Eric Meets… Michael Palin

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Over forty years ago now, nearly everyone at Jammy Toast used to make a daily journey to the moon. Not physically you understand, but we would make a daily visit to the home of some friendly moon mice. Now the pink, knitted, whistling space creatures known as the Clangers are back. With a new narrator in Michael Palin, the programme has undergone a £5m revamp – in the hope it will charm a whole new generation of children. There is however, one problem with the new plan… it is reckoned that over 60 percent of viewers are adults despite the programme being shown on CBBC.

In fact, such is the affection with which these moon mice are remembered that animators, producers and Michael Palin all made one giant leap to get involved. First-choice narrator Palin was “proud and pleased” to get aboard, and has described the job as “one of the best things I’ve ever been offered”.

Of the original, which ran for just two series and 27 episodes between 1969 and 1974, Palin told me, “It was calm and very therapeutic. Clangers was a haven. And I loved the audacity of the swanee whistles and the wacky gentle humour.”

A key component of the show was the warm, avuncular voiceover of Oliver Postgate, who offered wry observations as the Clangers received visitors – and foreign objects – to their cratered home out in space. Sadly Postgate died in 2008, but the series he created with Peter Firmin (including Ivor the Engine, The Saga of Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss) are still remembered fondly by us all here at Jammy Toast.

So just what is Palin’s role in the new, 52-part series for weekday teatimes? “I act as an observer to the planet, trying to work out what is going on. My favourite phrase is ‘Oh dear.’ And ‘Oh dear’ comes up a lot in the drama of the episode. I loved the tone that Oliver brought to the original, he did it in a nice, quizzical way. It was one of the great narrations of its kind.”

Asked about favourite characters, Palin says he likes Major Clanger, who invents things, not always successfully. “And I’m very fond of the Iron Chicken. She just floats about in space.” The Clangers’ clucking neighbour, originally made from Meccano, has a spiky nest made from pieces of metal. Coming from Sheffield, Palin says he has a certain affinity for scrap.

Speaking of heavenly bodies, Palin has an asteroid named after him (Asteroid 9621 Michaelpalin). In fact, “All the Pythons have an asteroid named after them. If they were named in relation to size, John Cleese would be the biggest, the one who would destroy the world one day.”

Apart from Clangers’ utter charm, the timing of its debut (16 November 1969) may explain why it took hold of the public imagination. Interest in space was at a peak ­– just four months earlier, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. And just one day before, regular colour broadcasting went live on BBC1, making Clangers one of the first TV series to be shown in colour on the channel.

When you hear Palin describe Clangers as “funny and subversive”, it’s no surprise that the Python should want to be involved – and he’s not the only person linking the two shows. The music for Clangers is composed by John De Prez, who worked on The Meaning of Life and the stage musical Spamalot. And for his Clangers voiceover, Palin has been in the studio with Python sound engineer/producer André Jacquemin. So it’s been a home from home.

Though targeted at pre-schoolers on CBeebies, the aim once more is for a cross-generational audience. “Clangers has something for everybody,” Palin confirms. “Their world is peaceful and harmonious. Money doesn’t matter on the Clangers’ world. It is very calm.” He hopes the show will encourage young viewers to be inventive, too, just like Major Clanger. “Children can find bits around the house and make things with their parents.

Keeping the Postgate stop-motion technique of animating the Clangers also appeals to Palin, where so many kids’ shows now are computer-generated. “It’s not just about pushing a button. It’s also very funny. You watch it with a smile.”

But can Palin be persuaded to do a quick Clanger impression?

The friendly, ever-obliging Python gives a whistled sentence, which he translates as: “Thank you Eric, it was a nice interview.”

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Flat Eric

Flat Eric is a star of Levi’s commercials for Sta-Prest One Crease Denim Clothing. His name comes from an idea for a commercial that included having a car run over his head and flattening it. The idea was not used but the name stuck. Flat Eric rides with his friend Angel around California, evading the police as a wanted criminal.

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