The Fear Of A Clown

Camberwick Green (BBC1, 1966).

Now if there’s a smile on my face, it’s only there trying to fool the public. But when it came down to fooling anyone who sat me in front of a television as a very small child, however, that was quite a different subject.

Like many erstwhile ‘younger viewers’ of a similar vintage, the first television programmes I can remember being hugely excited by – and probably even remember full stop – are the ones that went out at lunchtimes in the BBC’s already slightly outmodedly named ‘Watch With Mother’ slot. Fingerbobs, Mr. Benn, Mary, Mungo And Midge, Barnaby and Bagpuss were all early obsessions that remain obsessions to this day, though my absolute favourite, over and above all of the above, was Camberwick Green. Made by former BBC producer Gordon Murray in 1965 – there are some who will argue it was the first truly independent production to be shown by the BBC – and first broadcast in 1966, Camberwick Green depicted life in a quaint and timeless English village populated by distinctive mouthless stop-motion puppets with extremely clearly delineated professions, with exuberant narration by Brian Cant and strident, folky, almost proto-psychedelic in places music from Freddie Phillips. It was an immediate and deserved success, and would continue to be repeated an average of three times a year right up to the mid-eighties. Although I’m almost equally fond of the in-universe follow-on series Trumpton and Chigley, it was and is Camberwick Green that really caught my imagination and I can still give on-demand renditions of the word-heavy character songs that introduced Windy Miller, Mrs. Honeyman, Mr Dagenham The Salesman and the whole lot of them to the perpetual astonishment of friends of friends. Needless to say, I watched a lot of it as a very young ‘younger viewer’. There was only one problem with this; I was absolutely terrified – and no, that isn’t too strong a word – of the opening and closing titles of Camberwick Green.

Who he was, and what relation if any he had to the actual village inhabitants, has never been established, but for reasons best known to Gordon Murray, each episode of Camberwick Green opened and closed with a clown turning round a roller caption blackboard bearing the show’s title and production credits. In front of some very oddly patterned wallpaper, and adjacent to an assortment of scattered out-of-scale musical instruments including a lute, a drum and an alarmingly oversized bell, The Clown would remain motionless staring directly forward for what felt like an eternity, before suddenly lurching backwards with his whole body, yanking round the handle, turning his head sharply to glare at the names of the animators and designers, and returning his gaze directly to the viewer. A tinkly glockenspiel melody chimed over the opening titles, while the longer end credits were accompanied by ringing folky melody, culminating in a weirdly ominous arpeggiated run that ended suddenly on a abrupt jangly discordant strum as The Clown stared ever forwards, slowly fading out into nothingness. In fact, there was literal nothingness beyond it, as this was a time when there was still no television in the afternoon on the BBC at least. A disappearing yet lingering stare for which the noisy box in the corner of the room offered no context or explanation, and then threw you back out into reality to decode it on your own terms. It felt as though television was seeing into your soul and beyond, and at least one viewer desperately wanted to not particularly politely ask it not to. Yet there was still no way I wasn’t watching Camberwick Green.

Camberwick Green (BBC1, 1966).

In order to navigate this logistical headache, my family implemented a system whereby I would be allowed to wait nervously outside the front room until someone had checked that ‘The Clown’ had been and gone; sibling mischief, grandparents with an unerring ability to fall asleep in front of the television at precisely the wrong moment, and parents who eventually found themselves way past caring which of the three did or didn’t have Harry and Winnie Farthing in made this a tenuous solution at best. It also didn’t work at all if you weren’t at home, and I have fragmentary memories of panicking in a neighbour’s house when Camberwick Green came on (in black and white too which made it even more unnerving) and a girl in a Donald Duck t-shirt patiently explaining to me that we weren’t in the same room as the television and it couldn’t come through walls (even though the music certainly bloody did), and legends are told of an incident, not long after starting school, when I had suddenly gone white and backed into a corner for no readily apparent reason when the television was switched on as a ‘treat’, occasioning exasperated parental explanations to a very confused teacher at the school gate. Even so, I still wouldn’t miss a second of Peter Hazel The Postman’s round. This is why I enjoy a dismissive laugh to myself whenever I see anyone recalling how they couldn’t get past the opening titles of a television show. You had to develop a strategy, even if it was one that never really quite worked.

So why was I so truly and staggeringly petrified of this hapless puppet who was really only doing his admittedly slightly peculiar job? There has been a suggestion that we were watching Camberwick Green when the family first began to feel the effects of a particularly severe bout of food poisoning that took place way back beyond the realistic limits of my memory, and that it all seemed to start from there. There was, however, also a degree of evidence to point towards it being a wider dislike of clowns in all of their many and varied – although not that varied as far as I’m concerned – forms. My grandparents owned a sketchy blue watercolour of a boy dressed as a clown that I was not incredibly keen on, occasionally requiring elder siblings to ‘bravely’ turn it around. I was extremely confused when given a personalised t-shirt outlining what ostensibly happened on ‘my’ birthday, which somehow involved a clown doing tricks at playgroup. At the very fringes of my memory, I can hazily recall my mother trying to reassure me that “it isn’t real clowns – it’s Legs & Co. dressed up” as Top Of The Pops‘ resident dance troupe hoofed it up while dressed as pierrots in a bizarre interpretation of The Bee Gees’ Tragedy. I was also, significantly, not the world’s greatest admirer of another clown regularly seen on the BBC – the one locked in an eternal motionless battle of noughts and crosses with a girl in the centre of Test Card F, though I will happily concede that the clown was merely the muscle of that operation, whereas she looked distinctly as though she knew something you didn’t. As with most irrational childhood fears, though, this eventually faded. After all, it’s hard to continue feeling quite so unnerved by it when you’ve realised he’s actually turning the handle the wrong way.

Except it never quite went away. Well, not entirely. At University, I briefly dated a drama student who I was disconcerted to discover was genuinely studying how to be a clown. Admittedly one of those modern types that turned up on regional ITV arts programmes alongside those blokes that used to run around with Thunderbird Five on their heads or whatever it was and annoyed Alan Partridge by not having a car that fell apart, but a clown is a clown and I was already feeling deeply apprehensive about this when I found out one day that she’d bought a blackboard from a junk shop in the local ‘alternative’ shopping arcade. Was she going to force me to play noughts and crosses with her? Or worse still, would I wake up to find her turning round a handle and staring at Brian Cant’s name? Fortunately it fizzled out before any of that was put to the test, and I later saw her doing alt rock-skewed conjuring tricks on Channel 5, suggesting that she hadn’t in fact gone over to the dark side after all, but it did make it clear just how difficult the residual traces of unease at irrational childhood fears are to truly and totally shift.

Camberwick Green (BBC1, 1966).

Little did I know, however, that long before any of that happened, the Camberwick Green Clown had literally gone up in smoke; flung onto a bonfire by Gordon Murray when he decided that the increasingly tatty puppets and sets were just taking up too much space in his house for no good reason. I had no idea about this at the time, but with no small irony, his fate echoed something else that would cause me similarly sleepless nights only a couple of years after I’d got over my clown aversion; the protracted echoing shrieks and sobs as Gollum, in the Radio 4 adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, loses his footing while gloating over his victory in securing his ‘precious’ and tumbles into the Crack of Doom. By that time, though – women at University who probably actually did own an assortment of percussion instruments and possibly even a lute now that I think about it aside – we had made our peace. In fact, you could even say we put aside our differences to fight a bigger foe.

In the midst of shrieking and sobbing from attention-seeking car alarms who would probably willingly leap into the Crack of Doom live on BBC1 in place of a specially postponed edition of EastEnders and then go on Twitter to complain that the BBC never allowed them to be on television, and indeed glowering at credits from several small armies of dullards determined to find aspects of ‘bias’ against any given political persuasion you can think of in the most banal and innocuous corner of the BBC’s output, the small but significant achievements of the BBC are what really matters and in my not exactly unqualified opinion Camberwick Green remains one of the greatest of these. It’s a show with a production history that is fascinating by virtue of its sheer mundanity. It sits fascinatingly on the very edge of a handful of years that were going to change the world in a cultural sense forever, still in touch with a quaint lost world of programme making and storytelling but with just as much of a sense of what was to come to steer it into the following decade and beyond; indeed, aware that if he’d made it in black and white it might end up being retired after a couple of showings, Gordon Murray had taken a massive financial gamble and filmed it in colour, something that was practically unheard of at the time. Above all else it’s a charming and oddly timeless series that’s worth several thousand of the news and current affairs shows that get everyone else snarling like Packet the Post Office Puppy alighting upon a parcel full of ‘sausages’, and many is the time I wish that the BBC would just have the nerve to pull one of those shrieking festivals and put on three episodes of Camberwick Green instead. Above all else, like everything from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Just A Minute to The Peter Serafinowicz Show and This Life, it’s a show that could only ever have found a home at BBC, as deeply influenced by its quirks, restraints and eccentricities as it was by any commercial demand, and all of those programmes and all of their modern day equivalents are what we should be shouting about right now instead of shouting at people who can’t hear you. Not a million miles away from a certain youngster shouting at a clown on decade-old film to go away, in fact. Some would probably deride this as a flimsy argument, but it’s a flimsy argument I will hold right up in your face until you realise that I’m not giving up and I’m not going anywhere. And neither, more importantly, is Camberwick Green.

In short, if you want to attack ‘the BBC’ in its entirety on the basis of one perceived slight, then I know someone who would like a word. And, speaking as someone who once hid outside rooms out of a fear of even catching sight of him, I don’t fancy your chances much.

Camberwick Green (BBC1, 1966).

Buy A Book!

You can find a detailed look at Camberwick Green – in particular the first episode about Peter Hazel The Postman – 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.

Further Reading

Wound Up And Ready To Play is a look at the very first episode of Camberwick Green featuring Peter Hazel The Postman, and why it’s not quite the same as what viewers will have seen back in 1966; you can find it here. Never Too Quickly, Never Too Slowly is a feature on the episode of Trumpton where Miss Lovelace’s dogs caused the telephone lines to get mixed up; you can find it here.

The Wind Cries Mickey Murphy is an attempt to explain my theory that Jimi Hendrix was watching Camberwick Green while he was writing The Wind Cries Mary; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can hear more about Rubovia – the forgotten fourth instalment in the Trumptonshire saga – in an edition of Looks Unfamiliar with me as the guest here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.