It was the least expensive way to make a television programme. You sat someone in an armchair, got them to read a book, and filmed it. That was it. You then broadcast the result for 15 minutes every weekday.
The BBC’s story-telling series, Jackanory, ran for about 3,500 episodes in its 30-year run, starting in 1965. (When viewers would have seen it in black and white.) The final story, The House at Pooh Corner by A A Milne, went out on 24 March 1996, read by no less a devoted follower of the bear than Alan Bennett himself.
Despite its simplicity, the series attracted some stellar names. Quentin Blake dropped by in 1974 to read one of his own stories. Long before he helmed a starship, back in 1977, Patrick Stewart was telling you tales of a ghost-hunting grandfather. In 1978, Ian McKellen set Shakespeare aside for a second to deliver The Moon in the Cloud. (You can see a list of who read what and when here. Kenneth Williams features slightly more often that you probably remember.)
It was just a voice, telling you a tale, with no distractions. Jackanory proved to be a phenomenal success, which is why the BBC kept it the way it was for 30 years. Of course, phenomenal successes don’t last for ever…
Except they do. Jackanory lives on. It’s just called something else now: the CBeebies Bedtime Stories strand.
The stories look like the BBC has given them a slightly bigger budget for accessories but otherwise they stick with the tested formula: well-known actors reading stories directly to camera. Tom Hardy. Dolly Parton… Still, usually, sitting in an armchair.
Times have changed. You’re not very likely to get any stories by Florence Upton these days. Then again, you wouldn’t have got Will Young reading a story about a boy with two dads in 1965.
A different story read to you each night. Just before bedtime. Some things — quite rightly — never change.