Clangers: an argument for reviving children’s classics

The new CBeebies Clangers series is a rare thing: an advert for the wisdom of remaking old childhood properties…

When it was first reported on this site that Smallfilms’ sixties and seventies stop-motion classic children’s series Clangers was next for the remake treatment, the fears of many were wittily summed up by one commenter:

“Surely in this age of self-aware/horribly loud/jitteringly insane ADHD-driven kids’ programming, those in charge of the £s are unlikely to sign off on the kind of gentle, quiet whimsy in which Oliver Postgate specialised, and which made Clangers so magical? Or they’ll insist on introducing a new teenaged son Clanger who has a flying skateboard or something? And who speaks like a marketing hack’s idea of what a teenaged boy speaks like? Or the Iron Chicken will lay exploding eggs?” – StefMo.

The latest in a long line of in-development children’s TV revivals, from The Wombles to Teletubbies, the Clangers news thus provoked a completely understandable chorus of “Are there no original ideas left?!” frustration.

After annoyance, came pessimism and anxiety. They were going to screw it up. As the above commenter eloquently put it, Oliver Postgate’s “gentle, quiet whimsy” would be replaced by an all-Auto-Tuned, all-twerking, lifeless technicolour CGI travesty. The magic of Clangers would be lost, another childhood treasure trampled over in pure pursuit of low-hanging franchise fruit.

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Supposing we look away from the earth and travel in our imaginations across the vast starry stretches of outer space

If you tuned in to CBeebies’ first episode of the new Clangers (now airing daily at 5.30pm) you’ll know that it’s now time to release that disappointment-expecting held breath and relax. Not only have they not screwed it up, they’ve held the line. Arguably, they’ve even improved it.

The important part of the above sentence isn’t the blasphemous suggestion that a reboot may be an improvement on the original, but the “they” in question. Factory (Strange Hill High, Fifi And The Flower Tots) has animated the new series using a subtle hybrid of stop-motion and CGI, with original co-creator Peter Firmin and the son of his Smallfilms partner Oliver Postgate, Daniel Postgate, executive producing and contributing scripts. That thread of continuity, along with the will of the new creative team to honour the original episodes, has ensured that the new Clangers isn’t a shoddy knock-off, but an enchanting tribute to and continuation of Postgate and Firmin’s original 26 episodes, which ran from 1969 to 1972.

In other words, no, the Iron Chicken doesn’t lay exploding eggs. (And if it did, they’d probably only explode into a symphony of crochets and minims that float down to settle on the branches of the cotton wool trees).

Can we imagine the sort of people that might live on a star like this?

Character design was always going to be the most important element of a Clangers revival, and here, perhaps the team’s wisest move was to change almost nothing at all. Small, Tiny, Mother, Major and the rest of them are the same shape and size as Peter Firmin designed them to be in the late sixties, with the same pink-woollen look and handmade clothing as his wife Joan knitted and sewed for them forty years ago.

The difference with the new models is that their colours are now as bright and saturated as they were always intended to be, and their stop-motion armatures are more sophisticated, smoothing out their jerky movements.

Smoother animation doesn’t mean blander animation, and this little tribe’s expressions are still just as characterful. We still judge their mood by the dip and perk of their plate-shaped ears. We still hear their whistles translated by our narrator. (Making them perfect for an international audience, as this extract from Oliver Postgate’s autobiography, Seeing Things, shows: “I took an episode of The Clangers to the 1984 conference in Germany and showed it to the participants without my voice-over. Afterwards I asked them whether they had been able to understand what the Clangers were saying. ‘But of course,’ said some. ‘They are speaking perfect German.’ ‘But no,’ said another. ‘That is not so. They spoke only Swedish.’”)

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In short, the new Clangers are still exactly the same peace-loving family of soup-eating, oddity-discovering space-mice as they always were.

Let us go very close, let us look and listen very carefully and perhaps we shall see and hear…

Only now, we’re able to see a little more of their world. The lighting is better, for one. The increased budget—£5 million for the 52-episode series—and technological wizardry means more sets (Mother Clanger even has a suitably sixties-style psychedelic garden in which she can get away from the shenanigans of her little pink offspring now) and a less static camera. Close-ups, cuts and mobile shots are now possible when they would previously have presented a logistical challenge in Smallfilms’ disused cow shed makeshift studio. The result means that we can get even closer to these beloved characters than previously, and they can go places we wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to follow them.

That tech wizardry means that the Clangers’ planet is no longer a plaster-of-Paris-covered football, nor are the crater lids (producing the ‘clanging’ sound for which the creatures are named according to Postgate’s autobiography) silver-painted buttons, but the CGI backgrounds haven’t lost the original charm. From the flap of the Sky Moo’s wings to the Soup Dragons’ scales, it feels like Clangers, even if our trip across the universe at the start of each episode is a more colourful ride, and the opening titles are no longer cut out of shiny paper.

What’s important to remember is that while the original Clangers always felt homemade, it wasn’t naff in its day, and neither is it naff now. If Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin were making their series for the first time using today’s tech, this feels like how it would have looked. Firmin made sure of that.

As important as the look are the stories, another area in which Clangers has kept fidelity to its past. Don’t expect to see Tiny tapping away on a smart phone, or Mother nagging Small to put down the PlayStation controller and eat his soup. The original’s sense of gentle untrammelled imagination runs through the new episodes. The characters are still engaged in whimsy, composing melodies, picking up unidentified objects from space, visiting the Soup Dragons and rowing the music boat out to see the Iron Chicken.

It is a small planet, wrapped in clouds, but for us it is a very important place. It is home

Finally, casting Michael Palin as the narrator was the revived series’ last sage move. Palin is perfect for the job; warm, avuncular, as British as rain, and steeped in comforting humour. Importantly, just as John Du Prez’s new music captures the feel of Vernon Elliott’s theme while completely refreshing it, Palin isn’t doing an Oliver Postgate impression, but giving a performance of his own that feels not a jot out of step with the original. (William Shatner is slated to be doing the job for the US broadcast, an actor who brings with him a whole back catalogue of space fiction with which to spark kids’ imaginations.)

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The new series is more properly a Nu Who-style continuation than a reboot. Clangers has been lovingly brushed up and polished like a copper kettle for a new generation of pre-school kids, ensuring that Postgate and Firmin’s work lives on in the real world, without disappearing into the realm of kitsch nostalgia. It’s a bit brighter, a bit smoother, and just as magical.

Clangers continues all week on CBeebies at 5.30pm.

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