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Oliver Postgate's Cosmic Clangers: A Timeless Children's Classic
In Space Noone Can Hear You Whistle
Space: the final frontier. In 1969 you could say that sort of thing without an ironic twang in the intonation and a suppressed snigger. In those days you couldn't stroll through St James's Park or down the King's Road without stumbling over a batch of blitzed-out hippies staring into the sky and dreaming of Tolkienesque netherworlds. Neil Armstrong was bouncing about on the moon, David Bowie was crooning Space Oddity , and the sky was no longer the limit.
And who could blame these jaded British love children for getting a little cosmic? Life on our planet wasn't quite conforming to the sex, drugs and peace ideals that had seemed so attainable two summers previously. Brian Jones was dead and - somewhat more pertinently - so were Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Wilson was still supporting Nixon's policy on Vietnam, dope was growing harder to come by, and you couldn't even turn up at a Rolling Stones concert without running a gauntlet of mad gunmen. In this brave new world, it was hardly surprising that moongazing was gaining an ever-wider following.
It was in this cold climate that some long-forgotten backroom nobody at the BBC - an institution desperately trying to drag itself out of the Reithian Dark Ages into some vague proximity to the zeitgeist - said, "Let's make a kids' programme about space."
Cut to a ramshackle animation workshop just outside Canterbury. Kindly middle-aged family man Oliver Postgate looks across at his business partner - kindly middle-aged family man Peter Firmin - and whispers, "Supposing we look away from the Earth and travel in our imagination across the vast endless stretches of outer space. There we can imagine other stars, stranger stars by far than ever shone in our night sky, and other, stranger people too. People, perhaps whose civilisation, skill and efficiency may be far in advance of ours . . . "
And lo, The Clangers were born. At the time, they were seen as routine children's hour fodder, but in the early Nineties, sporadic repeats on Channel 4 attracted nearly a million viewers in an obscure daytime slot. BBC Video released the show on VHS, and anyone dropping the words "Soup Dragon" into a culturally-attuned thirtysomething conversation would be greeted with an ecstatic chorus of hooting and Iron Chicken impersonations.
The cult of The Clangers
Oliver Postgate became a guru for the British retro movement. At the time, the US had Slackers, Generation X, but in the UK there was a more ironic, oblique slant on rejecting parents' world views, achieved by embracing wholesale the extremes of Seventies children's hour culture. Postgate's credentials for mass retro-reverence speak for themselves: Ivor The Engine, Pogles' Wood, Noggin The Nog , Bagpuss and - of course - The Clangers .
Those woolly, hooting aliens were his masterpiece, hibernating in the memory to emerge again 20 years later, to claim the adulation that is their due, but which they never actually won at the time, when they languished as trivia in the kids' TV ghetto. Their timelessness is not to be confused with the cult following that forms around any sci-fi TV series, with the Doctor Who fanclubs, Blake's Seven conventions and the assorted inadequates who dress up as Red Dwarf characters. Theirs is an appeal that speaks volumes about Britishness, affection for the plain and unpretentious, embarrassment at the ostentatious, and delight in seeing the surreal pinned down by neat traditionalism.
Postgate realised the need to root his fantasy in a recognisable structure, and so The Clangers blended the weird and the banal with consummate skill. He delighted in telling how a NASA official saw The Clangers and praised it as "an attempt to bring a note of realism to the Space Race". Thus Clangers survived on a diet of soup from the soup wells, administered by that scaly matriarch the Soup Dragon, but were themselves a nuclear family - a format straight out of a classic US sitcom.
Major Clanger was a benevolent military dictator, worried only about his dinner, Mother Clanger a harassed housewife obsessed with table-cloths, and it was their children - Small and Tiny - who had all the the adventures, greeting the strange beings that drifted in and out of the void, and generally made that small blue planet in outer space a damned fine place to be.
Tiny, the knitted starlet
Tiny Clanger is the sort of proto-feminist heroine that Camille Paglia would have written paeans to if she had been around at the time. Differentiated from her brother only by a small red bow where her hair should be, she was the mediator, the ideas woman, the brains behind each scheme, and the only Clanger who could communicate with the unpredictable Iron Chicken. Small was reduced to fetching and carrying. Postgate admitted that feminism hadn't greatly infiltrated Kent in 1969. Rather, Tiny's obstinate character was closely based on his partner Firmin's stubborn daughters.
Again, mixing reality with invention, the Clangers communicated via a system of hoots, which Postgate created in the studio by means of whistles, played to closely follow the inflections of English conversation. Fans of the series became so attuned to the Clangers' rhythms of speech that they implored Postgate to drop the explanatory narration. In one extreme case he took the series to Germany for a film festival (he entered it in the Wildlife category) where the local audience were convinced that the Clangers were speaking perfect German.
Iron Chickens and Soup Dragons might beg the question, "what were they on?". After all it was 1969. 2001: A Space Odyssey had been released the year before, and everybody was getting into mind-expanding experimentation. Postgate scoffed at the suggestion that The Clangers was conceived on anything more exotic than Ovaltine, claiming that he and Firmin were always about 10 years behind the times. Nevertheless, there's something undeniably trippy about Postgate's portentous introduction to each episode, delivered in awestruck, yet engaging tones.
The Clangers' planet also has that air of innocent Utopianism which still harks back to Sixties naivete. There is never any hostility, even when strangers arrive and begin to act bizarrely. Tiny empathises with the plight of the Froglets, Hoots and Iron Chickens alike.
Postgate's wistful narration hints that the Clangers are what we'd like the British to be: tolerant, wise and benevolent, with a firm sense of fair play and reserve. They accept the fantastic with equanimity and cheer, worrying only about where their next helping of soup and blue string pudding is coming from. Postgate emphasises that the moral values expressed in the programme were never really of much concern to him, but what emerges is a hymn to simplicity and civility.
These characteristics were reflected in the way the series was presented. In the modern era, when kids' TV is primarly made up of 20-minute advertisements for over-priced merchandise, written by commercial development teams, it does seem remarkable that there was no great attempt to foist Clangers products onto the market. This was the age, remember, when the ecological but shamelessly commercial Wombles were on Top Of The Pops more times than T Rex. No such excesses for the Clangers. Their extra-curricular activities were confined to a few annuals and rumours of a glove-puppet set.
In the mid-Seventies, Postgate's American distributor advised him to "quit making these crappy little films and come to Hollywood where you can make a fortune doing family entertainment movies." Postgate, the plucky upholder of British independent spirit, replied, "Get stuffed, you'll give me ulcers. The mogul returned seven years later. "You were dead right about the ulcers," he said. It's still tantalising to speculate how Postgate would have fared on the other side of the Atlantic.
I spoke to Oliver Postgate for an article on The Clangers that appeared in The Modern Review in 1993. He sent a gracious note, shortly afterwards, thanking me for the coverage.
Oliver Postgate died in December 2008 at the age of 83.