Michael has narrated the new Clangers series for the BBC, a contemporary version of the classic, stop-motion, animated children’s television show from the 1970s. The first 26 episodes are currently airing on Cbeebies at 5:30pm Monday to Friday.
Tell us about your role as narrator?
The narrator explains what the Clangers are talking about and tries to make sense of their adventures on the Blue Planet. It’s a rather nice relationship because he’s not saying ‘they should do this they should do that’, he’s just kind of following the action, translating and interpreting as he goes along.
What was it about the narrator role that appealed to you?
I liked the series when it originally went out. My son Tom was about 2 or 3 when it was in its heyday. I found it a lovely thing to watch and enjoy together because there was a gentle, relaxing pace to it. It had a level of celebratory imagination that I thought made it stand out. Strange and surreal things were happening, but it was never noisy or shouty.
It was also humorous and subversive. It could be instructional, but the message was never heavy. I thought that Oliver Postgate’s narration was such an important part of it too. I felt comforted in a busy world to hear that lovely pace to the voice and the tone of curiosity, and often puzzlement.
So you had no hesitation about saying yes to the role?
No hesitation in saying yes, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever been offered. It’s a classic, you know… I mean for children’s shows, it’s like the Hamlet.
Why is the narrator so important to the programme in terms of providing the link between the real world and the Clangers world?
The narration doesn’t really interfere with what goes on, he just has to comment on the Clanger’s activity, and it’s like ‘ah yes, that’s what’s happening’, ‘oh that’s why they’re jumping up and down in that particular way and wearing that particular hat’. The narrator helps create the benevolent tone of the Clanger’s world. It’s not a nasty world out there, it might not work out in the right way but it’s optimistic and that’s the tone the narrator has to get right.
You are filling quite big shoes though following Oliver aren’t you? Did you have any reservations about that?
Yes, I mean they were very big boots to fill and I needed to be reassured that they were absolutely happy that I was right for it. I met up with Daniel Postgate and Peter Firmin who really are the holders of the Holy Grail, as it were, of the Clangers. They were rightly very protective of the show and I felt they must be absolutely sure that I was the right person to do it. They were both very generous but I knew they would be honest and straightforward if it wasn’t right. I was greatly relieved when the early recordings seemed to hit the right note.
How did you make the narration your own or are there some things that are comparable to Oliver’s?
Well I very much based my delivery on Oliver Postgate’s original, but without wanting to replicate it completely. I thought his tone was always just right. He had a very reassuring voice, it was very much as though he was part of the world there, and of course he was because he had essentially helped to create it. As soon as his voice came up you knew where you were, you were in this familiar world and it was a world in which the narrator was always around to be your guide. That’s what Postgate did so well. He watched this little world from afar, whilst giving the impression that he was on the planet as well. That sense of being part of the action and watching it at the same time, I thought was really important.
So you’ve got to enjoy the life of the Clangers and the little story that they’re doing. You have to bring that world into people’s sitting rooms. Oliver’s voice had a lovely sort of modulation, very soft and up and down, kind of caressing the words. I couldn’t get it exactly like his but I was very much led by the work he had done.
Why do you think it will appeal to a new generation?
I think that children always like a story, and what is very important is that the 10 minutes of each episode is a self-contained story. They also like sounds and I think the sounds of the Clangers are very important. The soundtrack is very rich. There’s humour there too which I think children quite like. But I think it just about taking the children into a little world, on an adventure in a place that seems quite secure for them. It’s something that, rather than making them excited and hyper, will actually calm them and I think that’s a very strong appeal of the show, especially for parents watching with their children. The fact that it’s all contained on this little planet out in space, is I think also something they like. They’re reassured – ‘we know where we are’….
Do you think the new series is in keeping with the original?
Yes I do and I think this is very important. I think it’s a wonderful reunion with these strange people who are still out there on the same planet. It’s still this little world and it’s still fascinating and I think it’s also always very tightly written and tightly put together and has things in it which attract children very quickly and hold their attention very quickly and that is a great skill of the production team.
I think, as in the original, it’s made with a lot of fondness, a lot of humour and great care and love for the characters. To me, being part of the whole imaginative process and working with people who care so much about getting it right, is very similar to the way we approach Monty Python.
The original Clangers aired around the same time as Monty Python came to our TV screens. Do you see anything similar in Oliver’s and Peter’s work and in what you were doing?
I think Monty Python was created round about the same time and in a sense we created a similar little world of our own. We were very concerned to make it distinctive in the same way that I think Oliver and Peter were trying to make the Clangers distinctive. They weren’t drawing on anything that had been done before as far as I could see, it was something fresh. And I think Python was something fresh at the time, in terms of content.
I think there is a humour at the base of all the characters in the Clangers and there is generally a subversive sub-plot going on, a mistrust of over-organisation, of someone telling you what to do. Major Clanger always has these grandiose plans that never quite work out. In the end he is always put right by the more instinctive Tiny Clanger or someone like that. So that’s what very nice, that little feeling of just because they’re grown-ups doesn’t mean they always get it right, and I think Python had a little bit of that. Questioning authority or the orthodox view of how to do things. It’s celebrating you know… serendipity. It’s celebrating the surreal and the odd things that look strange and seem strange but make sense in the end.
What is the difference between making shows for adults and for children?
I have had experience of writing books for children and I think that it’s a very very difficult thing to get right. I think with adults sometimes you can blur the boundaries a bit, some bits can be good and some bits not so good, and people say ‘well, you know, it’s fun’. With children their attention span is quite short. It has to be won or they will go off and do other things if they’re not interested. They’re quite a demanding audience and also quite critical if something’s not involving them. They also like to see stories work through and characters being consistent. When writing for children you’ve got to make sure that you hold their attention. You can surprise them but you should never trick them.
Have you got a favourite Clanger?
Well… no I don’t think I’ve got a favourite. I like the dynamic between them all… I think they all work together very well so I wouldn’t have a preference. There is no sort of character who shouldn’t be there, they’re all essential.
What is your favourite Clanger phrase?
Well my favourite – because it comes up so often and it sort of expresses the narrator’s attitude towards what he is seeing – is ‘oh dear’. There are lots of ‘oh dears’ in there and that’s when things are about to go a little bit wrong, or you don’t quite understand. And in every episode, although it turns out well in the end, there’s always a crisis. And that is usually signalled by the narrator saying ‘oh dear’. That for me is a key phrase, and when it comes along it always makes me smile.
If you were a Clanger, what household item would you use and what would you try and make with it?
Well… if I were a Clanger, I think I would use all the phones and the tablets that become obsolete with ever increasing rapidity. I would have a Clangers high tech store where you could take these things apart and make wonderful things out of them, rather than just throwing them away. It’s a good part of the Clanger’s ideology – if I can call it that – that they do recycle things, they use things again and again.
I would take everything I’ve thrown away in the last 5 years to the Clangers and get them working on it.
If you could send any person or anything to the Clanger planet, what or who would it be?
I don’t know if it would be any one particular person. I think it would be anyone who finds our world too much of a rush. I find the Clangers world not only calming but therapeutic.
There’s a Zen dimension to it. When I’m working on it I feel ‘paused’ in this busy, manic life. The whole Clangers world – the music – which I must say is fantastic, beautiful music, the sound effects, the look of the planet, the look of the characters, and the adventures they have, reduce all the stress and the strain of life for 10 happy minutes. For anyone who says things are getting on top of them I’d say ‘don’t spend thousands on a spa, just spend a weekend on the Blue Planet’!