masterpiece of animation and, as far as I am concerned, a national treasure that can’t be praised highly enough.

See also:

Offical Wallace and Gromit Website

Welcome to 'The Great British Blogger'

Hello, my name is Matthew and I grew up in the south-east of England during the 80's and 90's. The purpose of this blog is to reflect and pass comment on the many things that I fondly remember from my childhood.

I hope my posts stimulate conversation and, if nothing else, bring back some happy memories.

Anyways, that's enough of an intro; armed with a large cuppa and custard cream, it's on with my first article.