Wound Up And Ready To Play

There are few dilemmas greater than that faced by the young viewer who wants to watch something that they are simultaneously terrified of. And nowhere was this dilemma more profound and troubling than in the case of the BBC's one-time lunchtime staple, Camberwick Green.

Camberwick Green, for those who aren't familiar with it, was a stop-motion animation set in a tranquil and curiously time-averse - with visual cues ranging from Victoriana to Mod - English village, which charted the light-hearted escapades of its many and vocation-varied occupants in bright vivid colours with a brisk folk-meets-UK-psych soundtrack. Along with its later companion pieces, the sprawlingly suburban Trumpton and the efficiently industrial estate-bolstered Chigley (and, lest we forget, the little-remembered Rubovia), this was - as you've probably surmised already - compelling viewing for the average pre-school television watcher. Though with one not inconsiderable drawback.

For reasons that have never been satisfactorarily explained, Camberwick Green opened and closed with a mysterious clown operating a sort of roller blackboard bearing the programme's credits. And this was no ordinary blackboard-operating mysterious clown. Mouthless and silent, he stared directly outwards at the viewer with eyes that seemed to be able to observe you beyond the protective layer of the television screen, remaining utterly motionless until - when you least expected it - he would suddenly jerk the scroll-facilitating handle, sharply turn his head around to survey the newly revealed text at an angle that suggested dispassionate existentialist contempt for the animators and designers, and then just as sharply return his gaze to the viewer. Beneath all of this, a faintly sinister chiming folky melody played out, ending on a jarring discordant jangly strum that arrived seemingly out of nowhere and called to mind Nick Drake falling down the stairs, while his stare continued ever outwards. And even apart from looking - and sounding - terrifying, it was his sheer lack of quantifiable context, purpose and agenda that really placed him in the Premier League of childhood televisual fear-causers, and in a one-on-one smackdown with his contemporary TV 'Clown' (Test Card), our money would be squarely on the Camberwick boy. Small wonder, then, that generations of troubled youngsters would take to waiting outside the front room until they were in receipt of parental assurances that 'the clown' wasn't on.

And yes, that does say 'generations'. Although only thirteen episodes were ever made, Camberwick Green enjoyed an impressive innings on the BBC, first seen in 1966 and last seen twenty whole years later; during that time it would be repeated up to three times a year, sometimes with an additional ambience-attuned first-thing-on-Sunday-morning showing to boot. Needless to say, this provided ample opportunity for being caught off-guard by the credit-scrolling circus escapee. We can, sadly, only guess at what the effect on those viewers catching sight of him for the first time back in 1966 must have been. In fact, we can literally only guess at this, as they would actually have been watching an entirely different episode to the rest of us. No, really.

The first ever Camberwick Green was made in black and white, and it was only after it had been completed and met with a rapturous reception from the BBC 'suits' that producer Gordon Murray was persuaded, what with colour television only being a matter of years away and a longer shelf life therefore a genuine possibility and all that, to add a splash of chrominance to the series. The remaining twelve episodes were duly shot both in black and white and colour, using two side-by-side cameras, but the already completed first had to be entirely remade using new-fangled colour film stock. This did give the production team an opportunity to sharpen the new version up slightly, famously correcting a sequence in which the black and white original had inadvertently stop-motion captured some scenery slowly wilting in time-lapse under the hot studio lights, making the trees appear to loom ominously towards the puppets like some lost scene from Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors, but although the monochrome prints do still exist, they've not been seen from their final late sixties outing to this day, and whatever other changes were made between the two versions of the first episode will have to remain a mystery. Whether the clown was even toned down slightly from his original appearance is something we sadly do not know. Actually, perhaps that's not actually 'sadly'.

Anyway, regardless of the above celluloid conundrum, on this widely-celebrated forty-ninth anniversary of that first ever broadcast, it's worth taking another look at the nearest thing that we do have to that inaugural outing - the colour version of the first episode, Peter The Postman, first pressed into onscreen service in 1967 and doubtless going on to become one of the most-repeated programmes in UK television history. While it's always going to be impossible to exactly replicate that televisual Shock Of The New - if not the easily replicatable Shock Of The Clown - it is worth exploring the context of that first broadcast a little. Appearing just three days into a year that would prove pivotal in socio-pop-cultural terms, from the England World Cup victory to The Beatles releasing Revolver to the controversy-invoking broadcast of Cathy Come Home to a landmark roll-out of electric rail networks (which took place, coincidentally enough, on the same day as the clown and his pals made their first television appearance), Camberwick Green was quietly revolutionary in its own way; stop-motion was still a relatively new and pioneering animation process, to the extent that the Radio Times felt compelled to run a piece explaining how it worked for the benefit of question-plagued parents (which you can read more about here), and not only was it the first entirely new show to find its way into the rotating 'Watch With Mother' midday schedules in a decade, it was also one of the first truly independent productions to appear on the BBC full stop. Not revolutionary to the extent that Farmer Bell became the 'face' of the June 1966 launch of Barclaycard, admittedly, but you can't have everything.

Meanwhile, the 'face' of 3rd January 1966 was most definitely a certain clown, and it's him that we inevitably join at the start of the episode, positioned in front of his gaudily-patterned backdrop and equipped for no readily obvious reason with a lute, a bell, and an impractically oversized drum. With a brief tinkle of glockenspiel and the rapidly-scrolled programme title picked out in Playbill, he's come and gone in seconds and on this evidence it's difficult to comprehend how and why he had such a lastingly chilling effect. But we'll come back to that later. Instead, the 'action' switches straight over to another puzzlingly adorned set, wherein the celebrated Music Box, apparently decorated in the same fashion as the opening credits of The Wrong Box, sits on a table top surrounded by books, a lamp and a magifying glass, presumably located in the study of some seriously eccentric academic. The familiar offscreen tones of Brian Cant chime in with "here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play... and this box can hide a secret inside... can you guess what is in it today?"; presumably this was never quite so much of a guessing game if you'd read the Radio Times billing, or indeed had remembered the running order from the fifteen thousand or so previous repeat runs that you'd sat through, but all the same the Music Box clicks into operation of its own volition, and with a hefty clunk and whirr begins rotating and indeed emitting an angular acoustic guitar mantra courtesy of one Freddie Phillips, though more about him later.

Today's 'secret', in case you hadn't worked out already from the episode title, is Peter Hazel The Postman, setting out his stall somewhat definitively by rotating into vision with a mailbag and open pillarbox to hand. After some cheery salutations and an unexpected helping of dry wit ("What are you going to do now? Close the box? Well that's closed and no mistake!"), Brian Cant asks if we can 'come with' him to the Post Office, and through the miracle of the film splice we find ourselves in a tree-lined Camberwick avenue as Peter strides off to the accompaniment of a jaunty song-and-whistle about the collection'n'delivery nuts and bolts of his profession. Before long he runs into Paddy and Mary Murphy, the children of local baker Mickey Murphy who despite their always impeccable appearance always seemed permanently on the verge of being up to no good. And lo and behold, they're haranguing an unfeasibly large hedgehog, a situation which Peter sensibly deduces is best left alone. But it's at this point that something disconcertingly 'different' about this very first episode becomes apparent; at certain expressive moments, the distinctive mouthless puppets inexplicably acquire mouths. And this isn't the only troubling deviation from the norm.

Peter's next port of call is the Post Office, wherein he encounters both Packet the Post Office puppy, who dives onto a pile of parcels in apparent pursuit of 'sausages', and Mrs Dingle The Postmistress, who issues him with a handful of noticeably oversized Large Letter-esque stamped addressed envelopes for delivery, and breaks into her own extemporised solo verse of Peter's song, detailing who the letters are for and how many they will be recieving each. This not only awkwardly specifies that one is for the never-seen "Mr Honeyman who keeps the Chemist's shop" (though we'll be meeting his other half in a minute), but in true sixties Unreleased Early Take From Acetate fashion, the version included on the Welcome To Camberwick Green LP refers to Mickey Murphy as 'Bertie Baker'. The latter had presumably been driven out of business by the popularity of Mickey's peculiarly-coloured doughnuts by the time the series began. Or - hey - maybe he was actually in that black and white version?! Anyway...

Peter does a quick recap of who the letters are intended for, with Packet inexplicably nodding in agreement whenever he gets them correct (and then, erm, jumping on the counter), and it's straight off into a free-form instrumental excursion on Peter's song like something out of an Incredible String Band live concert, whilst he and Mrs Dingle indulge in a little choreographed waltzing to congratulate themselves on a job well done. This sort of off-script ad-libbed frippery was not something that was ever really touched on again in any of the subsequent productions, nor even in the Trumptonshire 'expanded universe'. Then, after waving a brief salutation to Mr. Carraway the fishmonger, Peter's off to deliver a letter to Mickey Murphy's 'Bertie'-trouncing bakery, but after knocking twice with his much-fanfared 'special knock' - which, you cannot help but notice, bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain percussive motif from The Beatles' Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! - and getting no answer, he ventures round the back and, on seeing smoke issuing from the chimney, contrives to determine that the bakery interior must somehow be ablaze. So it's back round to the front to raise the alarm, and after inadvertently performing his 'special knock' on Mickey's nose - honestly, there is much more slapstick in these things than you remember - recieves baker-hatted reassurance that the chimney is simply operating on its normal intended basis. Yes, that was worth including as a plot point.

Then we meet Victorian throwback Dr. Mopp in conversation with village chatterbox Mrs. Honeyman, allowing Peter to dispense with two of his deliveries at the same time, before being regaled with some unfathomable gossip about a cat whilst the stern-looking medical man beats a hasty and well-advised retreat. Then it's off to Colley's Mill to meet Chaucerian throwback Windy Miller, whose windmill is in full operational motion with its memory-burningly springy mechanical sound effect, which provides an ideal moment to pause for a second to talk about musician Freddie Phillips. A classical guitarist by profession, he had also enjoyed a lucrative sideline in soundtrack work for several years by the time Gordon Murray approached him, having contributed to projects as diverse as the highly contentious 1960 horror film Peeping Tom (in which he is actually briefly visible) to a series of 'Network Openings' that played over the BBC logo at the start of the day's programming throughout the sixties, and which with their combination of rolling folky guitar and proto-drum machine percussion loops sound to modern ears like the weirdest thing imaginable. Though it's safe to say that this was far from his intention, his short but charming character songs chimed perfectly if accidentally with the emerging psychedelic musical mood of the time, and if the likes of Donovan, Syd Barrett and Decca-era David Bowie weren't looking in and getting ideas then John Lennon Hats will be eaten all round. An early advocate of tape manipulation and multi-track recording, Phillips was also fairly adept when it came to wrestling appropriate sound effects out of convential instruments, and the windmill mechanism was apparently derived from a recording of one of those percussive scraper things (apparently more properly known as a 'kret') played back at varying speeds. Sadly, the ingenious needs-must efforts of early studio trickery pioneers like Freddie Phillips go largely uncelebrated these days, and while it would perhaps be a touch extreme to elevate him to the same level as the similarly underappreciated George Martin or oe Meek, or indeed the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, there is much more sonic invention at work in these deceptively simple shows than many might have thought.

Not all of his efforts in this field quite hit the mark, though, and with a sound effect more worthy of Dick Emery, Peter's mailbag gets caught on the reactivated sails and is hoisted skywards, requiring intervention from the oddly-hatted miller who saves the day by, erm, turning the sails off again. A turn of events that the two seem to find disproportionately amusing. Then it's finally time for that fourteen note bugle call that drilled itself into your mind every time you sat an exam, as we're off to Pippin Fort, Peter's final port of call, to hand over a whopping nine letters to Captain Snort and the 'Soldier Boys'. After a bit of square-bashing interrupted by Peter's arrival and a mad dash for the proferred post (accompanied by a very jarringly out-of-place spot of wa-wa-wa-waaaaaaaaa toy trumpet lamenting as the Captain sighs at his charges' lack of concentration), his day's work is done, and it's back to that very first pillarbox and indeed back into the Music Box, where surprisingly the table adornments have not been joined by a tumbler of whiskey left by the academic who can't get anyone to believe him that he's seen 'puppet people' moving about when they think he's not looking. Then it's back to the clown and his scrolling credits (including some names that, you can't help but notice, have had to be literally crammed on due to their un-bargained-for length), accompanied by a piece of music that bears such a strong similarity to Happy Time by Tim Buckley that you can't help but suspect that the yodelling jazz-folk troubador caught sight of an episode of Camberwick Green while on one of his many UK jaunts and thought "I should just copy that, only with less clown". And, well, it wouldn't be hard to get less clown than this, as we're treated - if that's the right word - to a full minute's worth of credit-staring and even a small but interminable couple of seconds of silence after that troublesome chord fades out, which doesn't exactly help in the trauma-avoidance stakes.

What's unusual about watching this very first visit to Trumptonshire again now is how different it is to everything that you would normally have associated with it. Even aside from the stylistic deviations noted above, there's a lot less reliance on familiar visual and musical motifs; while Peter's song seems to more or less continue throughout the whole episode you'll search in vain for the likes of Captain Snort's song, Riding Along In An Army Truck or indeed Riding Along In A Baker's Van, while the likes of Mr. Dagenham, Mr. Crockett and even PC McGarry are nowhere to be seen (though a special mention here for the episode where Windy Miller essentially says "fuck off, copper" to the busybodying boy in blue, which is worth digging out whenever some prat columnist vomits up a load of space-filling nonsense about how "we should all just get along like the people of Camberwick Green"). There's also not much of a storyline; Peter basically just wanders around meeting people and... that's it. Admittedly this was something that was much more prominent when it came to Trumpton and Chigley (and can we mention Rubovia again here? No? Oh please yourselves), but even the later episodes of Camberwick Green seemed to at least have some sort of dramatic endpoint of sorts in mind. Yet it still looks and sounds amazing, all the more impressive when you consider that it was made for next to no money in an ad-hoc animation studio using a fairly pioneering technique, and Brian Cant and Freddie Phillips' contributions both help to give it a sense of character that was sorely lacking in so many other now-ignored is-this-thing-on? efforts of the time.

And as this piece rotates back into its own Music Box, is it possible to get any sense at all of how this would have come across back in 1966? Well, as was the way in those prehistoric broadcasting times, there was very little else on television full stop that day, especially for younger viewers. BBC1 also offered the first part of b>Jackanory's retelling of The Snow Queen, followed by a somewhat mixed selection for slightly older younger viewers in the form of Blue Peter and something with The Spinners singing on a boat or something (yeah, they'll have loved that), followed by a repeat of 'Florence Gets A Surprise', an early episode of The Magic Roundabout from when they still all had a running storyline and individual titles. BBC2 could only offer Play School, nominally on 'Useful Box Day' though apparently concerning itself more with a storytelling visitor offering 'African Animal Stories'. Meanwhile ITV barely even bothered, casually flinging out meh-worthy 'younger viewer' effort Romper Room before going on to wave two fingers at all concerned with a not especially exciting sounding magazine show called Action, and ropey neither-here-nor-there import The Magic Boomerang. As a result, Camberwick Green must have stood out in that day's televisual output as something that a good deal of effort had gone into and that had turned out to be of very high and lasting quality indeed. Though that said, there was a Thirty Minute Theatre on later with Bob Monkhouse as a DJ with a turbulent private life. And some variety thing that felt the need to push Peter Falk as the Emmy-winning star of 'The Price Of Tomatoes'. And it's best that we stop before speculating on what precisely Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd were doing to that dog in the photo higher up the Radio Times page.

So, that's Camberwick Green, and if you've been standing outside waiting for confirmation that it was safe to watch... well, you've missed everything really. And as we don't really have a jangling dischordant strum to end on, have this instead.

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find lots more like it in The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, including an otherwise unseen piece on Chigley. It's available in paperback here, from the Kindle Store here, or as a full-colour eBook here.