Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sod it! (The secret swearing life of Clangers)

One of the more interesting conversations I've had this week was on the subject of swearing. It took place live on air with Radio City in Liverpool. The show's presenter, Pete Price, was all in favour of swearing whereas a representative from local paper the Liverpool Echo was completely against it. Marie Claire from Plain English Campaign made the valid point that swear words are as much a part of the language as any other words and therefore should be used appropriately at the right time and place and in consideration of the audience. And you all know my views - I like swearing and would cheer the day that silly and arbitrary taboos about so-called curse words finally disappear. But did you know that aliens have been swearing at us through our television sets for 40 years? Oh yes. I'm talking Clangers here.

Imagine the scene. It’s 1969 and you’re a commissioning editor for the BBC; one of those people who buys new shows. You’re just enjoying a cup of tea when there’s a knock at the door and two friendly-looking gents walk in.

‘We have an idea for a new children’s show,’ they say. And given that these men are Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the men behind such huge successes as
Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and Pogle’s Wood, you decide to hear them out.

‘Well, it’s set in space’, they explain. ‘After all, space is very sexy at the moment what with the moon landings and stuff. So here’s the idea … our programme centres on an extended family of small pink knitted aliens who live inside craters on a small moon. They eat blue string pudding and soup, which they get from the Soup Dragon who controls the soup wells. There’s an Iron Chicken who pops in occasionally, some orangey frog things who live in a top hat or a soup lake that’s vertical and set into a wall. Oh, and a cloud that has musical raindrops. The aliens are called Clangers due to the noise they make when opening the metal dustbin lids they use to cover the entrances to their craters. They have a language that sounds like it’s being played on a sliding Swanee whistle. Oh, and they have a spaceship powered by musical notes that they pick off a music tree.’

You look at these two earnest middle-aged men and wondered just how much acid they’ve dropped the night before.

It obviously didn’t happen that way as Clangers was commissioned and was an immediate hit, spawning two series (set over 26 episodes between 1968-1972) and a four minute special called Vote for Froglet! that was filmed for the 1974 Election Special TV show. The pink beasties even made a guest appearance on Doctor Who when Roger Delgado’s imprisoned Master sees them on television and assumes he’s watching a wildlife documentary set in space (Watch the clip here).

Clangers has its origins in one of Postgate’s and Firmin’s earlier hits – The Saga of Noggin the Nog in which we followed the adventures of a mythical Norse tribe led by said Noggin. In one of the many books written to accompany the series, we were introduced to the Moon Mouse, a small pink creature in a spotted duffel coat whose spaceship crash lands in the capital city of the Northlands, destroying the newly-installed horses’ drinking trough. The Nogs helped the creature refuel the ship with vinegar, oil and soap flakes and sent it on its way. It was this creature that became the first proto-Clanger in the minds of its creators.

Quite why Clangers developed into the pseudo-drug trip it did is entirely down to Postgate and Firmin’s imagination but it did catch the public’s imagination and some 40 years on, the show is still being repeated on children’s TV channels like C-Beebies and Nick Jnr. And all this despite the bad language. Yes, I can reveal that the Clangers swore, and have been swearing, on children’s TV for four decades. In various interviews, Postgate has explained that:

‘Their scripts had to be written out in English, for Steven Sylvester and I to use Swanee whistles; we just sort of blew the whistles in Clanger language for the text that was there, so it didn’t matter much what was written. But when the BBC got the script, [they] rang me up and said, “At the beginning of episode three, where the doors get stuck, Major Clanger says ‘Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again!’. Well, darling, you can’t say that on Children’s television, you know, I mean you just can’t.” I said, “It’s not going to be said, it’s going to be whistled” but [they] just said, “but people will know!” I said no, that if they had nice minds, they’d think, ‘Oh dear, the silly thing’s not working properly’. So the BBC said, "Oh, all right then, I suppose so, but please keep the language moderate."

‘If you watch the episode, the one where the rocket goes up and shoots down the Iron Chicken, Major Clanger kicks the door to make it work and his first words are “Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again!” Years later, when the merchandising took off, the Golden Bear company wanted a Clanger and a Clanger phrase for it to make when you squeezed it. They got “Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again!”’

Apparently, the Clangers’ language is a translation for human ears as they normally communicate by way of ‘nuclear magnetic resonance’ as there’s no air in the vacuum of space to carry sound.

Nuclear magnetic resonance potty mouths in space. So now you know.

Read the rest of Clive Banks’ interview with Oliver Postgate on his extraordinarily completist Cult TV site here. Or visit John S Fletcher’s excellent Clangers fansite here. Oliver Postgate's biography Seeing Things is an excellent read and can be ordered from Amazon here. And yes, I am a huge fan of the show and I’ve mentioned the Clangers in previous blog posts here, here and here.


chris hale said...

We have one of those sweary Clangers here somewhere!

You are, of course, absolutely right about the lack of sound in the vacuum of space (why do so many film-makers get this wrong?) but there is apparently no lack of smell. According to an article in The Times earlier this week, space smells of fried steak, hot metal and a motorbike being welded. Pretty specific, eh? Almost as good as Jeremy Clarkson's description of eating a seal flipper, which tasted 'exactly like licking a hot Turkish urinal.'

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - So ... while we're sending radio and TV signals out into space, the aliens are busy at a biker barbecue? No wonder the buggers aren't answering us.

Lisa said...

I wonder who the poor sod was that had to go and sniff space!!

I always suspected those Clangers had mouths like sewers. If you have the joy of Nick Jnr on cable or Sky you can catch up with them of an evening.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Lisa - I have and I do. Plus I do have the DVDs. So, so sad ...

Lisa said...

Yes, it's rather a guilty pleasure. Do you also check out Chigley, Trumpton and Camberwick Green?


Stevyn Colgan said...

Lisa - Oh Hell yes. You may enjoy this earlier post.

Winifred said...

What no mention of Bagpuss?

Recently voted the best kids character ever (by adults).

Lisa said...

Okay, just remind me not to read such posts whilst drinking milk...expelling milk through nostrils is not a good look!

I watched an episode the other day where the fire brigade were called to get a pot of paint down from the ledge outside the Trumpton clock. I think the mayor should be fined for misuse of emergency calls.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Winifred - Welcome! Of course we all love Bagpuss. Did you know that he should have been a marmalade tabby but the dye went wrong?

Lisa - I do enjoy deconstructing these old shows. I pulled Thunderbirds apart recently (here)(here). I have others planned ...

Debby said...

I've had days that I've been so provoked that really, a space vacuum would have been a blessing. Sometimes my cup runneth over with objectionable words. Once I was very tired and attended a meeting. I managed to say 'hell' and warranted quite a lecture from the Sunday school superintendant. *sigh* I apologized quite nicely, but before the meeting was over, I had managed to blurt, in response to a comment about a movie someone had seen "Oh, gees, I laughed my ass off." Really, a space vacuum might have saved me that day.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - Many of the words we consider rude or obscene today are only that way because someone a hundred years ago didn't like them. Most of the words we now consider taboo were once used in everyday speech (the dreaded 'C' word even had a London street named after it). Meanwhile, other words have lost their potency and it now seems daft to us that they were ever considered bad. Queen Victoria, for exampe, considered 'belly' an obscene word. It's all rather silly and the sooner we embrace this words and demystify their power, the better for all of us. No swearing = no insults = no hurt. Or, if we have to have bad words, let's use the right ones. Torture. Abuse. War. Kill. Maim. Stab. They're bad words. Not a four letter word that describes two people enjoying a moment of pleasure.

Oh, and a vacuum is always helpful with dust bunnies.