This look at the episode of Trumpton where the telephone lines get mixed up has a history almost as complicated as the cross-routed calls between Chippy Minton and the Fire Brigade themselves. It was originally written for my collection The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, as that included features on both the first episode of Camberwick Green and the last episode of Chigley, so it made sense to do one on what was theoretically the ‘middle’ one of Trumpton. For reasons I’m not really sure of from this distance, I decided to only include it in the Kindle version of The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, and later put it online for the benefit of those who bought the print version. Whatever I was playing at there, I’m not sure anyone understood it, and I later included this in my subsequent collection Can’t Help Thinking About Me, in an expanded version with much more Trumptonshire trivia and a new introduction including a strange anecdote about Camp America.
All the same, I’m very fond of this piece, which I do feel in some respects captures the freshness and energy (no I am not joking) of Trumpton; it went a bit viral when I first posted it online and was apparently a hot topic of discussion at the Labour Party Conference that year. Maybe if they’d all spent more time talking about certain other of my articles we might not be where we are now; be the Skiboy you want to see in the world and all that. A couple of things probably do need explaining now – the snarky reference to Thom Yorke was in reference to some rather unedifying behaviour from Radiohead in response to a row over the video to Burn The Witch, which I’m not sure I would phrase in quite the same way now but I’ve decided to leave it in intact for the sake of honesty, and the line about Alison Prince’s shirt is in reference to a photograph printed in The Listener in 1967 in which she is proudly sporting a design that would have given the members of Traffic pause for thought. Anyway, here come Sir Rufus And Lady de Trompe…
If you still hadn’t recovered from the weekend’s celebrations on Tuesday 3rd January 1967, then you were in for a sharp wake-up call. At 13.30pm on BBC1, a shaky zoom in on a clock tower, followed by a riotous start-of-working-day burst of puppet activity, filled the nation’s television screens for the first time. Steadily, sensibly, never too quickly but never too slowly, Trumpton was here.
Gordon Murray had been commissioned by the BBC to make a second stop-motion series shortly after work on Camberwick Green had finished, but while it would be set in the same fictional locale and use the same production techniques and indeed narrator and musician, it was obvious from the outset that this would be a very different prospect to the laid-back working days of Farmer Bell and company. Set in a busy, bustling town centre, Trumpton was more colourful (though admittedly this was not obvious on the early black and white transmissions), energetic and – comparatively – noisy, set in an urban environment with a greater emphasis on transport, professions and machinery, and a large cast of characters constantly crossing each other’s paths in communal areas.
In order to achieve the right sort of pace and tone, Murray had co-written the scripts with Alison Prince, whose dangerously modern tales of transport café life in Joe had caused a minor stir amongst the Mothers doing the Watching With earlier in 1966. An entirely new cast of puppet characters was created, a number of short repeated sequences were inserted into each episode, and Freddie Phillips composed a set of decidedly more brisk and strident songs that in many cases would not have sounded out of place amongst David Bowie’s Deram-era material. Ironically for a programme that would later start to look creaky and out of touch as attitudes and audience expectations evolved, back in 1967, Trumpton was probably about as modern as it got.
Telephone, the seventh and ‘middle’ episode of Trumpton, was first seen on BBC1 on 14th February 1967, and would continue to be constantly repeated right up to 9th May 1985. Like pretty much every episode of Trumpton, it revolved around the townsfolk encountering a practical and/or technical conundrum that had to be resolved with the assistance of the local Fire Brigade; quite possibly the reason why its storylines are now recalled more vividly than the looser and more travelogue-like counterparts seen in Camberwick Green and Chigley. On this particular occasion, the practical and/or technical conundrum was all down to a couple of GPO Engineers and some excessively nosey dogs.
Like every episode of Trumpton, Telephone opens with the familiar sight of the programme’s name in white text on a black splodge on a deep blue background, and what appear to be the exact same first three notes as the opening theme from Camberwick Green, presumably incorporated as part of some sort of vague Clown-skewed cross-show continuity that we are probably best not questioning. There’s that celebrated unsteady zoom as Brian Cant weighs in with his familiar introduction to the clock – “steadily, sensibly, never too quickly, never too slowly, telling the time… for Trumpton!” – and the figures of town founders Sir Rufus And Lady de Trompe emerge to strike the hour and announce the start of the working day. This they do to the accompaniment of one of Freddie Phillips’ best compositions Chime And Clock Theme, which, as if to underline his precision-targeted home-made musical genius, features exactly nine chimes to tally with the clockface showing nine am. PC Potter (and not PC McGarry like you thought) takes a look around the town square, which immediately bursts into life as a milk float cruises by and everyone opens up shops, sets up selling pitches and looks out of windows to the jerky, frantically-paced sound of Busy Little Market Town, which fades out just as the Mayor comes out onto the Town Hall balcony to get some fresh air.
Looking down onto the Town Square, The Mayor catches sight of carpenter Chippy Minton and his son Nibs pulling up in their pickup truck, and initiates a shouted conversation about their respective daily itineraries. Chippy and Nibs, it transpires, are here to do something unspecified but presumably wood-related for Mr. Platt the clockmaker, while The Mayor has to head back into his office to look over some paperwork at the behest of his unnveringly David Steel-like Town Clerk Mr. Troop. Top of the pile are a handful of complaints about the streetlamps in the never-glimpsed but oft-referenced George Street, prompting Mr. Troop to place a call to never-glimpsed but oft-referenced borough engineer Mr. Bolt. Unfortunately, neither Mr. Bolt nor the Mayor can hear each other properly due to some loud crackling on the line; Mr. Troop reports that this has been happening all morning, upon which they abandon any pretence of continuing to care about the state of the street lights and telephone instead for a GPO Engineer. Quite how this was any more intelligible than any of the other referenced calls is never exactly explained.
Mr. Wantage and his apprentice Fred promptly show up in their oddly-shaped van, pull up a paving slab, and sing a catchy little number about their line of work, complete with ringing phone sound effects and Rex Harrison-style ‘spoken-sung’ interludes. It has to be said that it does seem rather odd and jarring now to hear so many references to the GPO and ‘Post Office Telephones’, and it might be worth clearing your throat and giving this song an airing the next time that a privatisation-crazy politician starts blethering on about how aspirational a view of life Trumptonshire represents. It might also be worth giving it an airing to Thom Yorke and telling him that this is how you write an actual proper song with a tune and everything, but anyway…
With cables and wires sufficiently exposed and untangled, the two engineers break for lunch, but Mr. Wantage finds to his alarm that his unwrapped sandwich parcel actually contains ‘Granny’s birthday present’. Far too ravenous to wait until they’ve finished the job, he heads off home to fetch his errant lunch and leaves Fred with strict instructions not to touch anything. And bang on cue, expansively over-dressed hatmaker Miss Lovelace arrives with her three yappy Pekingese Spaniels, Mitzi, Daphne and Lulu. The overenergetic canine chums are more often than not the cause of mishaps in and around Trumpton, and sure enough, they mob poor old Fred in a quest to make off with his sandwiches, ending up with Mitzi toppling nose-first into the manhole. Fred quickly pulls her back out, but dislodges some of the wires in the process; fearful of a dressing down from the himself hardly exactly attentive to detail Mr. Wantage, and encouraged by buck-passing flattery from Miss Lovelace, he elects to take matters into his own hands and shove them back in where it looks like they should go. You can probably take a reasonable guess at what happens next.
Over in his print shop, Mr. Munnings is hard at work setting up his ink and typeface – as we are told in seemingly unstoppably intricate detail over an instrumental version of his song – to knock out some branded paper bags for greengrocer Mr. Clamp; who, what with his own song exhorting all and sundry to “come buy, come buy, come buy them from me”, never seems to have missed a promotional trick. Constable Potter sticks his head round the door for no obvious reason while the bags are printing, and then promptly disappears again, which was a tad inconvenient of him as he could easily have helped avert the chain of ridiculousness that followed. As a result of Fred’s copper cabling chicanery, when Mr. Munnings telephones Mr. Clamp to inform him that the bags are ready, he gets through instead to Miss Lovelace, who is none too impressed at having her time wasted with paper bag-related blather.
To add to the mounting nonsense, an impatient Dora Minton telephones Mr. Platt to inform a tardy Chippy and Nibs that their dinner is at risk of burning. Only the message is relayed instead to Captain Flack at the Fire Station, who hears the flame-related terminology and inevitably sounds the alarm. Well, they never did seem to get to tackle an actual blaze, so you can understand them jumping the gun a bit. “There, that should fetch him!”, muses a riled and long-suffering-sounding Dora, blissfully unaware that Captain Flack has already flicked the big massive switch next to what close inspection reveals to be – bewilderingly – a map of Florence. Freddie Phillips’ slowed-down alarm clock standing in for a fire bell sounds, and Trumpton‘s single most famous sequence begins.
As anyone of a certain age will be able to recall with alarming clarity and detail, the impressively heavy-looking Fire Station doors clang open, Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb slide down the pole and line up next to the engine, Captain Flack blows his whistle and conducts a quick inspection and they’re off and away through the streets of Trumpton to the strains of the jaunty Firemen Bold, which you can’t help but notice bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Buffalo Springfield number. On arriving Chez Minton, they are surprised to be greeted by a placid Dora and a distinct lack of smoke. Chippy and Nibs promptly turn up, and calmly theorise that there must have been some kind of mixup with the GPO engineers, before dismissing all of this nonsense and heading indoors in search of their not yet burned dinner, in a tone that suggests an implied impatient “woman!” at the end. “Poor Captain Flack”, muses Brian Cant as the picture momentarily fades to black, “he never has a proper fire to put out”. No, but he gets all manner of other and probably more interesting stuff to do. AND makes Cuthbert fall in a pond.
Back in the Town Square, in a scenario that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been expected to fix a computer in their spare time, Fred is surrounded by a disgruntled mob (well, Mr. Platt, Mr. Munnings, Mr. Clamp and Mr. Troop) demanding that he dispense with the technical jargon and put everything right at once. To make matters worse, The Mayor then strolls up admonishing him for causing the Fire Brigade to be called out on a false alarm, conveniently sidestepping the fact that it wouldn’t have happened if Captain Flack had elected to engage his ears, closely followed by his brain. The hapless Fred’s bacon is saved by the arrival of the suspiciously tardy Mr. Wantage, and the intervention of Miss Lovelace, who confesses that her dogs were in fact responsible. Upon which The Mayor decides to dish out a bollocking to them instead. You would have to wonder how he ended up in high office, if it wasn’t for the example set by certain real life mayors we’re all too familiar with.
Anyway, everything is all sorted out quickly and easily enough and to everyone’s satisfaction. So much so in fact that The Mayor invites Mr. Wantage and Fred to come along to the park and enjoy the Fire Brigade’s daily band concert. Although this involves more or less the same footage as every episode of Trumpton, with the Fire Brigade bashing out their boisterous waltz on brass instruments that sound suspiciously like a double-tracked acoustic guitar, while the locals and a disconcerting influx of Camberwick Green puppets look on, we do get an additional cutaway shot showing Mr. Wantage and Fred arriving to lend an ear. Then it’s back to Chime And Clock Theme, and more of those splodges carrying credits that seemed so mysterious and evocative to younger viewers (of which, it should be said, a significant number for the time are for female contributors), before fading out with not a single terrifying Clown in sight.
Even all this time later, Trumpton still resonates with an infectious energy and vibrancy. It would be more than a little misleading to adopt a default columnist position and indulge in some waffle about how this ‘reflected its Swinging London origins’ – no matter how fond Alison Prince may have been of loud shirts – but in a more realistic sense it was still very much a product of the background excitement of its time. Gordon Murray may not have been hanging out with Billy Nicholls at the Million Volt Rave, but all the same he was at the cutting edge of both television technology and independent film-making, and when combined with a lively contemporary setting and engaging real-world storylines – something that the actual scriptwriter seldom gets sufficient credit for – the overall effect was striking and, unsurprisingly, enduringly popular. Camberwick Green may have done the actual ground-breaking, but Trumpton built on this rather than just offering more of the same, which in a very vague and tenuous way was somewhat in line with what The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were up to with each successive single around then. Though thankfully Freddie Phillips never saw fit to enter into a public row with George Harrison and Brian Jones over who was best at ‘sitars’.
So, that’s Trumpton. And if you’ve been waiting outside for confirmation that it isn’t the one with ‘The Clown’, then you’ve missed everything. You could have checked in Radio Times, you know.
Buy A Book!
You can find an extended version of Never Too Quickly, Never Too Slowly with more background detail on the making of the episode, along with similar features on Camberwick Green and Chigley, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
The Wind Cries Mickey Murphy is a feature looking at how Jimi Hendrix might actually have been inspired to write The Wind Cries Mary by Camberwick Green; you can find it here.
The Welsh Language dubbed version of Trumpton was one of Justin Lewis’ choices on Looks Unfamiliar; you can listen to it here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.