Music of the Spheres

Jonathan Benton-Hughes on excavating the music of The Clangers

First published November 2001

I was a space baby, born in 1966. Throughout youth and as sadly as an adult I have nurtured an obsession with groovy TV music. Especially children’s TV music; Even more specifically children’s space music. My close encounter with The Clangers was inevitable really.

I’d realized in 1998 that the work of Smallfilms had always been admired and cherished, but there were no soundtracks available. So I tracked down Oliver Postgate with a view of changing the situation. I met him at his home overlooking the sea in Broadstairs. It was a bleak day, and I’d had a good look at Bleak House before I knocked on his door.

It’s very difficult to put into words what meeting a man like Oliver Postgate is like. This is the man whose creativity had charmed millions of children and adults for over 30 years. I mean I remember the name Oliver Postgate from when I was about five, and his creations are firmly part of my upbringing. His voices were the soundtrack to my childhood. Now I was on his doorstep. And the door was opening.

It’s his voice that gets you straight away. There is no mistaking the gentle deep tone of it. It sends a nostalgic shiver up your spine. And after a couple of minutes of talking I realized that he breaks into all his characters all the time. One minute he’s a narrator, then he’s Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss. Then he’s Bagpuss. I even detected a touch of Iron Chicken coming out over coffee. It seems like his characters are him – part of his personality. He is also totally humble, charming and incredibly intellectual. I felt very small in his presence.

We had lunch of home-made soup (of course) after which he led me down into his “Underworld”, a basement full of boxes, papers, a beautiful desk, tape machines and drawings of Ivor The Engine. He found me a big box, into which he placed all The Clangers quarter-inch master tapes and a scruffy envelope full of working papers. I left, still in awe and a little in shock. I said I’d do my best. I drove home through the rain wondering just how dull a world it would be without such a great man.

Once home, I opened the box. I spent three days listening to the quarter inch master tapes. I looked through all the papers and began to realize just how the whole of this magical series was put together. Firstly I read how Oliver came up with the whole concept: he had to think of a new children’s series for the BBC. He was stuck for inspiration, and staring at a blank piece of paper realized he’d “have to pull his living from out of the sky” … and that was it. He’d hit a rich vein of thought. The sky, the space age, rockets. HG Wells and all that. And his children had told him that the moon was full of hot soup. The ideas kept flowing and slowly a picture was developing. ETs who live under metal lids in caves, keeping out of the way of all the space-program debris flying around. When they surface, their lids make a “clang”. Their generic name was soon settled upon. And once the simple pattern of their lives became clear, all the stories soon followed.

In space, anything could exist and happen, and indeed did on the Clangers’ blue planet. A good example is music. Music first appears when the Iron Chicken lays an egg. Inside there are musical notes. Small and Tiny Clanger plant them, water them with the cloud and they grow and flower into music trees. Genius. And although Clangers can play lovely music, their main use for all the notes is propulsion and levitation. Even weirder genius! Anything could happen in this brand new world that Smallfilms had created.

Dipping deeper into the notes revealed more. These were his 1969 notes and working drawings – sketches made for individual scenes. But right in the middle of these notes were a number of small graphs. There were wiggly ones, squiggly ones, some looked like mad animals. And these were his sound designs. Oliver had “seen” exactly what he wanted to hear as music and designed it in graph form, with time along the X axis, sound along the Y. It was from theses notes that all the music had been composed. This is almost an avant-garde way of composing, with no notes or staves or time signatures, just squiggles. Like a flow of music consciousness. And it sure was effective.

When it came to turning the squiggles into sound, Oliver turned to his trusted friend, Vernon Elliot. At the time, Vernon was one of the country’s leading bassoon players. He was head of the Birmingham Philharmonia and had also written extensively about the “double tongue method” of Bassoon playing. Through a mutual friend at ATV Vernon and Oliver had met and struck up a friendship that would last years. Vernon had successfully composed for Ivor the Engine, and Oliver trusted him with all The Clangers compositions. Basically Vernon took the squiggles, composed to them and then recorded everything with his “Clangers Ensemble” and Oliver in a small hall with very little in the way of recording equipment. And this is what I like. Everything about the work of Smallfilms seems to be done in this way. They made everything themselves. The characters, the models, wrote the stories, shot it themselves, recorded it all themselves, put it all together themselves. And all on low budgets. Yet the end product is faultless and almost timeless.

Now back in the box I had all Vernon’s original recordings from the Clangers musical sessions. Every take from which Oliver would redub with his voice and synchronize with the animation he had created. I had 128 cues in total. All clearly, but confusingly labelled. Like “G4A”, “D1-2-3-4″ and “N”. Then a load of numerical cues too, like “1G” and “3F”. Oh, and some were missing or had been re-recorded over. I listened to them all together, then split them up and reassembled them in a sequence I thought suitable. And it was rubbish. I mean how do you compile nearly 130 cues into a cohesive mix? So I did it all again. And again. My notes were growing, my dubs were growing and a small headache had arrived. Even after a few weeks I still wasn’t happy with the musical mix. My distributor wanted a Clangers album with no music on it at all, and I also had a deadline for release that I just couldn’t meet. I took a break from it all. Quite a big break too.

Six months later, I got stuck in again. I hadn’t listened to The Clangers at all in that time. And good job too because now I knew exactly what to do. Just put the music in chronological order. So I did. One problem though – I had to match every cue with every episode of The Clangers. Easy to start with but at the end I was stuck with one 22 second piece of music that I couldn’t find anywhere. So I had to watch all 26 episodes again. It was only then that I realized that The Clangers is perfectly chronological. The planet is quite basic to start with, but slowly it develops. The Clangers invent things that then play crucial parts in later episodes. And the soundtrack develops too. It’s very simple in the early episodes and gets gradually more complex and orchestral, especially once Tiny Clanger has invented the Blow Fruit Organ. The last ever episode is the most musical, with Tiny playing the “Music of the Spheres”, a fine orchestral space symphony accompanied by all the musical heavenly bodies. It’s almost psychedelic. Watch The Clangers chronologically now and you can see the minds of Oliver and Peter grow and flourish through this little world they created.

Once the music was arranged chronologically it all seemed to work. It seemed to have a natural progression to it. Oliver liked it too. He then sent me his own composition – “A Clangers Opera”, which is a little audio episode starring all your favourite characters. He cut and spliced bits of episodes together to make a new story and also wrote a Libretto so anyone who hears it can follow. What a guy. Then I put together all the artwork, including Oliver’s musical squiggles. I had an entertaining chat with Peter Firmin, the designer of all things Smallfilms, and he kindly sent me the original sketches they had presented to the BBC in order to get the first series commissioned. In the words of Peter Firmin “they show the BBC what we had in our funny minds”. We also had a chat about the internet. He believed it was quite awesome in its possibilities but he’d been shocked recently to find that someone had posted a photo of him and Oliver standing in his garden looking like “a couple of old poofs”. He had no idea how this had come about, or indeed where the photo had come from. Incidentally, Peter Firmin is currently redrawing all the images for a reissue of the Noggin The Nog books which originally appeared in about 1966. The work Smallfilms produced nearly 40 years ago still keeps them both remarkably busy. These drawings are now for all to see on the CD. As are rare shots of Peter and Oliver mid animation, and some rare shots of Vernon Elliot.

Now all The Clangers music is out there and hopefully being heard for the first time in its own right. For Oliver Postgate it seemed important that his old chum Vernon Elliot got some of the recognition he deserves for all the background work he put in over the years. And great work it is too. For me it whisks me back to my childhood, it calms me and sends me to sleep, and in my more nerdy moments it reminds me of early Sun Ra mixed with a bit of Debussy and a touch of English folk. I can’t convince you to buy The Clangers LP or CD, but it may give you a pleasing insight into the world of Smallfilms and Oliver Postgate. If I’m to be honest I’ve made this recording just for the experience of meeting and briefly working with one of my greatest heroes. And The Clangers of course.

This article first appeared in an abridged form in Record Collector #266