In The Night Garden would be a perfectly acceptable title for a certain type of fantasy novel, probably featuring a proud female protagonist hampered by a restrictive society who finds freedom and emancipation by way of her discovery of a supernatural plotstick that manifests via the aforementioned nocturnal allotment, probably some part of the palace that she all-unwillingly lives a life of spoiled luxury in, you know the sort of thing.
However, it is not. Instead, I am becoming resigned to the idea that my offspring will grow up in the Shadow of the Night Garden.
It’s a generational thing, obviously. Children’s television has always been alienating and incomprehensible to those not intended as a target audience. The programs of my youth seem perfectly normal to me, but, well, it’s easy to see how they might look a little odd to someone else: 2D cardboard pirates and vikings (1) sidle sideways to battle (2), a dusty junk shop run by a small girl is tyrannised by the sleep patterns of a stuffed cat (3), knitted aardvark-looking aliens conduct lives of weirdly compelling lunacy on a barren, meteor-crippled planetoid (4). My parents can’t talk. Bill and Ben, those spidery terracotta warriors, are creepy. (5)
But the shadowed path that leads into the Night Garden surely starts with the Telly Tubbies (6), babbly technicolour lardbags that they were, that paved the way for TV for very young children that didn’t have to make any sense whatsoever. Bill and Ben, or Mr Ben (7) for that matter, or the Herb Garden, all had a kind of backstory, a sense to it. You had the sense of a reality that went beyond the exploits depicted on the screen. The characters had a little life to cal their own. The Telly Tubbies, on the other hand, were for a younger age range still, and presumably, in the evolutionary streamlining that produced them, that kind of mythopoeia was stripped out as being unnecessary. So it was that the four suetty lumps rise each morning to greet the baby-faced gurning sun, and run through the same limited repertoire of sounds and actions, and then return to their lairs for another day. Whilst one assumed Clangers had private lives, with the Tubbies there is nothing more for them. Their entire world, bounded in a nutshell, is on display.
There are other imitators and successors. There are monsterous bloated beasts called ‘Boo-bahs’ (8) that look like globular priapulid worms with stubby limbs and retractable heads, and then there are the loutish Tweenies, complete with thuggish stubbled heads.
And there is the sinister Night Garden.
There is a persistent rumour concerning The Magic Roundabout, that it was originally a French political satire, sending up the public figures of the day, that it arrived on British shores sans script, and a new explanation for all the bizarre goings on was written, recasting it as a kids show (9). Having seen In the Night Garden, one wonders if something similar hasn’t happened. Strangely-proportioned characters, moving with a jerky swiftness, stalk each over across a wooded landscape inhabited by peculiar, unnaturally-coloured heraldic birds. They have names like Ikkl-Pikkl and Maccatecca (10), and they enact bizarre, repetitive ritual scenes that go beyond simple child-games into the territory of invocations and propitiations, and all of it interpreted, with dry solemnity, by the measured tones of Derek Jacobi. It is as though the ancient myths of some otherwise-unknown Olmec-like South American civilisation had been dredged up, recreated, and then redubbed for unwitting children.
Or not, obviously. It’s all just a matter of a generational gap, and no doubt my son will love it, and understand it, and not be at all appalled by the inhuman way that the things move, or their unpleasant proportions. I’m sure it’s all good for the growing child, and probably educational.
But unlike the Telly Tubbies, I feel sure the denizens of the Night Garden do have a private and hidden existence between episodes, and then… out come the knives…
(1) ; ; Another insistence of Word is to capitalise Vikings. At what point does the noun become proper? Viking is a gerund, after all, meaning to go raiding down the viks, or inlets. It’s not a nationality. Surely the vikings can be satisfied with a small ‘v’?
(2) ; ; And Captain Pugwash, for all his bonhomie, had mad staring eyes and teeth that gnashed when he talked. He’d scare the crap out of you at a party.
(3) ; ; But Emily loved him, apparently. Didn’t stop the girl abandoning him in a shop window.
(4) ; ; Arguably the most believably and consistently alien aliens ever created for television. Nothing on Star Trek came close.
(5) ; ; Alan Moore, of frequent mention, has previously overhauled fantastic Victoriana in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the British Comics Industry of the 50’s in Albion, and it is sad that copyright wrangles would probably prevent a similar double-take at the myth-worlds of 70’s children’s television. His treatment would, I suspect, be quite phantasmagorical.
(6) ; ; Tellitubbies? Tellytubbies? One of the many things in the world I’m vaguely proud to be ignorant of.
(7) ; ; No relation.
(8) ; ; For I’ve done my research
(9) Or drugs, yes. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland, to be honest. The drugs hypothesis is wheeled out almost as standard these days. They have gone from the hippy’s insistence that “they must have been on drugs when they made this” because that was, at the time, high commendation, to the reactonary’s dismissal. The subtleties, the surrealities, the mythscapes, all reduced to “all drug humour”, packaged and disposed of without the need for thought. Oh maybe it was, but the suggestion is trotted out so glibly, these days, as an alternative to any kind of analysis.
(10) Or something very similar.