For 20 minutes, once a week I was hooked. It is my earliest memory of old fashioned storytelling. Stories told in frustratingly short bite-size pieces, with each bite woefully inadequate and incapable of sating my appetite. Throughout the early 1980s I and thousands of other young children would tune in to watch Look and Read. It was the only television programme we were ever allowed to watch at school. We’d pile into the tiny audio visual room, find a spot on the beanbags and settle down to watch.
Look and Read began in the late 1960s and ran for nearly 40 years before it finished in 2004. I hadn’t thought of it for at least 30 years when it suddenly flooded into my head this week. The programme had a simple aim which was to help improve literacy among young schoolchildren. For teachers it was a blessed 20 minute break. For kids it was a window into another world. Those of you who went to school in the UK in the 1970s and 80s will be familiar with the character at the heart of the programme. Mr Watchword or Wordy as he was affectionately known was brought to vocal life by Charles Collingwood. Radio fans will know him as Brian Aldridge from BBC Radio 4’s The Archers.
Wordy had black arms and an orange head covered in letters and he fronted the teaching component of the programme. He taught us grammar, spelling and the correct use of words and phrases. It was all brilliantly educational and an excellent way to supplement the national teaching curriculum. Except as a kid it really got in the way of the storytelling. Wordy’s appearance on screen served to break up the action and he would be used to examine words and linguistic constructs that had appeared in the chunks of fictional drama that were dotted across the 20 minute broadcast. It was these sections that hooked me, not the floating orange dictionary. The stories that appeared on Look and Read were seriously good. For the teachers they were just props to drive the learning process. For kids like me they were a moment of the starkest clarity. I’ve been hooked on good storytelling ever since. My favourite story ran in 10 parts during the Autumn Term of 1981 (September to December). It was called Dark Towers and it featured Christopher Biggins as a thief called Benger and Peter Mayhew as The Tall Knight. Mayhew was well cast. He is 7 feet 3 inches tall and when he filmed Dark Towers he was fresh off the sets of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. He played Chewbacca. As a kid, when you are watching thieves attempting to steal treasure as they battle with ghosts the last thing you need is for the action to be interrupted by Wordy.
Wordy popped into my head, along with the whole concept of Look and Read when I watched a woman crossing the road earlier this week. I stopped dead in my tracks. She wore a red trench coat and matching fedora. She was the absolute spitting image of Carmen Sandiego. “Who?” said the person I was with. She might be a fictional character but she’s a superstar of international renown. She’s quite possibly the most famous person you’ve never heard of, particularly if you are British. We got Mr Watchword. The US got Carmen Sandiego. There is simply no contest.
The character was created in 1983 by Brøderbund Software. She was a key component of a plan to build a computer game that would teach geography and history to children. The first game was titled Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and in playing the game your role was to track her down. According to the ACME Detective Agency she is their top criminal target. Carmen Sandiego is a double-crossing agent cum super-criminal and is the leader of V.I.L.E., the Villains’ International League of Evil. With a global network of fellow criminals she is responsible for many daring and brilliant crimes. She is known as The Lady in Red and The Miss of Misdemeanour. What started as a single computer game has spawned a truly global phenomenon. Her location has been a source of mystery and of learning. She’s helped kids all over the world learn about many different subjects and she has moved from computer games to television programmes to rumours of a feature film with Jennifer Lopez attached as producer. If that project goes ahead I assure you that the red trench coat with matching fedora look will become a catwalk thing. She is no stranger to stardom and her voice has been memorably provided by no less a star than Rita Moreno. Who better to portray a Latina enigma?
Which brings me back to Wordy. Poor, floating, letter-covered Wordy. He’s an important part of my childhood, but sadly he will never enjoy the fame of Carmen Sandiego. Both of these characters serve an important purpose. The educational value of storytelling is limitless. Good stories capture our imaginations, particularly those of children and if that can be harnessed to teach children about otherwise dull subjects then so much the better. I launched my own children’s publishing brand recently. It aims to do the same thing and above all it puts storytelling front and centre.
If you are a female then the next time you go to a fancy dress party you’d be well advised to wear a red trench coat and matching fedora. You might be surprised how many people recognise you. If you are male then you could go as Wordy. Unless you are 7 feet 3 inches tall in which case go as a Wookie. And if you were the lady I saw earlier this week leaving that jewellery store in central London then you are probably long gone by now. But if not I’d love to ask you a few questions about V.I.L.E. I assure you I don’t work for the ACME Detective Agency.