Forty-five years since it was first launched, Clangers is returning in a £5 million series for CBeebies. And such is the affection with which those mice in the moon are remembered that animators, producers and Michael Palin all made one giant leap to get involved.
First-choice narrator Palin was “proud and pleased” to come aboard, and has described the job as “one of the best things I’ve ever been offered”.
Of the original, which ran for just two series and 27 episodes between 1969 and 1974, Palin tells Radio Times, “It was calm and very therapeutic. Clangers was a haven. And I loved the audacity of the swanee whistles and the wacky gentle humour.”
A key component of the show was the warm, avuncular voiceover of Oliver Postgate, who offered wry observations as the Clangers received visitors – and foreign objects – to their cratered home out in space. Sadly Postgate died in 2008, but the series he created with Peter Firmin (including Ivor the Engine, The Saga of Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss) are still remembered fondly by those who grew up with them.
“I loved the tone that Oliver brought to the original,” adds Palin. “He did it in a nice, quizzical way. It was one of the great narrations of its kind.”
So what will Palin’s role be in the new, 52-part series for weekday teatimes? “I act as an observer to the planet, trying to work out what is going on. My favourite phrase is ‘Oh dear.’ And ‘Oh dear’ comes up a lot in the drama of the episode!”
Asked about favourite characters, Palin says he likes Major Clanger, who invents things, not always successfully. “And I’m very fond of the Iron Chicken. She just floats about in space.” The Clangers’ clucking neighbour, originally made from Meccano, has a spiky nest made from pieces of metal. Coming from Sheffield, Palin says he has a certain affinity for scrap. “I even wrote a Ripping Yarn about a scrap metal guy [Mr Foggen played by Bill Fraser in the Golden Gordon episode].”
Speaking of heavenly bodies, Palin has an asteroid named after him (Asteroid 9621 Michaelpalin). In fact, “All the Pythons have an asteroid named after them. If they were named in relation to size, John Cleese would be the biggest, the one who would destroy the world one day.”
Apart from Clangers’ utter charm, the timing of its debut (16 November 1969) may explain why it took hold of the public imagination. Interest in space was at a peak – just four months earlier, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. And just one day before, regular colour broadcasting went live on BBC1, making Clangers one of the first TV series to be shown in colour on the channel.
1969 was a key year for Palin, too. The first of his three children, Tom, was born the year before and, he adds, “I was also bringing up a child for television – with a host of Python wet nurses.” This, of course, was Monty Python’s Flying Circus. “It was an important time in my life: busy but exciting.”
When you hear Palin describe Clangers as “funny and subversive”, it’s no surprise that the Python should want to be involved – and he’s not the only person linking the two shows. The music for Clangers is composed by John De Prez, who worked on The Meaning of Life and the stage musical Spamalot. And for his Clangers voiceover, Palin has been in the studio with Python sound engineer/producer André Jacquemin. So it’s been a home from home.
Speaking of the P word, did Palin enjoy playing to 15,000-strong audiences at last year’s 02 stage shows? “I was nervous beforehand because I didn’t want to let anyone down.” As if the gentlemanly, accommodating Palin could ever let anyone down. In any case, he says, the audiences were word-perfect during the classic sketches. “But I enjoyed it when I got more into it. And the dancers and the songs were really good.”
He confirms they are definitely the last live shows the group will do, “but Python is still going and we do meet up, usually to do something for the website.”
So what next for the notoriously busy comedian, actor and explorer: the man who, after all, travelled Around the World in 80 Days, and from Pole to Pole?
Well, at 72, he shows no signs of slowing down. This year he’s in Italy for a BBC4 documentary about Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, and going on tour to promote the paperback of his diaries. He adds, “Then something comes out of nowhere like Clangers, which is great.”
No temptation to put the feet up then? “I just love doing things,” he admits.
Perhaps he will relax, however, when he’s watching the new Clangers with his five-year-old grandson. Though targeted at pre-schoolers on CBeebies, the aim once more is for a cross-generational audience. “Clangers has something for everybody,” he confirms. “Their world is peaceful and harmonious. Money doesn’t matter on the Clangers’ world. It is very calm.” He hopes the show will encourage young viewers to be inventive, too, just like Major Clanger. “Children can find bits around the house and make things with their parents.
Keeping the Postgate stop-motion technique of animating the Clangers also appeals to Palin, where so many kids’ shows now are computer-generated. “It’s not just about pushing a button. It’s also very funny. You watch it with a smile.”
But can Palin be persuaded to do a quick Clanger impression?
The friendly, ever-obliging Python gives a whistled sentence, which he translates as: “Thank you, it was a nice interview.”