AAustralian children’s shows can be really weird. Hell, I should know: I hosted one. Ten years ago this year, I hosted an incredibly ambitious and explosive children’s show on ABC called Steam Punks, in which I played a Dickensian idiot who trapped children in the belly of a sentient machine, then questioned them in a stupor. We shot 40 half-hour episodes in three weeks, and it aired for five years. It remains my proudest and strangest professional achievement.
Due to the crazy filming schedule, the first time the kids met me was on camera, in character, yelling at them while checking my pocket watch and bouncing around like a mustachioed maniac. And each time the machine frightened me with its terrible horn, I took it upon myself to shout like a maniac and shout the name of a person, a place or a thing that I admired. The whole thing was an absolute blast.
And that made me think of the groundbreaking Australian children’s television. There’s something unique about the shows we grew up with – for me, it was particularly what aired in the 90s. The brainstorming sessions for those shows must have been a bit like Willy Wonka meets The Purge. I don’t think any producer in this happy era has ever said no to an idea, and frankly, we’re a better country for that. But which stories designed for growing Australian minds are the most culturally significant, the most innovative? It’s time to find out.
10. Place of the Book
Only we would have the audacity to a) spin an entire show around reading, and b) let that fat Lovecraftian puppet show up in front of the camera week after week.
The Book Place was a bold undertaking, encouraging children to read and encouraging a generation of people who grew up to appreciate Black Books, which is essentially the same show as The Book Place, only the worm is a metaphor for the tragic alcoholism of the main character. .
Plasmo landed on Australian screens at the height of Aardman Animations claymation boom. Lots of people love it, but even more people hate it. Why? Wild guess, but it might be that guy!
Plasmo is a well-scripted, clever, and sprawling sci-fi series for kids full of hope, adventure, and optimism. There’s even a diligent Redditor restoring Plasmo and putting it back on YouTube! There has never been a show like this. And if this guy’s horrifying mouth keeps popping up online, there never will be again.
8. Johnson and Friends
Johnson and his friends made Toy Story before Toy Story. Set in a child’s bedroom, the show followed a bunch of sentient toys that got into all sorts of scratches. But in reality, they weren’t toy-sized — they were adults in huge suits, going wild in an oversized bedroom week after week. Essentially, we’re dealing with kiddy kaiju here. 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 was ripping Godzilla’s spine and singing a song about why feeling sad is OK.
7. Mr. Scribbles
Having a nose pencil is a crazy premise. First, to have any manual dexterity, any precision, the pencil would need musculature threaded through it. Maybe even a bone. And if so, what kind of Eli Roth’s nightmare would sharpening time be? Mr. Squiggle screams as Bill the Steam Shovel holds him in place, as we head towards Blackboard, doused in pencil shavings. “Hurry up,” he whispers. And with a gasp, you realize the awful truth: Blackboard likes it.
Body horror aside, it’s a wonderful show that teaches kids about art and creative thinking. Thank you, Mr Squiggle!
6. Agro’s Cartoon Connection
When I compiled my list of the best Australian snacks, I was pilloried on the national stage for being the Agro Cone hero. I haven’t received any death threats, but I haven’t received any death threats either. Either way, you’re probably wondering why specifically I would give Agro No 1 in snacks, but No 6 in shows. Well, it’s simple. On Agro’s Cartoon Connection, Agro was a side dish. He appeared as a hateful one-browed testicle between cartoons. But in ice cream form, it’s the main event. It’s all about Agro.
Speaking of busted puppets, it’s time to talk about The Ferals. What an incredibly weird and wonderful sight. Essentially a sharehouse sitcom, it featured a quartet of ruinous rank animals hanging out with their two human pals and suffering under the thumb of their dickish human owner. 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 several areas of the body such as skin, eyes, lungs, liver and genitals”.
Various members of the puppet cast have starred in various other ABC projects over the years since, though I maintain they missed a trick in not letting Rattus host Gardening Australia.
Like Agro, Cheez TV was a transitional show: a means of intro and outro to morning cartoons for hungry minds of cereal-eating children. Originally billed as essentially the Triple J equivalent competing with the biggest Agro audience, Cheez TV had two hosts, Ryan Lappin and Jade Gatt, who came across as goofy and charming as humanly possible. They were so good at their job that of course you tuned in to watch Goku fight for nine grueling episodes of Dragonball Z, but you kept watching Cheez TV because of the hosts. Ryan and Jade were taste makers. Hoping that they return to our screens as soon as possible.
3. Take off
Look, we could talk for hours about what made Lift Off iconic, and we’d probably end up going back to that creepy, faceless puppet, or the fact that Barbara Bush once met the show’s three pigs and really seemed enjoying their company (photographic evidence provided).
But Lift Off was innovative, educational and courageous television. It was created with the edict that kids were smart and ready for anything, and it challenged their wits with some of the most cutting-edge kids TV shows. 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 – and more. And this faceless puppet, EC? HE MADE DREAMS HAPPEN. I’m starting to think Lift Off is the reason I like David Lynch as much as I do.
When Steam Punks premiered, when we were writing it, and even when the sets were being designed, A*mazing was the style guide the whole time. “It’s like A*mazing, but steampunk,” I remember saying several times during the press conference. Why? A*mazing is a staggering achievement. Hosted by the perpetually energetic, bright-eyed James Sherry, it was a show that spent a week at a time pitting two schools against each other. But once all the giant keyboards and Mario Kart compositions were gone, it was the maze itself that brought viewers back for a gargantuan 650 episodes. Have you ever seen a child wearing a stacking hat holding a giant letter F jump into a ball pit, miss and absolutely eat it on the side? In front of his whole school? Because we all did, Callum. We have all done it.
If there was ever a time for a big-budget, nostalgia-soaked reboot that let adults relive their childhood dreams and navigate the maze themselves, this is it. Make an amazing reboot, Netflix.
1. Turn the Twist
Based on the frankly inappropriate – and therefore utterly brilliant – short stories by Paul Jennings, Round the Twist was an exhilarating, almost illicit, breath of fresh air for kids with slightly off-the-wall minds. For the first few seasons (until repeated redesigns stripped the show of its appeal), Round the Twist was the TV equivalent of your coolest uncle, appearing sporadically to take you on adventures and introduce you to new ideas. subversive. It revolved around the Twist family and their lives in a haunted lighthouse, and each episode took one of Jennings’ insanely crazy stories and brought it into the lives of different family members.
Also, there’s an episode called Little Squirt, in which Bronson (the little brother) is helped by a water spirit (all good so far) to win a contest (I’m listening) to see who can piss the farthest (oh my god) and Bronson ends up pissing on a wall (oh jesus oh god) as his classmates look on in awe (who approved of it).
In other words, Round the Twist is the perfect television.