Looking Back At THE CLANGERS (1969) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE CLANGERS (1969)

Ground Control to Major Tony…
The Clangers (or simply Clangers as purists will insist, having too little to occupy their minds) are possibly the cutest production ever to come out of the joyously, harmlessly deranged imaginations of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the people behind Smallfilms, which also made Ivor The Engine, Noggin The Nog, and Bagpuss.

They’re also the first example of universe-crossover between Smallfilms productions. No, really – the first of the Clangers appeared in a story book tie-in for the Noggin The Nog show about Vikings. An egg-like spaceship crash-landed in Ye Olden Days, and the occupant, then known as a Moonmouse, sought the aid of the locals to repair and refuel their ship. The aid was given, and the Moonmouse naffed happily back off to the stars again.

There will be fans of Classic Doctor Who (also available on Britbox), who will read that and yell “Hey! Isn’t that the plot of The Time Warrior?!” Yes, dear geeks, it more or less is.

But when, in 1969 – the year of the Apollo moon landing – the BBC commissioned a series from Smallfilms but left Postgate and Firmin to their own creative devices, Postgate left the nostalgia of shows like Noggin The Nog and Ivor The Engine behind, and cast his imagination out into space for the Smallfilms-Does-Science-Fiction wonder that is The Clangers. He reimagined the Moonmouse slightly (largely losing the tail it had in the storybook and changing its outfit), and created a world on which the Moonmice – or Clangers as they soon became – could live and have adventures.

To say The Clangers is inventive science fiction for very young viewers is among the driest of ways you can describe the show.

In a nod to the star of Ivor the Engine, the characters don’t speak in English, but communicate in a lilting soundwave, rendered by Swannee whistle. If you want to love the world a little bit more than you do right now, it’s worth reflecting that when challenged on that, Postgate and Firmin said the Clangers lived in a vacuum, so they didn’t speak at all as such. Instead, they communicated by nuclear magnetic resonance, which is only translatable on Earth as the kind of Swannee whistle sounds they were given when their adventures were broadcast to human children.

You have to respect a creative team that puts that much joyous nonsensicality and thought into answering a challenge on the inner dynamics of their outer-space stop-motion puppet show.

The sheer intensity of science fiction invention is evident throughout the two initial series of the show. If you thought Terry Pratchett’s Discworld was the last word in fantastical invention, you may have failed to fully appreciate the genius at work in Oliver Postgate’s brain. Quite apart from the central conceit of these little knitted space-mice in their armoured costumes or dungarees, living in caves within a planet, with dustbin-lids to protect each cave-mouth from debris, the sheer amount of fantastical creation crammed into each 10-minute adventure is enough to leave a viewer breathless – but also enough to open their mind right up to the potential of space as an adventure playground.

The famous iron chicken which the Clangers accidentally shoot down with one of their firework rockets. The fact that they exist on soup, with occasional blue-string pudding. The fact that the soup itself is an extract from their planet’s core, and that, oh yes, naturally enough, it’s served to them on a daily basis by the Soup Dragon.

The what-now?

Yep – the Soup Dragon. Welcome to the Clangers’ planet – it’s stark raving bonkers, but in the very best, children’s-imagination way. That’s the point. If you try and describe any given episode of the Clangers, you’d be best served to do it in the breathless, unending descriptive style of a 5-year-old, adding the fantastical details not as punch-points but as incidental details along the way. Of course there’s a Soup Dragon – how else would Clangers get the soup they need? D’uh.

Episodes where Earth debris winds up on the Clangers’ home world are there mostly to get us to take a look at our own rationality from a different angle. A TV set that somehow makes it all the way out there brings a range of reactions from the Clangers, as pressing its various buttons gives them different experiences – oratory, which makes them sit and think, and then clap the speaker, sport noise, which makes them run away in a highly sensible manner, and soft, melodious music, which transports them utterly, making them dance like no Clanger is watching.

And importantly, they dance as children dance – twirling around as the music takes them. Though when they get a burst of rock and roll out of the machine, they’re back to hiding. It’s to the creature’s inestimable credit that the Soup Dragon gets its rock and roll groove on, however briefly, before the TV is sent politely back into space – a nice visitor, but an exhausting one.

As shown by the reactions of the Clangers and the Soup Dragon to the burst of rock and roll music, difference in taste is accepted on the Clangers’ planet, so long as the taste is not enforced on those who do not care for it. Yes, it’s a subtle message, but like most Postgate and Firmin lessons, it’s delivered with charm, it never talks down to its young audience, and it makes even those who watch it some fifty years after its original release remember the moments in their lives when they had that youth, and that wonderful disregard of anything but the moment and its pleasures.

Other examples of this simple, child-centred joy include the iron chicken running wild and eating the leaves off the copper trees (because, that’s why – it’s children’s sci-fi, let your imagination run wild), and Tiny Clanger, the young girl of the family, sitting it down and carefully explaining to it what it should and shouldn’t do, being rewarded for her kindness with an iron egg, that eventually hatches - not, as adults might expect, an iron chick, but a bunch of musical notes, that play themselves when arranged.

And the time such musical notes are used as a form of elevation to float and guide a boat into the sky above the Clangers’ planet. And the time a friendly space cloud is invited to Mother Clanger’s birthday party. And the time we discover the existence of some honestly too-cute little orange Froglets, who travel about in a top hat. And the time when…

The point is probably sufficiently made. There was such a richness of glorious why-not invention about the Clangers that it could hardly ever fail to engage its target audience. Combined with enticing musical scores, the overall cuteness of the Clanger design itself, and the warm, never patronising narration of Oliver Postgate, acting like a child-friendly David Attenborough, calmly talking the audience regularly through the translation from our ‘cloud-covered’ Earth to the planet of the Clangers, and explaining their adventures whenever they were open to misinterpretation, it was calming, heartwarming, and inspiring children’s television, just when space was really starting to get interesting.

And for all there were originally a handful of unnamed bit-part Clangers to make up crowd scenes, it was also a kind of loving family show, too. The events of the series quickly focused on a single Clanger family – Major Clanger, the dad, who was industrious and inventive, and wanted things to always be better (and who sometimes got grumpy when they weren’t), Mother Clanger (a telling piece of timeliness, in that in the late Sixties and early Seventies, that was both her ‘job’ and her place in the pecking order), Small Clanger, the son – wanting to be like his father but often taking shortcuts that led to potential disaster – and Tiny Clanger, the daughter, whose heart was perhaps the kindest of the family, and who also loved to play alongside her big brother, and feel important on their trips to see the Soup Dragon.

If that feels all a little twee and nuclear, it’s worth remembering that back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, it would have reflected the lives and experiences of many among its audience of children. And it’s also worth noting that when new scripts were written, the same sorts of filming techniques used, and Michael Palin put on narrating duties in 2015, the Clangers surged back to the front of children’s consciousness, and ran for three more series. The Clangers, if done right, are timeless because of their industrious role modelling, their easy capacity for love and harmony, their ability to get swept away by beautiful things, just as children of any age do, and the endless inventiveness of the short scripts.

The Clangers are eternal, up there on their peaceful, clever planet with its dustbin-lid crater-covers, and its Soup Dragon (and son), its Froglets, and its friendly cloud.

They are eternal because they are simply wonderful, and they remind us that our lives can be wonderful too if we allow our Inner Children – or indeed, our Inner Clangers – to play once in a while.

Watch The Clangers today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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