I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

DIY Iconic: The Clangers

by Jessie Brown
Feb. 19, 2012

On paper, the notion of The Clangers looks more than a little bizarre. The story of a group of pink-knitted extra-terrestrials that resemble aardvarks living a harmonious existence on a faraway planet doesn’t necessarily sound like something that would become ingrained in a nation’s consciousness. But that’s exactly what happened during the years 1969 to 1974 when The Clangers was broadcast on the BBC, subsequently capturing the hearts of British children nationwide. 

The Clangers was the vision of TV producer Oliver Postgate, who also provides the cosy-sounding narration.   Postgate developed the idea from a series of children’s books called Noggin the Nog, which originally featured a character called Moon Mouse who crashed his spaceship into Earth.  Seeing as space exploration was particularly topical at the time -- the moon landing had occurred just four months previously -- Postgate decided to give The Clangers a science-fiction twist by setting it in outer space on a faraway planet.  There wasn’t a large team behind the production.  The clanger models were in fact knitted by the wife of the programme’s illustrator, Peter Firmin. There was only one other person involved, and that was the composer, Vernon Elliott.  The production was pretty minimal too; the set for The Clangers was built in a barn in the Kent countryside where Postgate lived.  In essence, it doesn’t really get much more DIY than The Clangers, which makes its wide-spread appeal seem even more impressive.

It’s the small, quirky details that make the clangers particularly endearing, from the saucepan lids that cover the caves they live in, to the miniature gold Roman-style armor they inexplicably wear.  Then, of course, there’s those infamous whistling noises they emit.  Elliott and Postgate decided to use Swanee whistles to give the clangers their own unique sound.  Certainly it was effective, a Swanee whistle will probably never be able to be used in any kind of serious musical context again due its inextricable association with The Clangers.  It was an ingenious touch, though, as it made the creatures truly memorable.  Ask any adult who was a child in late 1960s Britain what they think of when they think clanger, and the chances are they will respond with curious whooping noises in an attempt to imitate their language.  In an amusing twist that somehow only adds to their charm further, Oliver Postgate claimed that behind all that innocent hooting, the clangers were in fact swearing like troopers.

Not only were the clangers cute, it seems they were also environmentally way ahead of their time. As is evident in this episode ‘The Intruder’, the clangers live a peaceful existence and look after their little world.   They are baffled when the human-designed machine tries to “eat their planet” and instead try to shake its hand.  They are weary of earth and see it as an “unpleasant looking place” that they wouldn’t really like to visit.  Considering this was in the era of the space race when space exploration was at the top of the world agenda, the clangers' contentment with their existence must have been a refreshing concept in popular culture. 

Watching The Clangers now, the stop-motion animation techniques appear crude and not particularly well executed.  But somehow it’s this DIY nature that actually adds to the appeal of The Clangers.  It’s hard to imagine that these little weirdo creatures would be as endearing if they were re-made with today’s nifty animation technology.

The Clangers only aired for five years in Britain, but it’s probably considered one of the most famous children’s television programmes of all time there.  In these fast-moving technological times, it’s somehow good to know that once-upon-a-time, a man armed with only some pink knitted mice, a whistle and one hell of an oddball idea succeeded in creating one of the most iconic pieces of children’s culture.


'The Clangers, Deep Ecology in 70s Children’s TV’: http://bit.ly/zDuGCb

‘The Clangers’; http://www.freewebs.com/1969clangers/home.htm

Jessie Brown is an east London refugee currently residing in Berlin.  At any given moment she is likely to be planning for, experiencing or writing about music festivals, clubbing, or travelling. She enjoys flea markets and gets overly-enthusiastic about obscure techno records.