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What The Clangers Really Said (And How It Can Make Your Work Better)

(Click here if you can’t see the Clangers video.)

If you grew up in the UK from the late 60s onwards, The Clangers will need no introduction.

These charming knitted creatures who lived on the moon, in caves covered by saucepan lids, were probably some of your most beloved childhood companions. Even now, I bet you can’t listen to the sound of a Swanee whistle without hearing the voice of a Clanger.

The Clangers’ voices were perhaps their most endearing characteristic — while they never uttered a word, as you listened to the rise and fall of the Swanee whistle, you were absolutely convinced you could understand everything they said. The Clangers were so animated, they seemed so intent on what they were saying, that the sense of a real conversation was utterly convincing.

The illusion was so powerful that children from different countries all said the same thing — they could hear the clangers talking to them in their own language.

Truly, the Clangers had the gift of tongues.

How was this possible? A recent BBC documentary about Oliver Postgate, who created the clangers in partnership with Peter Firmin, shed some light on the matter. Postgate’s son described how, on sifting through his father’s papers after his death, he came across the original scripts for the Clangers programmes — and made a magical discovery.

The script contained not only stage directions and the words of the narrator, but the actual words spoken by the clangers in every single scene. Apparently these had formed the ‘score’ that the musicians followed, with instructions to reproduce the rhythm and intonation of every word in the script. So the Clangers’ conversations sounded real because they were real. We’ve all heard about the research that says body language and tone of voice make up a far greater proportion of communication than the words themselves, and the clangers seem to be living proof of this theory.

So What Did the Clangers Say?

I don’t have the scripts, and we just had a tantalising glimpse in the documentary, so I can’t say too much about this. And to be honest, for me it’s enough to have confirmation that, just as I knew all along, the clangers were really speaking to each other. It would spoil the magic to have it all spelled-out.

But I can’t resist sharing one particularly choice titbit of Clanger-speak:

when the BBC got the script, [they] rang me up and said “at the beginning of episode three, where the doors get stuck, Major Clanger says “sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again”. Well, darling, you can’t say that on Children’s television, you know, I mean you just can’t.” I said “it’s not going to be said, it’s going to be whistled”, but [they] just said “but people will know!” I said no, that if they had nice minds, they’d think “oh dear, the silly thing’s not working properly”. If you watch the episode, the one where the rocket goes up and shoots down the Iron Chicken, Major Clanger kicks the door to make it work and his first words are “sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again”.

(An interview with Oliver Postgate)

Swearing Clangers! Priceless. (Here’s the evidence. And there’s plenty more Clangers goodness on DVD.)

Creativity Tips from the Clangers

So what can we learn from Oliver Postgate’s method of composition?

Do More Than You Need to

Postgate didn’t need to go to all the bother of writing out dialogue for the clangers. He could have got away with writing stuff like “Major Clanger sounds frustrated”, or “Clangers have heated argument”, and then just twiddled the Swanee whistle in the appropriate places. No one would have complained. But the results wouldn’t have been as good. The all-important illusion of reality would not have been as compelling.

Obsessive perfectionism is the hallmark of many great creators. Like the builders of Notre Dame Cathedral, carving away at intricate details no-one would see but God. Or J.R.R. Tolkien writing up the history, geography, ethnography and even languages of Middle Earth, none of which were published in his lifetime, but which provided the backdrop for his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

If you’re a writer, think hard about your characters, their personal history, the culture they come from, and the events that happen ‘off stage’, that influence the ones you actually write about. If you’re an artist, get to know your subject intimately by sketching it from every conceivable angle, even if you only use one in the finished picture. If you’re a musician or composer, practise playing all kinds of music beyond your ‘stage repertoire’. If you’re an entrepreneur, study businesses that are very different to your own, to see what you can learn from them.

To the casual observer, this might look like wasted time. But it will add a richness and depth to your work that you can never get by limiting yourself to the superficial, the obvious or the bare minimum.

Leave Things Out

It might seem counterintuitive to do all of that work and then leave most of it out, or conceal it from the audience (e.g. behind a Swanee whistle or up on the roof of a Cathedral). But if you give the audience everything, you leave no room for their imagination.

By adding an extra dimension and then editing it out, you suggest to the audience that the work contains something more than meets the eye — but crucially, you don’t spell out what that something is. And so the audience is compelled to fill in the gaps with their own imaginings, their own meanings. Only then do they really engage with the work, and become co-creators with you.

And that’s where the real magic happens.

Over to You

What difference does it make when you know the clangers’ dialogue was real?

Can you think of any other examples of creators enriching their work by adding ‘unnecessary’ hidden detail?

Have you ever done this yourself?


  1. So true! While doing the research for my travel book I read hundreds of books and spent weeks in dusty libraries throughout Southeast Asia. Then photocopied and translated and obsessed over the scraps I discovered. But they’ve added crucial details from a long lost era. And yesterday I looked at dozens of models for a single painting, turning and sketching them this way and that. Then painted the images with confidence that I knew them from every angle.

  2. Thanks, great example of immersion leading to inspiration!