Over the Christmas break we are revisiting some vintage children’s TV programmes.
A BUNCH of woollen mouse-like creatures which communicate only in whistles would seem an unlikely subject for a classic children’s TV series. But thanks to the magic of Oliver Postgate, Peter Firmin and Mrs Firmin’s knitting needles, the Smallfilms production Clangers was one of the best.
The Clangers live on a small hollow planet, far, far away, on a diet of green soup and blue-string pudding. They first came to earthly attention in Noggin and the Moonmouse, a 1967 episode of Noggin the Nog in which a horse trough was installed in the North-Lands and a spherical spacecraft landed in it.
The top unscrewed and out came a large, knitted mouse in a duffel coat requesting fuel for his rocket – vinegar and soap flakes. This was provided, his tank was filled and he ‘took off in a dreadful cloud smelling of vinegar and soap flakes, covering the town with bubbles’, as Postgate said in an interview many years later.
The BBC asked Smallfilms for a new colour series in 1969, as usual leaving the storyline up to Postgate and Firmin. Bearing in mind the recent moon landing, Postgate decided to set it in space and Firmin designed a moon-like set. Postgate adapted the Moonmouse from the 1967 story by removing its tail (‘because it kept getting into the soup’.
A whole family of Clangers was knitted by Firmin’s wife Joan, including the father, the grumpy Major Clanger; his mother Granny Clanger, who is always falling asleep; Major Clanger’s wife Mother Clanger, in charge of the soup and blue-string pudding; their inquisitive son Small Clanger and his kind little sister Tiny Clanger, who offers a welcome to visitors to the planet. Here’s one of the many, many clips available on YouTube.
Apart from the Clangers, the cast includes the Soup Dragon, who lives in the subterranean soup wells and regularly refills a jug usually delivered by Small. Swanee whistles provide the family’s dialogue, Postgate the narration.
Two surreal series, each of 13 ten-minute programmes, were made between 1969 and 1972 (the franchise was revived in 2015 but I cannot bring myself to watch the later episodes). A Scottish rock band named themselves the Soup Dragons and had a top five hit in 1990 with a cover of the Rolling Stones song I’m Free.
Oliver Postgate recalled that when he sent the script of the first series to the BBC, ‘they rang me up and said, “At the beginning of episode three, where the doors get stuck, Major Clanger says ‘sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again’. Well, darling, you can’t say that on children’s television, you know, I mean you just can’t”. I said, “It’s not going to be said, it’s going to be whistled.” They said “But people will know!” I said no, that if they had nice minds, they’d think “Oh dear, the silly thing’s not working properly”. If you watch the episode, the one where the rocket goes up and shoots down the Iron Chicken, Major Clanger kicks the door to make it work and his first words are “Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again”.’