1975. Britain was at war. Pop music hated rock music. Rock music hated pop music. Pop music was for teenagers and tiny tots, full of ridiculous chants and stomps delivered by Birmingham Brickies with too much make up. Rock music was for the grown ups. Intricate, delicate symphonies played by men with beards who sat down more than they stood up. Sometimes with a lead singer who dressed as a giant flower. The United Kingdom smelt entirely of damp camel-hair as the legions of Prog Rock fans marched the streets with their double-gatefold albums under their arms, sneering at the kids on the other side of the street with their brightly coloured singles and tartan scarves. Never the twain would ever meet. Or so I’ve always been led to believe.
I was five years old in 1975. Now I’m 41 and much of the pop music from that period sounds fantastic to me, as does an awful lot of the grown up stuff. Great music survives and becomes embedded in our consciousness no matter what the source. The rubbish… well, mostly it disappears, to be heard of no more. At least, it did. Nowadays you can find all sorts of obscure forgotten stuff floating around as archaeologists dig through the topsoil of musical history and reissue everything you’ve ever wanted to hear, everything you ever missed. Listen, don’t listen. Like what you like. It’s up to you. There are no barriers now.
Back in 1975 there was no music programming out there for the discerning pre-schooler, aside from the likes of Music Time (“and Sing… Nooooowwwww…”). Which strikes me as odd. After all, when you’re a tiny person you are entirely new to the world, with as yet-unformed tastes. You are impressionable to a level you will never be again. Everything you see, everything you do makes a mark as you begin to become a fully-formed human being. Things you experience at that age shape you for life.
Half-formed memories will surface years later, leaving you wondering – “did that really happen? Did I dream that, or was there really a television show in which a giant blue lion who looks like Chris Norman from Smokie strums an acoustic guitar while hurling out pop classics of the day?”
Worry not. It happened. Nobody was on THE DRUGS. It wasn’t a nightmare either. In 1975 the flying saucer Discovery took off for the previously undiscovered country of Popland, singing songs and telling gentle stories in 15 minute chunks on your local ITV station. Those of us who saw it never forgot it. Now, it returns. Animal Kwackers arrives on DVD and with each gentle quarter of an hour you can remember a time when learning was something you did without realising it. You were having far too much fun.
The premise of Animal Kwackers is terribly simple (albeit terribly strange when read in the cold light of 2012). Four animals have formed a pop band, found themselves a spaceship and have headed off for the magical country of Popland. There they play music, help anyone they find who might be in need and live up to their motto – “Animal Kwackers always like to help”. Rory is a gigantic blue lion who strums an acoustic guitar wherever possible. Bassist Twang is one of 1975’s two terribly strange looking monkeys which fascinated pre-schoolers. (Topov was in his prime on Pipkins around this time). Boots – he’s an enormous tiger who plays guitar and sings most lead vocals. While wearing an eyepatch. Drums – well, that’s Bongo. He’s a holdover from the sixties, with a silly helmet, love-beads and a rather natty mohican. He’s also a very large, doleful looking dog. Similarities to The Banana Splits are entirely coincidental.
There were three series – all produced by Yorkshire Television, with one per year from 1975 to 1977. Initially the programme begins with a rather simplistic, child-like animated title sequence in which our heroes fly across the stars in their saucer, waving at the audience before sliding down a fireman’s pole to start the show, introducing themselves as they go. “I’m Rory, I’m Twang, I’m Boots, I’m Bongo”, they say, before getting cracking with the first tune of the week. For the end credits it all happens backwards as they climb back up their fireman’s pole and back into the saucer. They say “goodbye” to us before the credits play out over the same title sequence, only in reverse. It’s primitive, but it works.
The theme tune is a wonderful glam-infused thing. It’s ripped straight from the ChinniChap songbook, with handclaps and stomps a-plenty (albeit with rather more glockenspiel than Mud, Quatro etc were wont to use). It gets played in full on episode 3 (I wonder if they shifted the production order round? Makes sense to have this on the first show). The long version reveals itself to be a distant cousin of “Even The Bad Times Are Good”, with yelps, whoo’s and wa-hey’s abounding in the middle eight. Who knows? Maybe for one episode only The Tremeloes were in those costumes.
In each self-contained episode all four sing and play pop songs of the day, mixed with old favourite children’s songs and the occasional standard. After the first song Rory will tell a story from the Animal Kwackers Storybook. This is usually a little tale with a simple moral. Be kind to others, help those in need whenever you can. Simple hand-drawn illustrations illustrate the story, at least for the first series. The format never varies – the story will build up to the band claiming that the problem can be solved by singing a song. “And so, we did”, Rory says. The second song follows, then Rory provides the conclusion to the story before we cut back for one final tune before the end credits. Except for ever improving production values, that’s really all there is. That’s all it needs.
By the time we reach the second series there’s been an injection of money. The title sequence and storybook illustrations are now lushly animated and very, very colourful. To this untrained eye it looks like some of Cosgrove Hall’s early work. The style is reminiscent of the Captain Kremmen animations they’d soon be providing for Kenny Everett’s Thames TV shows, and it is rather lovely.
Inside the costumes for series 1 and 2 are Roy Apps (Rory); Nick Pallet (Twang); Tony Hannaford (Boots) and Geoff Nicholls (Bongo). Nicholls would later land a regular gig as the drummer on BBC’s Rock School programme – the urge to further children’s musical education obviously never left him. Nicholls leaves and is replaced by series co-creator Peter Eden. He becomes rather more active – leaping about the stage, playing his sticks off any surface he can find (usually Twang). Bassist Nick Pallet – according to all evidence I’ve been able to uncover – was also a member of Principal Edward’s Magic Theatre. Being Twang must have been a regular paying gig, enabling him to continue in the UK’s premier communal performance art collective. He might even have seen it as performance art anyway.
As with all great rock bands there are personnel shifts a-plenty for series three. The costumes remain the same, but John Bassett is now playing Boots, Step Holdsworth is Twang, Bev Doyle is Rory and Atalanta Harmsworth is Bongo. Musical differences. It gets ’em all eventually.
Musically the performances are actually pretty strong. As you would expect some songs work much better than others. There probably wasn’t time to spend in recording studios providing note-for-note perfect cover versions but it rarely dips below “competent”. Close your eyes and a lot of this stuff sounds like the old Top of the Pops albums which festooned the households of the nation for rather longer than you think they did. This is by no means a bad thing. The first show kicks off with Mud’s Tiger Feet and it’s pretty damn good. They even have a crack at Sweet’s Blockbuster, although Tony Hannaford’s cockney vowels mean that Steve Priest’s howling camp interjections evaporate in favour of a giant tiger with an eyepatch doing a Ray Winstone impersonation. There’s a version of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep which can only be described as “apologetic” but Boots almost saves it by raising his eyepatch in time with the lyric. He’s trying to work out where your mama’s gone. He actually looks like Guy Crayford in Doctor Who’s The Android Invasion discovering he’s had an eye under that patch all along. Funny the things we notice.
There are even – much to my astonishment – Beatle songs. Yellow Submarine gets a look in early, to be followed by Octopus’s Garden in the second series. In a move which I can only conclude must be deliberate, Octopus’s Garden is sung by Bongo, the drummer. Peter Eden’s doelful Ringo twang matches the original perfectly. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds? Well, it’s slightly less successful. And their version of Drive My Car… well, McCartney’s yammering, howling innuendos are more or less jettisoned and they play it safe. Of course, it’s just a song about someone needing a chauffeur. Isn’t it?
I can only conclude that there must have been some sort of blanket broadcast agreement in place covering Beatles songs which has since been tightened up. I know Lord Lew Grade over at ITC had one, given that several ITC series have appeared on DVD with Beatle stuff intact. A blessing, given how integral the likes of All You Need Is Love is to the finale of The Prisoner. I never expected Yorkshire TV to have one, but it seems they must have. Either that, or Network’s clearance department have worked bloody hard on what must have been a nightmare to sort out. With three songs an episode there are well over a hundred pieces of music here. Kudos to them. They even managed to clear Morning Has Broken, which is more than the BBC managed on their initial release of Filthy Rich and Catflap.
By the second series the glam rock and pop tunes begin to slowly disappear, in favour of children’s songs and specially penned numbers. This is a shame, as if nothing else it slows the pace right up. There’s an awful lot of acoustic music in series two and three and when you’ve seen Boots rollerskating about to Brand New Key it’s difficult to reconcile yourself to Bongo and Rory duetting on There’s a Hole in My Bucket. After all, they had a crack at Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear – and actually managed it successfully, more or less. Mind you, they did Teddy Bear’s Picnic in the same episode. There’s even a version of The Sting which sounds terribly like the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. If you’re going to emulate someone, choose the best.
The stories become stranger and more pun-laden as each episode wears on. Admittedly this is a show which as early as episode two features a chicken in wellies learning to dance with a little help from Twang and his magic guitar so the oddness is always there.
I don’t know if it’s because the makers started to get bored and threw stuff in to amuse themselves or if they layered the scripts to keep any adults who might be watching happy, but spotting them is great fun. Before too long Popland is populated by the likes of “Elkhound John”, whose major concert performance is nearly derailed because he can’t find his favourite pair of gigantic glasses. There’s a very old rabbit called “Percy Grower” who needs a fund of new stories to help the trees and plants in Candynavia grow. A trip to the “Hard Rock Mountains” leads to the discovery of a sign warning “Beware Rolling Stones”, which is written on a pair of gigantic red lips. There’s a pair of amplifiers wandering about – one bass, one treble – which look like Stan and Ollie. One of the regular characters in the stories is even called “Bad Boy”, a music reference in itself. It’s great fun. Your average five year old won’t get it, but I certainly did and it brightens these episodes up no end.
Animal Kwackers arrives on DVD in a straightforward no-frills two disk package from Network DVD. There are no extras but what you do get is every surviving edition of the show. Two have been mislaid along the way, but that still leaves you nearly forty episodes of day-glo musical happiness to enjoy. Unlike other children’s television shows of the day the survival rate seems to be pretty good, and it all appears to be here in original glorious 625 line VT. There’s nary a dropout to be seen, although the series 1 titles are a shambles – riddled with tramline scratches and specks of dirt. I suspect that’s got more to do with the original animation process because it all disappears when we cut to studio. The actual episodes look gorgeous.
The makers of the series had – it seems to me – one very simple aim in mind. Introduce pre-schoolers to music. Spark their interest and hold their attention in such a way that when they start primary school they’ll have a head start in their music lessons. Throw in a few basic gentle lessons in good behaviour and kindness. With any luck it might instill a love of music that stays with them for the rest of their lives. What better way to do it than by using the stuff that surrounds them every day, wherever they are? Use the music that comes out of their radios, which they see on television if they’re watching Top of the Pops with their families on a Thursday night.
It’s a simple idea and that simplicity makes it work. There’s nothing small children like better than repetition and the familiarity of the format means that they get exactly what they want in every single episode. Certainly I remember rushing to my television set at lunchtimes in 1975 and hurling myself about with glee as I danced along to… well anything that the Animal Kwackers chose to play.
“Rory, Rory, Tell Us A Story / Rory, Rory, Tell It How It is”. He did, and I find myself oddly grateful to him. There’s room for a simple, unpretentious programme that gets on with the business of saying to the under-fives, “look, this is music. It’s great, isn’t it? Try it, you’ll like it.” It introduced us to pop music before we were even five. It stayed with some of us for the rest of our lives. That’s a pretty great achievement, when you think about it.
Animal Kwackers is available from Network DVD, and is released on April 16th 2012.