I’d love to live with the Clangers. Wouldn’t you?
- Credit: Archant
And if the phrase ‘Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub’ gives you a warm glow, you’re part of my club.
I’ve had confirmation of something my children have always insisted was true: that I emerged from the womb a fully-formed fogey already mourning the disappearance of an England I didn’t even know existed. Nature, it seems, beats nurture. How else to explain a sentimental pre-school yearning for post-war liberalism and good manners? ? the kind of things that typified the fictional TV worlds of Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley?
These places had their little dramas, even minor personality clashes, but when the chips were down the good folk of Trumptonshire pulled together and looked out for each other. Life moved to a regular beat, mostly. Orderly. That’s the word.
It would be decades before I knew what a metaphor was. But – even as a four-year-old in the mid-1960s – the description of the clock on Trumpton Town Hall resonated with something deep in my soul as it told the time “steadily, sensibly; never too quickly, never too slowly”.
Some might say a real town like that would be boring. I say: desirable. I dreamed of living next door to Chippy Minton the carpenter and watching Pekingese dogs Mitzi, Daphne and Lulu taking Miss Lovelace the milliner for a walk.
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Years later, the Clangers (more my sister’s era, truth be told) struck a similar tone. The little, pink, whistling creatures lived in peace and harmony on their small, hollow planet, though they did have to worry about rocks and bits of metal falling on their heads.
A bit later still came The Wombles, those early environmentalists collaborating selflessly to clear away and recycle the things that humans leave behind.
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Life in all these children’s programmes was, well, civilised – socialist, maybe. “Green”. A bit hippie-ish. Old-school hierarchical, perhaps, but paternalistic.
And then I grew up, and found real life wasn’t always that neat, reliable and supportive.
But now I know why those programmes “spoke to me”. It’s thanks to Dr Rachel Moseley, director of the Centre for Television History, Heritage and Memory Research at the University of Warwick. She’s written the first scholarly study of these much-loved children’s stop-frame programmes of the 1960s and ’70s.
Many of them (such as Pogles’ Wood, Clangers and Bagpuss) are from the Smallfilms stable created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. (Peter’s one of us, having grown up in Harwich and with relatives today in Suffolk. Rachel calls him “an exceptional and significant artist”. And the Trumptonshire tales were narrated so beautifully by Brian Cant, who’d lived in Ipswich and gone to school in the town. So there’s a big East Anglian input in this “golden age” of children’s TV.)
Gordon Murray Puppets (The Trumptonshire trilogy) and FilmFair (Wombles) were cut from the same cloth: proper stories, made and told with love, by people who (it seems to me) knew the world was changing but hoped it wouldn’t ditch the important values that had shaped our lives.
Rachel, at 47 about six years younger than me, grew up watching some of this stuff in Worcestershire. And although she’s too young to remember The Pogles, she did have annuals featuring the odd little family of country folk living in a tree. Her mother seems to have passed on her own love of the programmes and the style in which they were made.
Rachel’s been teaching undergraduates about TV for 17 years, and insists these programmes represent valuable points in British cultural history.
“They’re very much of their moment. They’re very in tune with 1960s counter-culture. They’re about a return to the hand-made, rather than the mass-produced – a return to small-scale production, rather than factory production. Not just in the stories but in the way they’re actually made: kind of ‘hand-made production’.”
You can see that with Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, who created magical series such as the Clangers in old farm buildings at Peter’s home. The opening sequence to Bagpuss pressed part of his house into use as a “shop” where lost toys were taken.
Rachel says all these programmes “are concerned with the environment, with changes in manufacturing processes. They’re interested in the space race and their worries about the space race. The Clangers, in particular... there’s so much anxiety in the voice-over and the stories about the human race throwing rubbish out into the universe.
“At the same time they’re in tune with the sense of anxiety about cultural change. That sense of a pastoral English past is under challenge, if you like, and what the programmes are doing, I think, is trying to gently reassert that, whilst acknowledging change.”
It was only a few years ago that it struck me how a series such as Camberwick Green offered a quite sophisticated social commentary on life in the 1960s – obviously wasted on me then.
I remember the kind of banter (with an edge) between Windy Miller (a champion of traditional agricultural methods and country lore) and the gadget-loving go-getter Jonathan Bell, owner of a “modern mechanical farm”.
Windy Miller loved the familiar sound made by his windmill sails, too. “That was the kind of feeling across both Gordon Murray programmes and Smallfilms,” Rachel points out. “The Pogles would often say things like ‘Well, people use tractors now instead of horses. They don’t make such a nice noise. They don’t smell as nice.’ It’s very gentle, and a very pastoral version of life.”
Mind you, she says, these attitudes had a resonance only for a certain class and ethnicity.
Oh dear. That makes me feel a bit ashamed now. Although one grandfather eked a living coupling carriages on the railways, and the other ran a Rovers Return-style pub on the wrong side of the tracks, I was probably a bit middle-class in attitude, even as a child. I had an affinity for “nice” Blue Peter and the BBC, for instance, while finding ITV’s Magpie a bit too rough around the edges.
And I can imagine my children guffawing, at my expense, at a line in Rachel’s 140-page book: that all this stop-frame animated children’s television of the 1960s and early 1970s built a space of childhood play and imagination “rooted in a vision of a traditional, even archaic, rural South of England”.
Well, Ipswich wasn’t Surrey or Sussex, but I take the point.
“I think we just have to recognise that when we talk about things like nostalgia and a ‘national past’ that it’s a partial view and that it won’t be resonant for every viewer,” says Rachel.
“When I’m talking about comfort and home and mothering – those kinds of values that are really powerful in the programmes – it won’t have those same moments of recall for everyone as you and I have about Watch with Mother. For others, that won’t be a safe memory.
“I don’t think you have to feel guilty about it; I just think you have to acknowledge it.” If we accept – for the sake of argument – that these “hand-made” animated shows were pretty middle-classy, it’s surprising there haven’t been more academic studies on their strengths and influences.
Rachel was surprised. “They’re culturally very visible; they’re a nostalgic object for a lot of people of our generation; but there’s only one, possibly two, pieces of academic writing that even mentions them.
“When I realised that, I even got our university librarian to do the searches for me again, because I was convinced I wasn’t finding it ‘because I didn’t want to’! But, no, there was nothing there.”
She was concerned this “really important part of our cultural history is absent even from histories of British children’s television. It was really important for me to make the argument that without these programmes we would not have the stop-motion-look programmes that our children now absolutely love. Wallace and Gromit wouldn’t exist, really.”
You truly think so?
“I do. The makers have said these were really important programmes to them. Even when you look through the few books on stop-frame animation that do exist, they miss out this body of programming. They jump straight from the Czech and avant-garde stop-frame films of the ’50s, and the Ray Harryhausen monster special effects films, to Aardman (the outfit behind Wallace and Gromit) as if this whole period of children’s television animation didn’t exist.
“And I think that’s the issue: it was ‘children’. It was ‘television’. It was stop-frame (and not live action). It seemed very simple and whimsical. It’s very easy to overlook. If you do that, you exclude a really significant part of the development of children’s television and stop-frame animation.
“I think all those aspects means that it sits very low in the cultural and aesthetic hierarchy, compared to something like avant-garde and something addressed to adults as part of art cinema. All these things coalesce to make it something that’s not obviously an immediate focus for scholarship – and my argument is that’s entirely wrong. I hope this (book) will begin to overturn that.”
Sounds like academic snobbishness…
“Oh, of course! That’s what it is.”
Rachel thinks children’s TV is in pretty good health in the UK – as long as we protect public service broadcasting, so there is a wide range on offer – but we can’t help taking a trip down Memory Lane.
She remembers several “scary supernatural” children’s serials such as The Changes.
That BBC series, aired 40 years ago, was incredibly powerful. Most of the population of a dystopian Britain was rebelling against technology – smashing cars, TVs, washing machines and more. Seeing an electricity pylon made people feel weird. Today, the sight of one always has me thinking of that incredibly thought-provoking programme. “That’s bizarre. I haven’t realised until recently that every time I go past one of those electricity substations I get a kind of involuntary, full-body shudder,” says Rachel. “Somebody pointed out to me the other day that, when we were kids, there was a safety film on TV about a kite.”
I remember that. A boy gets electrocuted after trying to retrieve his kite from the danger area, doesn’t he? “Those images are really powerful. They stay with you.”
We talk, too, about the emotional pull of hearing the football results being read out on a Saturday teatime – of, even, the shipping forecast on Radio 4.
Er… don’t think we’re living in the past a bit too much, do you!
Rachel laughs. “It’s OK to do that as long as we’re looking to the future and seeing the possibilities and the connections, and what it means, genuinely, to move forward.
“The purpose of historical study isn’t to ossify the past and keep it there; the purpose of the study I’ve done is to think about where what we have now has come from and to think about what we can learn from it: what we want to keep, what we want to change, what we want to develop.”
Hand-Made Television: Stop-Frame Animation for Children in Britain, 1961-74, is published by Palgrave Macmillan at £45
WHY Dr Mopp and Co struck a chord
A major factor in the programmes’ subconscious appeal to children, Rachel reckons, is the way stop-motion shooting echoes the movements of a child’s hands when playing with their toys.
“I was watching my little boy watching Thunderbirds are Go and playing with his Thunderbirds toys. Children play with objects in the same way the animation looks. And that really matters. There’s a connection; a familiarity. It encourages participation. They encourage singing and action and storytelling.
“I would say these are programmes which speak to children in their own language – the language of play – but at the same time they challenge children to listen to stories that are being told in lots of different ways, and not ways which talk down to them.
“They’re complex. Particularly Smallfilms. Multi-media, multi-modal, complexity – but at the same time they are articulating what children do when they play with objects and toys and hold them in their hand, move them around, slide them about. They recognise that movement, without knowing it.”