I’ll let you in on a secret. Most kids TV is enjoyed more by the grown-ups than the kiddie demographic. Ok, maybe that isn’t such a well kept secret. I’m old enough to remember the original clangers. They were a pretty weird bunch even in the good old days but, because they existed in a time that lacked computerised wizardry, you just kind of accepted that this was as good as it got here in the UK, kids TV-wise.
Funny looking, pink, armour plated space rodents? Why not? And while we’re at it let’s get somebody to knit the weird little critters (the creator’s wife) and make their home look like it’s made from papier mache, and we’ll use whistles for when they talk, instead of employing expensive actors, and the whole thing will have the cosy, homemade feel of something you cooked up in your garden shed which, interestingly enough , is exactly where The Clangers was made (well in a cow shed on a farm in Kent.)
And now The Clangers are back on Cbeebies, Mondays at 5.30 pm, in a glowing with colour regeneration – and do you want to know why they’re back? It’s not because of the 2-5 year old target audience, who can barely understand what that magic picture box in the corner is, let alone that race of woolly pink aliens waddling across their screens. No, it’s because the grown-ups love them. Grown-ups of a certain age that is, who go misty eyed with nostalgia at the mere sound of Oliver Postgate’s liltingly warm and comforting narrator’s voice, and who sometimes come home from work and wind down with an old clanger episode on YouTube, basking in the glow of simpler times. Not that those times were simpler of course, they were just as crap as these crappy times; it’s just that we were living in blissful ignorance back then, on planet childhood.
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin were the two man operation behind The Clangers, working under the company name Smallfilms (because they made small films.) They created some of the weirdest children’s programming ever, which somehow entered the consciousness of a generation and stayed there. Titles such as Bagpuss (another creation in pink), The Pogles and Pogle’s Wood, Noggin the Nog and Ivor the Engine. These programmes were the complete antithesis to the shiny, hectic American offerings at the time; teatime cartoons such as Scooby Doo, Captain Caveman, the Banana Splits and the Wacky Races. The Smallfilms output required children to really watch and listen. They relied on decidedly jerky stop motion animation to bring the characters to life and, in the case of Noggin the Nog, some exceptionally flat 2D animation. Go watch a Noggin the Nog or Pogle’s Wood episode on YouTube and you’ll hear Postgate’s voice coming from mouths that remain mysteriously still. It’s all so amateurish and yet quite magical. And let’s not forget the gentle, instantly recognisable music composed by Vernon Elliott for almost all the Smallfilms productions.
The new version of The Clangers has stuck to this magical formula. There’s no CGI here (well maybe just a little bit.) The new team have stayed with stop-motion but improved things by going with the Wallace and Gromitian use of mechanical skeletons hidden beneath the characters’ bodies. This has given the new clangers a wider range of movement and a more well-rounded appearance. Gone is the slightly dingy and dark feel of the originals, to be replaced by a blue planet with a much lighter and more airy atmosphere. Michael Palin has replaced Oliver Postgate as narrator, bringing exactly the same comforting, middle class, homely overtones. William Shatner is the narrator for the American version which seems like a case of pretty genius casting to me.
The first episode, which I watched avidly, retained everything about the original except the slightly wordly note of pessimism that Oliver Postgate was apt to throw in from time to time. Kids were subjected to a much tougher life philosophy in those days. Here’s Postgate’s soothing introduction to the clanger episode The Egg:
‘This is the planet Earth, the home of the human race, our home. Here on the surface of this crowded planet you and I, our families, our friends, are working, living, playing, dying, eating, drinking, getting married, being born, laughing, dancing, singing, worrying and sometimes weeping.’
CROWDED PLANET! DYING! WORRYING AND WEEPING!! Compare that script to your average episode of Peppa Pig.
Today’s version of The Clangers decided to go with:
This is the Earth, a tiny wet planet lost and alone in the vast silence of space. Hold on, listen, maybe it’s not so silent, maybe we’re not so alone, let’s go closer and have a look.
Much more positive don’t you think? Less likely to give your average five year old the existential heebie- jeebies.
Here’s a clip from the new version’s opening episode. I wonder how many middle aged kids-at-heart will be setting the sky recorder thingy for 5.30 every Monday from now on.