Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Deconstructing Windy Miller

There was nothing on TV tonight. Nothing.

I've been so damned busy this last week that I'd promised myself an evening off tonight and I settled down in my fat leather armchair to catch some telly. But there was absolutely nothing on. Or nothing I wanted to see, at least. It was all soaps or game shows or reality shows or fat porn (the Half Ton Man. Yawn.) So I started surfing my way through the torrent of dross, travelling higher and further up the channel numbers than I normally do, venturing into the murky uncharted waters of the shopping channels and kids' TV in a desperate bid to find anything worthy of attention. And it was there that I suddenly found myself staring at a box. A musical box. Wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside ... can you guess what is in it today?

Those of you who are old and British enough will recognise those opening lines from Camberwick Green, an animated TV show from the 1960s. I have fond memories of the show. I was only five years old when it first appeared on the BBC's Watch with Mother slot in 1966. Bless. There were just 13 episodes made and each one centred on the altogether mundane activities of one of the inhabitants of this tiny country village in Trumptonshire. Every episode started with a sinister (well, I think so - just like the Magic Roundabout theme ... Bill Bailey does a whole sketch on that) revolving musical box which eventually disgorged a citizen and whose adventures - and I use the term loosely - we then follow. Among the various luminaries to pop out of the box were PC McGarry (number 452), Mr Carraway the fishmonger, the strangely Victorian Doctor Mopp, modern farmer Jonathan Bell, Mickey Murphy the baker and the excellently named Captain Snort of Pippin Fort whose episode was on tonight. We were treated to the hugely boring tale of good deeds done for the villagers by 'the soldier boys'. One of them was left holding a baby all day. Fancy! That was it - the entire plot.

I think it's truly amazing that this show is till shown on children's TV. It's over 40 years old. But it is oddly timeless. The world may have moved on but Camberwick Green hasn't. Windy Miller still grinds the corn down at Colley's Mill. Mr Crockett is still running his garage (despite the fact that his only customer seems to be salesman Mr Dagenham and his flashy red sports car). Thomas Tripp continues to deliver the milk (no supermarkets here), Roger Varley sweeps the chimneys, Mrs Honeyman endlessly gossips with Mrs Dingle at the post office and Peter Hazel delivers the post. It's like the film Groundhog Day; everyone is trapped eternally in the 1960s, fated to forever live out their dreary anodyne lives in silence. Yes, silence. For the freakish inhabitants of Camberwick Green - or The Village of the Cursed as I've now come to call it - have no mouths and communicate by nods, hand gestures and head waggles while the ominous disembodied voice of Brian Cant provides them with a running commentary of their lives. But the strangeness doesn't end there ...

To begin with, all of the houses are too small for the inhabitants to live in. They are just slightly taller than the people and the upper storeys are unfeasibly small for human occupation. This is most obvious up at Pippin Fort where the 'soldier boys' - all six of them - live with Captain Snort and Sergeant Major Grout. Eight men living in a fort that would struggle to actually fit them all inside at once? They must be four to a bed. Why does a tiny village need such a large garrison of men to guard it? Why are they all identical as if cloned? And why do they all wear 19th century army outfits and pigtailed wigs with bows? I think we should be told.

Then there's Windy Miller. Here is a man who lives alone (warning klaxons), blatantly risks death several times a day by deliberately playing chicken with the rotating wooden sails of his windmill, and never changes his clothes. He habitually wears a stovepipe hat and a long smock. Or is it a dress? Who knows. Oh, and he rides a tricycle. Hmmm.

And once a week, the soldiers from Pippin Fort descend on the village to do odd jobs like cleaning windows, mending cars and child-minding - all in full uniform, mind you - while the men of the village slope off to Mr Carraway's fish shop. Is it a secret opium den? Do they run an illegal poker game? Do they have a wicker man set up in the back garden in which to burn a Chigley sinner? Or have they hired Miss Slappy the dominiatrix? No, of course not. They're just fishing. Every week. Same pond, same people. Possibly the same fish.

There is so much more I could discuss ... like why don't the vehicles make any noise? Why does everyone wear huge black boots? Where are all the women and children? And there are the two spin-off series to consider: Trumpton and Chigley with their overstaffed fire station, mad lord of the manor and his private railway and the biscuit factory dance that takes place every single sodding day. But time is against me.

These three shows were a bizarre slice of archetypal Englishness packaged for the Watch with Mother generation of under fives. It was harmless, eccentric fun with the emphasis on nice people helping their nice neighbours. And they were trailblazers of a kind; it's thanks to these pioneering shows that Postman Pat and Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder and other vocation-based shows came to be made. Curiously, these modern shows are even more strange when you deconstruct them. Take Fireman Sam. In his village of Pontypandy there are two women - apparently single mum Dilys Price (whose kid Norman deserves an ASBO) who runs the village's only shop, and the suspiciously named restauranteur Bella Lasagne. Sam has a nephew and a niece - James and Sarah - though there's scant sign of their parents. But apart from them, every other village resident is male. And a fireman. Even Trevor Evans the bus driver and local Lothario is an auxilliary fireman. The village has no infrastructure whatsoever. No garbage collectors. No police. No schools or library. No street cleaners, plumbers, electricians, accountants. Just two single women and a bunch of single firemen. You just know that smutty swinging goings-on are rife behind closed doors, don't you?

And just who is naughty Norman's dad?

So much for my night off from writing, eh? But the truth had to be told ...

The fantastic figures that accompany this post are made by Robert Harrop. Visit the site and relive your childhood.

17 comments:

willow said...

The "Oddness" of your blog name compelled me to come over for a visit from Blog Princess G's place. Nice writing. I'll be back soon.

Stevyn Colgan said...

And you'll be just as welcome. Thanks for the visit and kind words. x

p.s. I'm not really that odd ...

The Factory said...

Just reading this post gives me a warm nostalgia buzz. The voice of Brian Cant for starters, and then fabled names like Windy Miller, bring back the lost world of being small. Of course you start on these shows and then move onto the hard stuff like 'Ivor the Engine', 'Bagpuss', and the jazzfunk chaos that is 'Bod'. Apparently you can get all this stuff on DVD now, marvellous !

John Soanes said...

Sorry to drag it down to my level, but Victor Lewis-Smith did a TV sketch once on how Windy was the brother of Henry Miller, complete with doctored footage. It was an unnecessary smut-ification of an innocent memory, and consequently it made me laugh a lot. It's very probably lurking on Youtube or somewhere similar...
J

Blog Princess G said...

Oh Camberwick Green!! I loved it. And Trumpton. Was too young to detect the difference. I wasn't in England long but I remember watching Andy Pandy (that was with Bill and Ben and Looby Loo I think) and The Magic Roundabout. But Camberwick Green was my favourite. I hope BBC Canada shows it sometime.

Thanks for the memories Stevyn.

The Factory said...

Actually it's hard to think of 'Trumpton & 'Chigley' as being anything as sophisticated as spinoffs isn't it ? Maybe they just had some plasticine left over and thought 'What the hell ?'.

Stevyn Colgan said...

As a footnote, I'm reliably informed by people with kids a lot younger than mine that Pontypandy's population has now grown to include Tom Thomas the Australian mountain rescue chap, a female firefighter called Penny Morris, Mike Flood the odd-job man and his Jamaican-born wife (known simply as Nurse Flood - because she is one) and their daughter Mandy. Oh, and Dusty the dog.

It's no less weird though is it?

willow said...

Thanks for your nice comment over at my place.

Not familiar with your tv programs, but face the same dilemma here.

Brits like to toss y's into names...like Stevyn and Smythe. Unusual and nice.

I'm out for a few days, but will pop back in soon.

Lavinia Ladyslipper said...

Oh Stevyn, you don't know what you are in for! Now that you have found Willow's wonderful blog, you will soon see what I mean. Willow is part of a terrific blogging community; she is a key component to it, if not THE key component. I love to discover new sites and see that Willow has been here ahead of me, 'paving the way' so to speak.

I bounced over here from Willow Manor and I must say, your blog is a bit of alright!

I am not familiar with these shows that you mention. But I do love Keeping up Appearances and Ab/Fab, so that sort of qualifies me as a Brit TV afficionado (sure I've spelt that wrong).

Also I am old enough to remember Benny Hill---he was hilarious.

Your blog is nice and bright, I like it!

Regards,
Lavinia Ladyslipper

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Lavinia! In that natty cardigan you look nice and bright too. x

Jon M said...

Aaaaah Trumpton (that sounded a bit wrong actually!) I used to love the musical box with all its intricate folding lids! But my favourite was Pogles Wood with Tog and Pippin! sigh. All the Ivor the Engine stuff and Noggin the Nog can be got from The Dragon's Friendly Society and Oliver Postgate still goes strong! Brian Cant was the narrator for Camberwick etc wasn't he? Some joyous memories!

Me said...

I am glad your blog has just exploded!
I am the mum of the child of 9 who watches all of these programs with a great sense of anticipation. I was enthralled by them when I was her age and its a joy we are connected by them as mum and child...

Stevyn Colgan said...

That's a nice thought, Me. My kids enjoyed them too. And my grandchildren are just getting into Bagpuss and The Clangers.

And Jon M - you old sentimentalist you - it's nice to meet someone else who even remembers Pogle's Wood!

This particular blog post has obviously tickled some nostalgia glands and for that, I'm hugely grateful.

Now who remembers Torchy the Battery Boy? Or Mary, Mungo and Midge? Or Sir Prancelot? Or ...

joelmead said...

I used to love Trumpton and Camberwick Green as a kid. Looking at it now I wonder what kind of acid the creators were on? great stuff though…

Stevyn Colgan said...

Cheers Joel (I've been shamelessly plugging your book by the way ... but can't seem to find your cheque ...)

BritGal' Sarah said...

Fantastic post....oh your blog is like a trip down memory lane for me on so many fronts :-)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Srah et al ... expect more of the same in the very near future ...