In 1969 the BBC made the surprising decision that what a nation of children, entranced by the real life drama of the moon landings needed was a space series made by two men in a cow shed in Kent. Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin had, up till that point, carved a career out of handmade animation that was closer to folk art than science fiction. Developing the Clangers, Oliver Postgate realised his knowledge of the booming sci-fi genre was restricted to some long distant memory of H.G. Wells and the imaginations of his twin sons. ‘When they were about three years old Simon and Stephen had told me about the moon. Apparently there was a giant called Edward on the other side of the moon who lived on soup, hot soup. I asked how he obtained the soup and they explained that as the moon was quite full of soup, all he had to do was unscrew a volcano and suck it out through a straw.’ And so presumably the Soup Dragon was born, the Clangers sole provider of sustenance. As for the main characters, Postgate realised he had already created them a couple of years before, in a spin off book accompanying Smallfilm’s series of Norse sagas, Noggin the Nog – you can read about that here.
‘During the several hundred years that had passed since Noggin’s time the breed had evolved a bit. They no longer had long tails with tufts on the end, perhaps because the tufts kept getting into the soup. Now they were plump and shocking pink, with noses that were long, perhaps for sucking up the soup. They had round ears which drooped when they were sad and big flat feet with holes in.’
Evidently this wasn’t science fiction as we knew it (Jim), rather a typically homespun and utterly original vision of life in space. Like any good piece of science fiction the key was in creating a wholly believable universe for them to exist in. So the name ‘clangers’ was chosen simply because it sounded good, then an explanation was sought – it was the sound of the metal lids crashing against the surface of the planet by the Clangers taking refuge in their underground homes from the debris showered down on their atmosphere free rock. The idea of these peaceful pink creatures being forced to live underground gave Postgate the opportunity to explore the consequences of our own explorations into space. The underlying message of the series was ‘we’re making a total hash of our own planet, who’s to say we’re not going to cock up the rest of the universe?’
This was a pretty uncompromising idea to plant in the centre of a series which, on the face of it, was cashing in on the wide eyed awe of the space programme. It begins with a shot of the earth (looking remarkably similar to the blue marble photograph taken several years later) and the words: ‘This is the planet earth, our planet. It is a small planet wrapped in clouds and for us it is a very important place, it is home. But supposing we look away from the Earth and travel in our imaginations across the vast and starry stretches of outer space. Then we can imagine other stars, stranger stars by far than ever shone in our night sky, and planets too.’ This was a complex message to convey to nursery age children. Even harder when you consider that Postgate managed it mainly through the voice of the swannee whistle.
So it was strange to discover the books he and Peter Firmin created to accompany the series and see that the whistles had been translated into English, making their message even more clear. The 1971 Clangers annual features a particularly pointed tracts against the unchecked expansion of our industrialised world, in a story called the Intruder. ‘Of all the stars and planets that shine in the night sky perhaps the most troublesome is the planet we live on, the planet called Earth. The reason is that the people who live on this planet, you and me and the millions of other human beings, are not content to stay happily in one place but keep throwing things into space.’
One of the ‘less pleasant’ objects to find its way from earth to the Clanger moon is an unidentified flying machine that rudely destroys one of Major Clangers’ handmade houses and barges the mice out of its way as it goes about digging up bits of the planet. On its departure the Clangers, upset and awed in equal measure, decide they would like to visit the place that has created this intriguing piece of technology. But before they can set off in their precarious twin rocket powered space ship the Clangers get a sneak preview of the Earth through a telescope left behind by the intruder. ‘What he saw made his ears droop with alarm. The powerful telescope was showing him roads and cars and cranes. In between them the jagged buildings of a modern city stuck up like glass-studded teeth. “No!” said Major Clanger, “I’m not going there!” And they wheeled their rocket back indoors to save it for something useful another day.’
We discover what Major Clanger used the rocket for in another story from the annual and also much later in 1992 in a new Clangers story book called the Hoopicopter.Showing perhaps a glimpse of the sort of thing we can expect from the new TV series this story shows what happens when Tiny Clanger pays a visit to his friend the Iron Chicken on a flying contraption powered by notes from the music tree. Stranded in the bird’s scrap metal nest Major Clanger prepares a rescue mission, blows off decades of dust from his space ship but remains moon bound as the rockets blast into the sky. What else can we expect from the new series? Amazingly this isn’t a modern update, it’s more like a restoration piece undertaken by English Heritage, complete with another National Treasure™, Michael Palin standing in for Oliver Postgate on narration duties (it’s not clear if he also plays the swanee whistle). The Soup Dragon, Iron Chicken, Froglets and best of all the Sky Moos are all back. But it will be interesting to see if any of Oliver Postgate’s political bite remains or whether it will simply be a well made exercise in children’s nostalgia. Seeing Things, a Memoir by Oliver Postgate is published by Cannongate. The Art of Smallfilms by Johnny Trunk is published by Four Corners.