Smallfilms are a peculiarly British animation studio: industrious, creative and successful but always too tiny and quaint to ever be called a powerhouse.
Initially a two-man operation working out of an old barn – with Peter Firmin making models or providing traditional artwork alongside Oliver Postgate animating these elements and (in a voice that was to become imprinted on generations of British children) providing narration – they were able to produce animated films at a rate far in excess of larger, more traditional animation studios.
Commissioned to provide a new series for the BBC in 1969, Smallfilms was inspired by the space race, as well as a one-off character from a book based on their own Noggin the Nog series and created the Clangers; a family of somewhat mouse-like creatures whose voices sound like slide whistles run through a reverb effect. They live in space on an odd The Little Prince meets The Wombles style planetoid, with a chicken made of Meccano, and are friends with a dragon who likes soup. All told, The Clangers was slightly bonkers, even by Smallfilms’ often unusual standards.
CBeebies’ revived Clangers series is, so far, very charming. It’s difficult to think of a more appropriate voice to replace the late Postgate’s than Michael Palin, who is affable and authoritative without being authoritarian. It’s a very sympathetic update; it may be HD and widescreen now but beyond that it hasn’t attempted to reinvent or modernise itself to any noticeable degree.
A 2006 revision of Willo the Wisp charmlessly reimagined antagonistic television Evil Edna as a flat screen TV (and early designs had attempted to “update” her with a set-top-box, which would only have served to date her even more), so it’s a relief to see none of that here.
Best of all, while the very notion of The Clangers will prove nostalgic to some older viewers, it resolutely – and rightly – pitches itself solely as a series for young children.
No winks to the adult audience, no “two-tier” jokes. Just a lovely kids’ show that fires up the imagination and is gently encouraging. The opening episode, about some lost musical notes, demonstrates the virtue of perseverance, for instance.
It remains to be seen whether this new run of 52 eleven-minute episodes can ever channel the same kind of anarchic bizarreness that Firmin and Postgate could fling out at will when firing on all cylinders, but it certainly bears watching to find out.
Aired on Monday 15 June 2015 on CBeebies.
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