Patrick Dowling, 1919-2009
Thursday, June 18, 2009 by Ian Jones
Patrick Dowling, co-creator of The Adventure Game and producer of Vision On and Take Hart, has died. He was 89.
Dowling was a pioneer. He conceived new ways of using television to delight and inspire generations of children, and had the imagination and tenacity to see his ideas come to full fruition.
In doing so he exploited the power of the small screen to both entrance and intrigue.
Dowling’s work was never didactic, in the way of so many of the BBC’s early children’s series. Instead he demonstrated how it was possible to make the educational seem entertaining, and vice versa.
The secret was charm. His programmes twinkled with it. Vision On, which he co-created with Ursula Eason in 1964, junked all pre-ordained nostrums about television for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, not merely because they were outdated, but because they were boring. Simple, obvious perhaps, but brave for its time.
The show became an inspiration to everyone, not just its target audience. This was recognised formally when Vision On won a Bafta in 1973 for Best Specialised Series: a category open to all programming, not one reserved exclusively for children’s output.
Dowling and Eason also established the idea of the children’s TV presenter as teacher-cum-clown: a template of such possibility and reward that it persisted in British television more or less unchanged for the next 30 years.
Dowling ended Vision On in 1976 and replaced it with Take Hart. In doing so he played benefactor to someone whose influence he was able to project into all the hearts and all the paintboxes in the land.
Even today, Tony Hart’s spirit lives on in anyone who ever used a wooden stick to carve a giant face on a sandy beach; anyone who ever added a pair of eyes, hands and feet to that superfluous blob of plasticine in the school artroom; anyone who ever borrowed the family Pritt Stick, Copydex or Gloy Gum to doodle the outline of something on a bit of paper, shower the paper with glitter, then tip the paper on its side to reveal…a glittery doodle; anyone who ever filled a used washing-up bottle with paint, suspended it upside down by string, pricked a tiny hole in the lid then let it swing back and forth all over the back of an old bit of wallpaper; and anyone who saw other people, people like them, getting their drawings shown on national television and felt moved to try and do the same.
Everyone, basically. Tony Hart’s spirit lives on in every single one of us: a skyscraper of a legacy, for which Patrick Dowling can rightly take credit.
By penning the early scripts for Hart’s plasticine pal Morph, Dowling also helped launch the career of the character’s creators Peter Lord and David Sproxton: animators who went on to gain world acclaim as the founders of Aardman Ltd.
Then came The Adventure Game. Dreamed up with Ian Oliver, this was a rich mix of verve, wit, derring-do, intelligence and celebrity. Among its many accomplishments as a television show, The Adventure Game showed how to be sequentially smart *and* silly, with neither undermining the potential of the other.
You can read an interview that Dowling and Oliver did for Off The Telly in August 2004. Both were gracious in giving up time to revisit their memories of the programme, and in answering questions at length and with great humour.
Patrick Dowling ensured what could have been an outpost of children’s television instead became a crucible of startling illumination and exuberant play; a crucible whose sparks and flashes flicker at the back of millions of minds, and always will.
Patrick Dowling: 19th August 1919 – 17th June 2009