Australian kids’ shows can be truly strange. Hell, I should know: I hosted one. Ten years ago this year, I hosted an incredibly ambitious and bombastic kids’ show on the ABC called Steam Punks, in which I played a Dickensian nitwit who trapped children in the belly of a sentient machine, then quizzed them into a stupor. We shot 40 half-hour episodes in three weeks, and it aired for five years. It remains my proudest and weirdest professional achievement.
Because of the bonkers shooting schedule, the first time the kids met me was on camera, in character, screaming at them whilst checking my fob watch and hopping about like a mustachioed maniac. And every time the machine frightened me with her terrible klaxon, I’d take it upon myself to scream like a maniac and yell the name of a person, place or thing I admired. The whole thing was an absolute blast.
And it got me thinking about groundbreaking Aussie kids’ TV. There’s something uniquely cooked about the shows that we grew up with – for me, that was particularly what was airing in the 90s. Brainstorming sessions for these shows must have been a bit like Willy Wonka meets The Purge. I don’t think any producers from this halcyon era ever said no to an idea, and frankly, we’re a better country for it. But which stories crafted for growing Australian minds are the most culturally significant, the most innovative? Time to find out.
10. The Book Place
Only we would have the audacity to a) have an entire show revolve around reading, and b) let this oily Lovecraftian pupae appear on camera week after week.
The Book Place was a bold endeavor, encouraging kids to read, and fostering a generation of people who grew up to enjoy Black Books, which is essentially the same show as The Book Place, only the worm is a metaphor for the lead character’s tragic alcoholism.
Plasmo landed on Aussie screens during the peak of Aardman Animations’ claymation boom. Lots of people love it, but even more people hate it. Why? Wild guess, but maybe it’s this guy!
Plasmo is a well-scripted, smart, sprawling science fiction series for kids, full of hope, adventure and optimism. There’s even a diligent Redditor restoring Plasmo and putting it back on YouTube! There’s never been a show like it. And if that guy’s horrifying mouth keeps popping up online, there never will be again.
8. Johnson and Friends
Johnson and Friends did Toy Story before Toy Story. Set in a kid’s bedroom, the show followed a bunch of sentient toys getting into all kinds of scrapes. But in reality, they weren’t toy-sized – they were adults dressed in enormous costumes, rampaging around an oversized bedroom week after week. Essentially what we’re dealing with here are kiddy kaiju. Instead of reshaping the Tokyo skyline, they were reshaping our young minds to understand concepts like sharing. Could Godzilla beat McDuff in a fight? Of course not. McDuff would tear out Godzilla’s spine and sing a song about why feeling sad is OK.
7. Mr Squiggle
Having a pencil for a nose is an utterly insane premise. First of all, to have any manual dexterity with it, any precision at all, the pencil would need musculature threaded through it. Maybe even a bone. And if that’s the case, what kind of Eli Roth-grade nightmare would sharpening time be? Mr Squiggle screaming as Bill the Steam Shovel holds him in place, as we pan across to Blackboard, sprayed with flecks of pencil shavings. “Hurry up,” he murmurs. And with a start, you realise the terrible truth: Blackboard is enjoying this.
Body horror aside, it’s a wonderful show that teaches kids about art and creative thinking. Thanks, Mr Squiggle!
6. Agro’s Cartoon Connection
When I compiled my list of the best Aussie snacks, I was pilloried on the national stage for heroing the Agro Cone. I didn’t get death threats, but I also didn’t not get death threats. Regardless, you’re probably wondering why precisely I’d give Agro No 1 in snacks, but No 6 in shows. Well, it’s simple. On Agro’s Cartoon Connection, Agro was a garnish. He popped up like a hateful monobrowed testicle in-between cartoons. But in ice cream form, he’s the main event. It’s all about Agro.
5. The Ferals
Speaking of busted puppets, it’s time to address The Ferals. What an incredibly weird and wonderful show. Essentially a sharehouse sitcom, it featured a quartet of ruinously rank animals hanging out with their two human pals, and suffering under the thumb of their dickish human landlord. And if you’re curious about the overall tone of The Ferals, one of the puppets, Mixy M Toasus, is named after myxomatosis, a disease that affects rabbits and “damages multiple areas of the body such as the skin, eyes, lungs, liver, and genitals”.
Various members of the puppet cast went on to star in various other ABC projects in the ensuing years, though I maintain they missed a trick by not letting Rattus host Gardening Australia.
4. Cheez TV
Like Agro, Cheez TV was a bridging show: a means to intro and outro morning cartoons for the eager minds of cereal-chowing children. Initially pitched as essentially the Triple J equivalent in competition with the more mainstream Agro, Cheez TV had two hosts, Ryan Lappin and Jade Gatt, who bounded around being as goofy and charming as humanly possible. They were so good at their jobs that, sure, you tuned in to watch Goku have a fight over nine gruelling episodes of Dragonball Z, but you kept watching Cheez TV because of the hosts. Ryan and Jade were tastemakers. Here’s hoping they end up back on our screens ASAP.
3. Lift Off
Look, we could talk for hours about what made Lift Off iconic, and we’d probably end up looping back to that creepy, faceless puppet, or the fact that Barbara Bush once met the show’s three pigs and seemed to genuinely enjoy their company (photographic evidence provided).
But Lift Off was innovative, educational and brave television. It was created with the edict that children were smart and up for anything, and it challenged their minds with some of the most avant garde kids TV around. The Melbourne-born puppeteer Ron Mueck, who worked on Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, was involved, as were 150 writers, actors, artists, puppeteers, technicians, musicians, film crew, production crew – you name it. And that faceless puppet, EC? HE MADE DREAMS BECOME MANIFEST. I’m starting to think Lift Off is why I now enjoy David Lynch as much as I do.
When Steam Punks was pitched, when we were writing it, and even when sets were being designed, A*mazing was the style guide the entire time. “It’s like A*mazing, but steampunk,” I remember saying over and over on the press junket. Why? A*mazing is a staggering accomplishment. Hosted by the perpetually energetic and bright-eyed James Sherry, it was a show which spent a week at a time pitting two schools against one another. But once all the giant keyboards and Mario Kart comps faded away, it was the maze itself that brought viewers back for a gargantuan 650 episodes. Ever seen a kid in a stack hat holding a giant letter F leap into a ball pit, miss, and absolutely eat it on the side? In front of his entire school? Because we all did, Callum. We all did.
If ever there was a time for a big-budget, nostalgia-soaked reboot that let adults relive their childhood dreams and head into the maze themselves, this is it. Make a A*mazing reboot happen, Netflix.
1. Round the Twist
Based on the frankly inappropriate – and therefore utterly brilliant – short stories of Paul Jennings, Round the Twist was an exhilarating, almost illicit breath of fresh air for kids whose minds were a little off kilter. For the first few seasons (until repeated recastings stripped the show of its allure), Round the Twist was the TV equivalent of your coolest uncle, showing up sporadically to take you on adventures and introduce you to subversive new ideas. It revolved around the Twist family and their life in a haunted lighthouse, and each episode took one of Jennings’s incredibly bonkers stories and transposed it on to the lives of different family members.
Also, there’s an episode called Little Squirt, in which Bronson (the little brother) is aided by a water spirit (all good so far) in winning a competition (I’m listening) to see who can piss the furthest (oh God) and Bronson ends up pissing clean over a wall (oh Jesus oh God) as his classmates watch on, awestruck (who approved this).
In other words, Round the Twist is perfect television.