Camberwick Green was made as more or less an independent production for the BBC in a tiny makeshift studio throughout 1965 – reputedly the thirteenth and final episode was completed a matter of hours before the first one went out – and although to some it’s understandably probably little more than a half remembered programme that just happened to be on in the background when they were young and they can’t really remember who was in what out of it, Trumpton and Chigley but they used to like it when he wasn’t hit by the windmill sails or something, for me it’s not just a childhood favourite but a television programme that I find endlessly fascinating in terms of its production and cultural context, and that’s before we’ve even got started on the beautiful design, resonant narration and inventive musical score. Which is something of an irony given how terrified I was of the opening and closing credits as a youngster, but you can read more about that here. Peter The Postman, the first episode of Camberwick Green, originally went out on 3rd January 1966; this has always felt like a special date for me in the same manner that others may feel about the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I originally wrote this to mark the fiftieth anniversary of that very first broadcast. In many ways, Camberwick Green represents many of the BBC’s very best qualities and somehow it seems both fitting and even a little confrontational to be republishing this on the exact same day that the entire history and existence of the BBC is coming under fire from blowhards with agendas over a dishonest action made many years ago in the centre of a situation that was founded on dishonesty on all sides and from all directions. The Clown and I may not have seen eye to eye all those years ago, but I’m certain differences would be put aside in the name of standing up to former tabloid editors who have somehow got away with behaviour that is way beneath contempt by the standards of anyone even halfway decent, and not that I’m saying that certain Members of Parliament should keep a worried eye out for flying oversized bells, but I know which one I’d rather have on my side.
This feature was eventually followed by one on the final episode of Chigley where the residents celebrate Lord Belborough’s birthday – which was first published in my collection The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society – and another on what was effectively the ‘middle’ one out of thirteen episodes of Trumpton – the one where the telephone lines get mixed up thanks to the unwarranted intervention of Miss Lovelace’s dogs – which you can find here. Extended versions of all three were later included in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Reading this back now, I have to say it’s a textbook example of the sort of feature I would approach entirely differently now and more or less rewrite in its entirety. Which is fortunate, because that’s more or less exactly what I did for the version in Can’t Help Thinking About Me. Hint hint.
There are few dilemmas greater than that faced by the ‘younger viewer’ who wants to watch something that they are simultaneously obsessed with and terrified of. Nowhere was this more profoundly – and troublingly – epitomised than in one particular programme that the BBC relentlessly repeated across lunchtimes for the best part of two decades – Camberwick Green.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, Camberwick Green was a stop-motion animation set in a tranquil and curiously time-averse – its visual cues ranging from Victoriana to Mod – English village, which charted the light-hearted escapades of its many and vocationally varied occupants in bright vivid colours with a brisk acoustic guitar-led soundtrack. Along with its later companion pieces, the sprawling suburban Trumpton and efficient industrial estate Chigley (and the little-remembered Rubovia, though you can read more about that here), it was compelling viewing for the younger television watcher. With one not inconsiderable drawback.
For reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, Camberwick Green opened and closed with a mysterious clown operating a 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 handle, turn his head sharply to survey the newly revealed text – at an angle that suggested dispassionate existentialist contempt for the animators and designers to boot – and then just as sharply return his gaze to the viewer. Meanwhile, a faintly sinister chiming folky melody strummed obliviously, ending on a jarring discordant jangly strum that lurched seemingly out of nowhere and troublingly suggested Nick Drake falling down the stairs. All the while, that stare continued ever outwards. Even aside from looking – and sounding – terrifying, it was the clown’s sheer lack of quantifiable context, purpose and agenda that really earned him a place at the top table 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.
Yes, that does say ‘generations’. Although only thirteen episodes were ever made, Camberwick Green enjoyed an impressive run on the BBC, first seen in January 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 ambiently aligned appearance first thing on a Sunday morning as well. Needless to say, this provided ample opportunity for spooked youngsters to be caught off-guard. 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 technically have been watching an entirely different programme to the rest of us. No, really.
The first ever episode of 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, given that colour television was only a matter of years away and a longer shelf life was therefore a genuine possibility, to add a dash 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 instalment had to be entirely remade using 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, but although the monochrome prints do still exist, they’ve not been seen since their final outing in the late sixties, and whatever other changes were made between the two versions of the first episode will have to remain a mystery for now. 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’.
The colour version of that first episode, Peter The Postman, was probably first shown by BBC1 on 9th January 1970. The long-lost black and white original had made its debut on 3rd January 1966, just three days into a year that would prove pivotal in cultural terms, from the England World Cup victory to The Beatles releasing Revolver to the controversy-stoking broadcast of Cathy Come Home to a landmark roll-out of electric rail networks (which took place, coincidentally enough, on the same day as Peter The Postman was first shown), Camberwick Green was quietly revolutionary in its own way. Stop-motion animation 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, 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 drum, and an impractically oversized bell. With a brief tinkle of glockenspiel and the rapidly-scrolled programme title, he’s come and gone in seconds and on this evidence it’s difficult to comprehend how and why he had such a lasting effect. Well, we’ll be coming back to that. In the meantime, the ‘action’ switches straight over to another puzzlingly adorned set, with the Music Box sitting on a table top surrounded by books, a lamp and a magnifying glass, presumably installed the study of some seriously eccentric academic. An offscreen Brian Cant chimes 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?”, which 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. The Music Box clicks into operation of its own volition, and with a hefty clunk and whirr begins rotating to the accompaniment of an angular acoustic guitar mantra courtesy of one Freddie Phillips. Whom we’ll be hearing more about – and indeed more from – shortly.
Today’s ‘secret’, in case you hadn’t worked it out already from the episode title, is Peter Hazel The Postman, setting out his stall by rotating into view with a mailbag and an open pillarbox. After 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 a 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 and 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. On this occasion, they’re haranguing an unfeasibly large hedgehog – a situation which Peter sensibly deduces is best left alone. It’s at this point, though, 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, where 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 stamped addressed envelopes for delivery, upon which she breaks into her own extemporised solo verse of Peter’s song, detailing who the letters are for and how many they will be receiving. 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 album 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 maybe he was actually in that black and white version? Anyway…
Peter runs through a quick recap of who the letters are intended for, with Packet inexplicably nodding in agreement whenever he gets them correct (and then inevitably jumping on the counter), and it’s straight off into a free-form instrumental excursion on Peter’s song whilst he and Mrs Dingle indulge in a little choreographed waltzing to congratulate themselves on a job well done. 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, somehow contrives to determine that the bakery must be ablaze. Peter heads 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 – receives 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 mention 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 contentious 1960 horror film Peeping Tom to a series of ‘Network Openings’ that played over the BBC logo at the start of the day’s television throughout the sixties, and which with their combination of rolling folky guitar and 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 adept at wrestling appropriate sound effects out of conventional 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 George Martin or Joe 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’s hat flying off, 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 stop on his round, 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 proffered post (accompanied by a very jarringly out-of-place spot of wa-wa-wa-waaaaaaaaa toy trumpet-accompanied 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 troubadour caught sight of an episode of Camberwick Green while on one of his UK visits and thought “I should just copy that, only with less clown”. 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 the series. 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 columnist yawns out 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, 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 ‘new’ 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.
As this piece rotates back into its own Music Box, is it possible to get any sense at all of how Peter The Postman 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 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 was evidently of very high and lasting quality indeed. Though that said, there was also 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, let’s give the last word to the most perceptive and relatable resident in the whole of Trumptonshire…
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You can find an extended version of Wound Up And Ready To Play with more background detail on the making of the episode, along with similar features on Trumpton 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 Fear Of A Clown is a feature looking at my somewhat troubled history with one particular aspect of Camberwick Green; you can find it here.
The Wind Cries Mickey Murphy is a feature on my theory that 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.