The stars seem to blister like burning film as they open into pink flowers. The night sky segways into the blossom on a cherry tree, and we follow the falling petals and see a group of characters hopping and waving in a bandstand surrounded by woods.
This is the psychedelic opening sequence of In the Night Garden, the recent under fours TV show. The scene apparently represents the shifts into dream state, and it’s the most beautiful and surprising cosmic screen scene since Dave Bowmans journey through 2001s slit-scan landscapes. In both we go ‘through’ the sky into an alternate reality.
This particular alternate reality comes from Anne Wood and Andy Davenport of RagDoll, co- creators of the Teletubbies, and bona fide auters of kids TV in era of poorly animated, pre-teen-plotlined, ham-fisted edutainment.
In the Night Garden is by contrast, quiet, calm, with an atmosphere of sadness that is out of kilter with the upbeat rictus grin of most kid-fodder. And it is intentionally so. Wood explains their motivation: “We became very aware of the anxiety surrounding the care of young children which manifested itself in all kind of directions – but the one big subject that came up again and again was bedtime. It’s the classic time for tension between children who want to stay up and parents who want them to go to bed… so this is a programme about calming things down whereas most children’s TV is about gee-ing everything up!”
We’re not here for complex plot, but the shows beautiful design. Children’s television demands much more from production design than adult TV. A whole, autonomous world needs to be constructed. Narrative is so constrained – in this case by lack of language: The characters say little more than variations on their name over and over again, their inarticulacy mixed with excitement like hyperactive Beckett protagonists. Without plot, the burden falls on other elements, often those considered secondary in ‘grown up’ programmes: vision, sound, movement, landscape and so on. The programmes design constructs experience without language. Which is not so far removed from design in the real world.
Though childrens toys and stories might seem simplistic and lightweight, we can sometimes recognise significance for everyone in these make-believe worlds. Eduardo Paolozzi – in Independent Group days – lectured on the anatomy of Mickey Mouse as a Pop Art homage to Renaissance artists concern with medical anatatomy (of course the idea of a cartoon character having an anatomy is perverse in the first place, but the idea that an internal structure might be revealed is significant – in this case whose complexity might only be expressed through the language of James Ellroy). Alison Smithson – another Independent Grouper – wrote about the homes described by Beatrix Potter, comparing them to Aalto and Le Corbusier where ‘basic necessities [are] raised to a poetic level’.
That children’s narratives might encode concerns of wider culture is obvious. Anything sold to children has been worked over by educationalists, specialists, scientists, nutritionists, sports psychologists, psychiatrists and any other expert or specialist that might possibly be considered relevant. Its effect on brain tissue growth will have been monitored, its complexity of language will have been measured down to the last syllable.
In the Night Gardens characters are descendants of the entire gene pool of children’s TV. Iggle Piggle is a blue plush toy with a wonky grin and a red blanket. His co-star is Upsy Daisy, a toy-girl whose hair wiggles like small fingers when she’s excited. There are the Tombliboos with bottom-heavy baby-esque anatomy; Makka Pakka, a loner who lives in what seems to be a Neolithic barrow, who sports cairn-like hair and ears who enjoys cleaning stones; The Pontipines, a family of wooden puppets who live in a tiny dollshouse at the base of a huge tree-trunk; and The Haahoos, six enormous inflatable forms who call to each other and sleep in a big pillowy pile. The characters anatomies are divergent from ‘primitive’ carved wood (solid) to sci-fi inflatable (empty) and shift from puppet to costume to prop, and in scale from tiny to huge.
They inhabit a landscape where large trees, giant sized daisies, pastel coloured puffballs combine giant and miniature. Like the Teletubbies, the landscape is a surreal reworking of nature. Perhaps this is the last residue of the English Landscape tradition – Capability Brown made over by Shigeru Miyamoto. Here, on the branches of real trees a computer colourised bird-choir sing a chorus of synthetic sounds.
The history of children’s TV echoes throughout. There are references to the Magic Roundabout in the bandstand, to Camberwick Green in its mechanics, to Thunderbird 2 in the Pink-Ponks green livery, to Trumpton in the echoey na???ve folk music. The texture of the image is made just as rich by combining live action, rickety stop-frame and gradient perfect CGI, and the soundtrack whose organic sci-fi squelching might have arrived fresh from the Radiophonic Workshop. The programmes construction is perhaps the most sophisticated on British TV. And the effect is fantastic.
It means that watching In the Night Garden is a cross generational experience, laced with potent nostalgia. Perhaps it reflects a generation of parents who have forced their children to watch their own childhood favourites via DVD re-issues.
The under 4s are a generation whose connection with media is markedly different their older brothers and sisters. Media has shattered so that it’s harder to tell if a phenomenon is a TV show, website, toy, magazine or stage show. Schedules are replaced by a vast lake of instantly accessible clips found amongst the cultural video-hoard of YouTube.
That a programme for the under 4′s should be soaked in nostalgia is of course odd – surely nostalgia is the preserve of the old? But perhaps nostalgia is not really about the passing of time or personal history accrued but a cultural product that is handed to us fully formed. In the Night Garden is a faultless example of manufactured nostalgia. And it uses this perfect synthesis to construct a space outside parents terrible fear for their children’s future by evoking their own past.
Just as Alison Smithson could see nascent Arts and Crafts and proto-Modernism in Mrs Tigglewinkles house, or Paolzzi could see the collapse of armature in Mickeys hollow frame, perhaps In the Night Garden reveals nostalgia as the prime subject of contemporary culture.
The phenomenon of over-powering nostalgia is present in other cultural arenas. In design, the splicing of old with new has become an overnight clich???. In politics we hear speeches that attempt to weld together old ideas with new formats: socialists nostalgic for Thatcherism or Thatcherites nostalgic for the Welfare State.
Why should nostalgia be such a powerful force in contemporary culture?
Maybe nostalgia is a significant way of faking a sensation of love – and all media, just like its creators wants to be loved. It tugs at the heart strings and moistens our eyes with a tenderness that certainly feels authentic. It hijacks our fear of the future and provides a haven for the ache for other places and other times.
Though it may feel part of us – even welded to our core – these are often memories of externally provided images rather than internal experiences. They’ve been formed after the event, by consensus and communicated to us through media. Nostalgia is often as impersonal as the memories of the Nexus-6 replicant Rachel in Blade Runner. There are semi-memories that we’ve learnt from family Super 8 films, from endlessly repeated clips, and a media in constant state of historical revisionism. Never before has so much information been available with instant recall. The dividing line between our own memory and the capture and cataloguing of time that digital technology has allowed.
Its effect is so powerful – beyond logic or argument – that it is hard to see whether nostalgia is a subject or object, a technique or a mode of operation. Perhaps, like drunks hell bent on another shot, we’re addicted to the sensation overpowering us and delivering us into oblivion.
If this means living in a world which will edge ever closer to In the Night Garden, I’m all for it. The idea that amateurish craft and high technology might reside in reverberating synthesised harmony, that genre splicing and scale hopping might become a way of life, and that giant inflatable good-natured things will wander the streets, I’m all for it. Maybe – finally cut loose from an outmoded 19th century idea of progress – we’ll find ourselves liberated and excitedly repeating our names over and over again because nothing more need be said.