Worst to Best

Chock-A-Block was a series for young children, presented on alternate weeks by Fred Harris and Carol Leader. Both were in charge of administrating "Chock-A-Block", a large yellow computer that could sing, record, play games and educate children about spelling.


The series originally aired from May-August 1981, but was popular enough to be regularly repeated, appearing in schedules no less than 14 times between its original airing and 1989. Please join me as I rank the entire series, from worst to best...

Article Update, March 2024: A previously-missing episode, Magpie, was discovered after this article was published. As a result the article has been amended to properly include Magpie in the ranking.

13 Bear

So, what was Chock-A-Block? A pre-school programme involving a giant yellow computer, controlled by a human operator (Fred Harris and Carol Leader on alternating weeks) that taught the very young basic spelling and songs. Being a show for the nursery era, there's understandably a formulaic quality to the show. The first half of each episode is dedicated towards the set up of the basic theme for the week, usually a revelation like the fact that "bee" rhymes with "key". This is then followed by the presenter singing a song into the computer, and being surprised that Chock-A-Block has missed out some of the words, despite the fact that it happens nearly every single week.
     Then there's "Rockablock", where a machine like a mangle or old newspaper press has two rollers that turn to reveal pictures that have to rhyme. The bottom roller is very obviously done by blue screen, though any quaint fun is somewhat lessened by the fact that it generally repeats what's gone on before - as here, where we learn for the millionth time that "chair" rhymes with "bear".
     There's attempts to pep things up a bit here, such as the motorised Chockatruck "conking out" and needing a replacement battery, but generally this is more of the same, despite Fred Harris's best efforts. Fred gave an interview to Curious British Telly where he said he was glad Chock-A-Block was fondly remembered, but for him personally it was something of a strain to make: "I'm afraid I was recovering from a slipped disk and I was rattling with painkillers for most of the time, so my memory of it is a little blemished. Getting out of the Chockatruck was agonising, especially challenging with a welcoming smile on your face!"
     As this article uses second-hand research more than some of the others, I wanted to make the effort to include some original investigative work, so I spoke to co-creator Nick Wilson. (Michael Cole, 16 years Nick's senior, was the other co-creator of this series, and sadly died in 2001.)
     While Fred Harris says "bye" in the very first Chock-A-Block episode, most of his exits are just a quick "checking out" and a wave... here he drives away with a "farewell", the last of the run. I asked Nick if there was any chance of a second series, but he told me: "No... both Michael and I moved on." For Chock-A-Block, it scarcely mattered. The BBC milked the repeats, bless 'em, showing it an average of twice a year after it ended, and the target audience wouldn't need a lot of new material.

12 Bee

The real hook of most Chock-A-Block episodes is the final three or four minutes, which ditch the rhyming and instead feature a song, and often a secondary role for the presenter. Here Carol Leader doesn't get to visually play a different role, but performs the singing voices of a queen and child bee in a bee-based rock opera. It has its charms, but there's no real standout moment in this one to mark it out from many of the others. Which is a shame, as it was the last episode to be recorded, and has no real pay off, not even an acknowledgement from Chockagirl that she won't be back. Instead, she talks about checking out "for now", leaving an unfulfilled promise that she may be back.

11 Crow

Those looking for continuity in the series might note that Chockagirl says that she's heard that Chock-A-Block "sometimes doesn't get all the words", suggesting that this is her first time working with the machine within the backstory of the show.
     The real appeal of Chock-A-Block is, of course, its electronic theme tune. It is, as they say, all killer, no filler, and probably the main reason the show is still so affectionately remembered. That the bits that take place between the opening and closing theme aren't as good as you may have remembered isn't really the fault of the show, of course - you're just not five years old anymore, and it's not aimed at the person you are, but at the person you were.
     This said, there was a very high turnover rate for Chock-A-Block, with two episodes recorded in a single day, very much "against the clock". Crow was the one with the least amount of time for any kind of post-production, should there have been any - it was recorded on 22nd May 1981, just six days before transmission.

10 Sheep

While Chock-A-Block had two alternating presenters, the recordings tell a different story. Fred Harris recorded his seven episodes between 15th April-16th May 1981, while Carol taped hers between 22nd May-4th June. The episodes were then mixed together to create the "taking turns" presenting motif, though even this might not have been the original plan, as the Radio Times announced the entire series with: "The first of seven programmes with Fred Harris".
     I'd like to take credit for such research, but in this instance I have to concede that it wasn't mine, but was done by the guy behind great nerdist site Dirty Feed. You should check it out, if you haven't already. And the Radio Times detail was brought to my attention from someone replying to his tweet... again, not my research. Doing my own research in these articles is important, but when something as vital as that is brought to light, it can't be ignored. And Dirty Feed, a friend of the site, has said it's fine to quote those findings here.
     What is my own research is asking Nick Wilson whether the show was intended to be just seven episodes with Fred, and a late call came through to order more episodes. As Carol was recording hers just six days after Fred, it was perhaps more likely the Radio Times had got the wrong end of the stick and made a mistake, which appears to have been the case. Nick confirmed: "No, it was always planned as 13 episodes."

9 Clock

The episodes of the series were all written by producer Michael Cole (Sheep, Play, Cole, Cat, Snake, Bear) or director Nick Wilson (Crow, Train, Magpie, Pig, Bee)*. The only exception is this first episode, with a screenwriter credit for Michael Graham Smith. Now, I'd originally written a tongue-in-cheek line about them perhaps finding it all too complex to put together right away, but, as the opportunity to ask Nick came up, he explained why this was: "Michael GS was a graphic designer working on the series-- he had ambitions to write so we nursed him through one episode."
* Shoe doesn't have a listed writer, of which (slightly) more later.
     Completing the "try out" concept, this was the only episode filmed by itself, rather than the two-in-one-day routine of the others. Shot on 16th April 1981, it perhaps doesn't have the full energy of later ones, even though Fred Harris does his best to bring some spark to the set-up of the new show. Fred, incidentally, isn't credited onscreen for this first edition.
     An okay start, and, even if Chock-A-Block perhaps never reached "classic" status, it's definitely fondly remembered, and the opinion of overgrown adults writing about it is almost irrelevant when anyone over the age of 6 or 7 is distinctly not its target audience. The truly puerile, however, may get one or two cheap laughs out of how many times Fred says the word "cock" in this one. He's talking about a cockrel... grow up, now.

8 Cat

Chock-A-Block was designed for the very young, and so each edition does, as said, feature simple rhyming games that can grate in their repetition and simplicity. For some strange reason the BBC didn't feel pre-schoolers wanted Chock-A-Block to talk about advanced quantum mechanics, and so here we are, learning that "cat" rhymes with "hat". Repeatedly.
     There's a bit of fun with Chockagirl having to erase some of Chock-A-Block's tapes as it's filled with noise, but overall this is a surprisingly mediocre episode of the series. "Surprising", because, despite all the repetition, it has a standout element as part of its runtime, though one that sadly fails to elevate the whole.
     That element is a puppet cat, forced - of course - to only do things that rhyme, but bemoaning its lot as if forced into some kind of linguistic purgatory. The cat isn't a cuddly, inspiring creature, but rather the product of your worst nightmares, Bagpuss by way of Hieronymus Bosch. The thing can only speak from one side of its mouth, making it look, quite alarmingly, as if it's had a stroke. Not only that, but its insistence that it has no choice but to continue to get "fat" is a horror tale of enforced obesity, like Play School filtered through the ethos of the Saw movies.

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