From the archive: April 1993 – Interview with Clangers creator Oliver Postgate

From the archive: April 1993 – Interview with The Clangers creator Oliver Postgate

'All this talk of Iron Chickens, Soup Dragons, cosmic truths and the like does beg the question ‘What are they on?’'

With a new series of the 70s cult classic children's TV programme The Clangers narrated by Michael Palin due to air this coming spring, we look back on Tom Lappin's interview with creator Oliver Postgate in April 1993

'Supposing we look away from the Earth and travel in our imagination across the vast endless stretches of outer space. There we can imagine other stars, stranger stars by far than ever shone in our night sky, and other, stranger people too. People perhaps whose civilisation, skill and efficiency may be far in advance of our … '

Cue Tiny Clanger, struggling with a dustbin lid before she emerges hooting and whistling onto the surface of that small blue planet in space. Oliver Postgate's portentous, awesome introductions to each Clanger adventure somehow managed to transcend the fact that this was a low-budget children's programme with woolly puppets and painted cardboard backgrounds and turned The Clangers into something distinctly weird and wonderful. A couple of decades on, the mere mention of the words 'Soup Dragon' can cause any culturally-attuned twentysomething gathering to break into relentless hooting and Iron Chicken impersonations.

For Clangers, friendly little hooting creatures of admirably generous and wise temperament, are back in the forefront of popular consciousness, getting close to a million viewers on Channel 4 and selling 30 000 copies on BBC video. It's a superior example of the collective retro-mania that has shot Born Again up the pop charts, relaunched Boney M's career, pulled flares out of their mothballed closests and revived Aztec bars (maybe). It's the result of a peculiarly ironic British slant on the US slacker or blank generation phenomenon, whereby our mixed-up young adults flee from 90s techno confusion and return to the safe and simple joys of their childhood.

If this lost generation has to have a guru, who better than Oliver Postgate? The man's credentials speak from themselves: Ivor The Engine, Pogles Wood, Noggin The Nog, Bagpuss and, his masterpiece, The Clangers. He's retired at 67, living in Kent writing the illustrated Clangers books, but Postgate's measured tones still have that mellifluous blend of reverence and amusement. He's delighted if slightly bemused by the resurgence of interest in the cuddly little aliens he created in 1969 with partner Peter Firmin.

'We liked them when they first came out,' he says, 'and realised that they had stuck in the folk memory better than other things we did.' He's not kidding. Publishers Little, Brown claim the Clangers are 'back to delight a new generation!' but the truth is that they are delighting in the self-same generation which enjoyed them as children and can now appreciate their subtleties as adults. 'They don't date exactly,' says Postgate, 'and I think that is something which people recognise from childhood memory as something they much enjoyed and it's not violent and has a certain amount of originality of thought in it.

'Somebody once said that the moral values, which I don't interest myself in at all really, are more civilised that a lot of what's on now, so the Clangers actually entertain the extraordinary things that arrive on their planet with unfailing courtesy and consideration, and deal with them civilly.'

Especially Tiny Clanger. Clanger society is an engagingly female-orientated set-up, with our Tiny at the centre of every adventure, taking the initiative and befriending visitors, while the nurturing matriarch Soup Dragon dishes out soup and good advice in equal measure. 'We can't really claim it as a feminist programme simpy because feminism hadn't entered into our heads at the time,' says Postgate. 'My collegue Peter Firmin has lots of daughters and he is well aware of the influence they have in the arrangements in families. Tiny Clanger is a fairly obstinate young woman but it's not that she's the instigator, in fact she's the mediator, she's the one who champions the underdog, or under-Iron Chicken actually. When the Iron Chicken comes and causes mayhem she takes her side.'

All this talk of Iron Chickens, Soup Dragons, cosmic truths and the like does beg the question 'What are they on?' After all, it was 1969, everybody was into mind-altering substances and 'experimentation'. 'Not in the slightest,' says Postgate to tentative suggestions of psychedelic influences. 'We were completely unaware of the 60s by way of influence. In fact we were almost entirely uninfluenced by anything current. Both Peter and I relied on our own backgrounds and our own knowledge and our own feelings. We did things because we enjoyed them. And if there happened to be a trend about, by the time it caught up with us it was long past. I think we noticed the 60s sometime in the mid 70s.'

Nor does Postgate believe there was anything weird about The Clangers. 'Certainly not in any Gormenghast way. It is incongruous perhaps, but we tried to treat things as prosaically as possible. Something might be unlikely in itself but within its parameters it behaves normally. The Iron Chicken behaves as an iron chicken would.'

Er, right. In fact, once you get past the initial precepts, The Clangers does have a sort of internal logic. The Clangers have a rich language, a collection of hoots and squeaks, all perfectly inflected, created by recording whistles which follow the rhythm of English speech.

'I originally suggested that there shouldn't be any voice-over,' says Postgate. 'All the way through it you hear me crackling away and people said, "Why do you keep talking, we can understand what the Clangers are saying without your help." When I brought the films to Germany a few years ago for a festival I took it without the English voice-over. I said, "This is a wildlife programme and showed it without the narration and asked them afterwards, "Could you understand what they were saying?" They said, "Yes, they were speaking perfect German."

Postgate maintains a discreet silence on the subject of current children's programmes, most of which appear to be soley intended as marketing devices for expensive merchandise. 'I suspect that our programmes have something they don't,' he says, 'which may be that it wasn't done by a committee, we didn't work to any sort of formula and we did things which we actually enjoyed ourselves. We were not constrained by commerce. We always hoped we would have something that would be a huge world success like these ruddy turtles, but to do that you have to aim for the lowest common denominator. In fact we rather rejected the idea of becoming gross, simply because it would mean not being able to do the things we wanted to do. The chap who sold our films in America was a tycoon and he said, "Oh you can stop making these crappy little films and make a big family entertainment film and I'll make you rich." I said, " You'll give me ulcers, get stuffed." As a matter of fact he came back seven or eight years ago and said, "You were dead right about the ulcers." He's got a huge Disneyish empire and it hasn't done him any good."'

He may not be a millionaire mogul, but with the videos, TV rights and the books The Clangers look like ensuring a healthy retirement fund for Postgate, and that's before the Bagpuss phenomenon takes off in earnest. The video rights have been signed with Polygram and this time next year everybody but everybody will be squeaking, 'We will mend it, mend it, mend it'. By that time the Clangers will be truly cosmic.

'When the programme first came out in the heyday of space exploration,' Postgate remembers, 'NASA or one of the persons involved said that The Clangers was an attempt to bring a note of realism to the fantasy of the space race, which I thought was rather nice.' A giant step for the woolly puppets indeed.

A bluffer's guide to who's who on the Clangers' planet.

Tiny Clanger
A kind of woollen Jeanette Winterson heroine, sensitive, intuitive and courageous. If a puzzle needs to be solved or a problem faced, Tiny is the gel.

Major Clanger
Benevolent military dictator of the Clanger planet, spends most of the time consoling Mother Clanger and bemoaning the absence of his dinner.

Mother Clanger
Harassed housewife whose domestic chores seem to consist of sending Tiny to the soup wells to fill up the soup buckets. Moans constantly when her household goods are purloined for assorted Clanger schemes.

Small Clanger
Oppressed and gormless Clanger who's given all the menial tasks to perform. Who's sent out in the music-boat to do a spot of space-fishing? Small. Who's sent down into the very depths of the planet to seek out soup for the Froglets? Small again. One day the worm will turn.

Other Clangers
A kind of chorus in early episodes before budget restrictions trimmed the cast. One of them seems to wear a leather jacket and is presumably The Clanger From The Wrong Side Of The Tracks.

Iron Chicken
A temperamental bird with an appetite and a half. Iron's limitations are more than compensated for by her ability to lay eggs from which hatch the music notes. Also, in emergencies she can be contacted via the radio hat and sends flocks of skymoos (don't ask) to the Clangers' aid.

Soup Dragon
The series's most complex and appealing character, Soupie is a female but speaks with an accent reminiscent of a retired colonel. She is the guardian of the soup wells and likes nothing better than a good feed of blue-string pudding.

Baby soup dragon
Soupie's deliquent offspring with a penchant for knocking over freshly-poured soup buckets and running amok through the caves. It's just a phase she's going through.

Taciturn hopping creatures who feel the cold. If Tiny's around she'll usually oblige by making them sweaters out of blue-string pudding.

A rather militaristic, but not unfriendly, bunch of animated trumpets who show up any time a syncopated brass section is called for.