Aidan Smith: Turning the clock back to childhood nightmares

IT'S NO surprise a sinister version of Trumpton features in a Radiohead video, writes Aidan Smith. Children's TV was always scary

The original Trumpton was created by a man called Gordon Murray, whose family are considering suing Radiohead for tarnishing the brand. Picture: BBC

The action opens with the inhabitants of a little town gathered round their mayor, listening dutifully. His speech over, the mayor gives his chain a shine and the townsfolk go about their business. What a nice place, you think, and what a nice tribute to a children’s television show we all know and love. The visitor approaching by car is going to love it here.

But then you notice that it’s not just the post-boxes which are being painted - crosses are being daubed on doors. The seesaw in the playpark is really a ducking-stool. The joiner you thought was repairing a fence is in fact building a Wicker Man. This isn’t Trumpton as you remember it! And to absolutely confirm this, the visitor is tricked into climbing into the deadly construction which is then set alight as the townsfolk all wave a cheerful goodbye.

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This isn’t supposed to be Trumpton, say the rock band Radiohead, although the town in the video for their new single, Burn the Witch, bears a striking resemblance to it. This is a Trumpton travesty, say the family of the show’s creator, Gordon Murray, who claim the video “tarnishes” the much-loved original and that it breaches copyright. They might sue the band.

Me, I say Trumpton was always scary so what’s the fuss about? All stop-motion animation – the technique used by Murray and the other giants of children’s telly – was terrifying. Those expressionless faces, the unblinking eyes, the slow, sinister gestures. The string-and-sealing wax geniuses didn’t intend their shows to frighten junior audiences but that’s often what they did. And, I’d argue, it was no bad thing.

Look at children’s television now. Squint through sunglasses at it. The garishness, frenzy and urgent matey-ness of it all is just too much. And after you’ve turned off the TV you’re left with a sullen brood with poor attention spans who answer you back in Disney voices that are, well, super-annoying.

What these kids need, I can’t help thinking, is exposure to some of the children’s programmes from the 1960s produced under the banner of Watch with a Social Worker - sorry, I mean Watch with Mother. Back then the world was black-and-white. It didn’t matter whether you were gazing out of the round, square or arched window, the view was equally monochrome. Against such a backdrop, and with production techniques being so rudimentary, the shows caused unexpected nightmares and occasional bed-wetting.

For instance, Pogles Wood was an everyday story of tree-dwelling folk and in a certain light the family might have appeared quite cute. But light rarely shone on the forest, a gloomy place even without a witch for company. The hero of Supercar was the jet-propelled Mike Mercury but because he had monstrous bushy eyebrows it was difficult to believe in him as a force of good. Mercury was a puppet but being able to glimpse the strings, and those of his equally alarming pet monkey, offered no comfort. All marionettes are fundamentally terrifying.

Children’s sci-fi of the Space Race years invariably featured robots and you never quite believed they were under the control of the humans, or that their innate clunkiness would be an impediment to them grabbing you in the night.

The forerunner to Trumpton was Camberwick Green where each episode began with one of the characters - another of those dead-eyed types - emerging from a musical box. But what if the box wouldn’t open? How long would it take the poor fool to properly die? That was always the fear.

My journalistic career peaked in 2000 when within the space of three months I interviewed Oliver Postgate and Gerry Anderson. It’s been downhill ever since. Postgate, of course, dreamed up The Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss, the latter recently voted the best children’s programme of all time. Anderson, only slightly less avuncular when I met him in his garden shed, refined his eyebrow technique for Fireball XL5, Stingray and Thunderbirds.

Both were mildly appalled that I’d been scared by their early work until Postgate remembered an anxious BBC plea for him to make Pogles Wood less traumatic for the tots. Their own childhoods had been far from pain-free. Postgate recalled much unhappiness at the hands of an older brother: “He bullied me, but worse than that, he ignored me.” Anderson, whose parents were always fighting, grew up in a one-bedroom flat with a blanket draped across a corner for the kitchen and a prostitute and an ex-convict for neighbours. You can understand how these two would have wanted to bring only fun to children’s lives, but equally how a smidgen of darkness might have seeped into their work.

I haven’t met Gordon Murray and given that he’s 95 my chances are diminishing. “There’s no crime in Trumptonshire - it’s a happy place,” he once declared. “A lot of people say: ‘You shouldn’t encourage children to think the world’s like that.’ I know there are some who’ll throw their children into the deep end of the swimming baths at an early age and go: ‘Swim, that’s the way to learn. Tough things are coming your way.’ I don’t believe in that. We must protect children for as long as possible. I’m very upset that childhood lasts such a short time.” He’s right of course, but I don’t see what’s wrong with a little bit of macabreness, however unintentional. Once you get over it – maybe by your mid-thirties – you’ll never look back.

I’ve saved the all-time scariest children’s programme to last. Stop me if you remember the dastardly dwarf and the prince he turns into a bear. You definitely won’t want me to mention the giant fish, no matter that it looked a bit rubbery and mechanical, gulping mournfully as its pool emptied of water. The Singing, Ringing Tree was East German eeriness from start to finish and, in a good way, scarred a generation. Obviously smacking children is wrong. But plonk them in front of this and they’ll never misbehave again.