There was a time when all live-action UK children’s TV shows were faintly disturbing with an oddly melancholic synth score. Or, at least from the success of ITV’s T-Bag, you could draw this conclusion.
T-Bag, the clearly Narnia-inspired tale of a tea-loving witch, played by Emmerdale’s Elizabeth Estensen, was immensely popular over the course of 94 episodes over 9 series from 1985 to 1992 and had a long and glittering (or at least at the time) list of guest stars, ranging from Bernard Bresslaw and Burt Kwouk to Are You Being Served? star Frank Thornton. Its lead child character, T-Shirt (played by John Hasler all the way from childhood through puberty) was a sort of Edmund-esque character to CS Lewis’ Snow Queen reimagined as T-Bag, magically kidnapped and coerced into being her assistant.
Looking back on the eighties show with adult eyes, T-Bag feels like a strange relic of a pantomime adapted for the small-screen. Estensen in the titular role is great as the flamboyantly nasty villain, as are the always-game guest actors, regularly placed in crude stereotypical roles that likely wouldn’t be allowed on screen today. Hasler as the ever-suffering T-Shirt and his young, ginger-permed friend Debbie (Jennie Stallwood), on a mission to rescue him, are fine as far as child actors go, and in this, the third series, they’re clearly comfortable in their roles and working with Estensen.
Perhaps the most striking thing about T-Bag, though, is its theme-tune; Terry Trower’s synthy sound is memorable, bringing the viewer into a fantasy land, with a curiously downbeat tone still stuck in this reviewer’s head like a fishing hook weeks after receiving the DVD. The effect of this, combined with the often downright strange performances from guest actors and out-dated, disorientating but unimpressive special effects make for a somewhat less family-orientated feel than perhaps it had on its original transmission. The pantomime-style comedy is decent but the storylines too simplistic and derivative, not to mention a little sinister at times, to really mark T-Bag out against the many more sophisticated kids’ shows that have followed.
While it’s an interesting (if ultimately unnecessary) look back to TV you may fondly remember from childhood, on re-watching, much of the appeal is missing for today’s young audience. Once an adult has seen the show after all those years, all they are left with is a faint sense of weird nostalgia and that damned theme tune reverberating around their tired minds.
Extras: Production sketches from designer John Plant, notes from writers Grant Cathro and Lee Pressman, original script and image gallery.
Released on DVD on Monday 9th May 2011 by Revelation Films.