A Galaxy Very, Very Close: The Clangers return

But wait. Listen. What’s this?

 “…If, in our imaginations, we turn away from the Earth and think about other planets, other, less-fortunate stars, we realise that life there might be very different. Very bleak and dull. The solitary fisher, setting off to catch what she can in the vast empty spaces of the universe may feel very much alone…”

The lines come not from some cosmic-poetic passage in a Ray Bradbury story. Rather, they form the opening narration of an episode of The Clangers that was first broadcast in 1970, just before the news, and they are best appreciated when you hear them delivered by the man who wrote them, Oliver Postgate, who had the kindliest, wisest, slyest and closest voice ever heard on television, and who made the best ever television for children because he did it in the knowledge children would get it, and that we are all of us children, and always will be.

Thanks to the repeats that kept them in the atmosphere until the 1980s, many of us carry Clangers with us the way we do  marrow in our bones, so it can be startling to realise how few episodes Postgate and his partner in genius, Peter Firmin, actually made about the strange little pink creatures with ears like mice and snouts like anteaters and armour like Romans, and the lumpy little grey planet with the dustbin lids over the craters on which they lived with the Soup Dragon, while the Iron Chicken nested among the stars nearby. It takes two men in a shed a long time to do that kind of stop-motion animation, and only 26 woolly 10-minute epics were produced between 1969 and 1972. (Although, in 1974, they brought the Clangers back out of the box for one last brilliant comment on that year’s General Election, “Vote For Froglet!”)

Since then, in the vast empty spaces of the universe, there has been only silence. Postgate died in 2008, and may hosts of music trees, mouse organs and swanee whistles sing him to his rest. But wait. Listen. What’s this?

 “This is The Earth. A tiny wet planet, lost and alone in the vast silence of space…”

We are not alone. The Clangers have returned. I am obliged here to say this new series is not quite The Clangers of old; but, as you can perhaps tell from the way I am lying helpless on my back on the carpet kicking my feet in the air, this doesn’t matter too much. It is a splendid thing, in a way that few things are.

The differences between the original Clangers and the new programme are similar to those between the new Poldark and its 1970s incarnation. Essentially, leaving aside developments in budget and technology (although, the new programme replicates the original hand-made, stop-motion feel, because, well, why would you change it?), the new series is friendlier.

Instead of the cold, empty and utterly black void that loomed in the original, the endless space surrounding the Clangers’ little homeworld today is a hum of warm blues, for example. More pertinently, in the episodes I’ve seen, there has been nothing quite so pointed as the parables Postgate snuck in. The old episode I quoted from above, for example, was basically an anti-money treatise, in which, having found some coins, Tiny Clanger gets blinded by greed-lust and goes off into paranoid seclusion, while the rest of the Clangers wonder why she’s acting so weird when they could all have fun together.

Tiny’s dilemma in the first of the new episodes is somewhat gentler: just as she’s composed a little tune, a strong wind blows the notes off the music trees, and she has to scour the planet trying to find them.

These differences tell of larger differences, in TV, and in the culture that surrounds it. Postgate –who regarded all politics with scepticism, and a committed pacifist – was sole author of the original Clangers. Working in tandem with Firmin, who co-designed the creations, everything in it was him, every sound, every movement. All his fascinatingly particular quirks, thoughts and wrinkles leaked through: and here was a man, after all, who, on Bagpuss, thought nothing of taking Bertrand Russell as his model for Professor Yaffle.

We live now in a TV age of focus groups, market testing, writing by committee, and another Oliver Postgate is extremely unlikely. And yet, there is still enough of his spirit lingering stubbornly in the new series, largely because it is overseen and sometimes written by his son, Daniel, who also has the 86-year-old Firmin on board to supervise the design.

If the new stories don’t push quite as far as the brilliant little nonsenses of the 1970s, it is still heartening to see two tales this week devoted to the idea that, actually, replacing humans and human contact with machines might not really be a great idea. It’s bracing, too, in a show for teenies, to hear the narrator speak phrases like “a tiny wet planet, lost and alone in the vast silence…”

Ah, yes. The narrator. It is Michael Palin, who speaks in tones as calm, soothing and mischievous as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He is not Oliver Postgate, of course, but he is a worthy successor: hearing him in this is like being wrapped in a big dry, warm, clean and fluffy towel. Don’t Panic. The Clangers are back, and they are bright and gorgeous and strange. They still look like Clangers. Consider this for a moment: the BBC is once again employing people to knit. Lost and alone or not, this is the kind of planet I want to live on.

Published in The Sunday Herald, June 14 2015