Monday, 21 December 2015

The Chips' Comic Songs - 12 Songs From The Channel 4 Series

Chips' Comic is yet another pre-school series that seemed ubiquitous throughout my early childhood and appears to have vanished without trace ever since - so much so that, if not for the odd recording on my family's collection of old VHS tapes or the existence of the item that I'm going to discuss in this particular entry, I'm not sure if I'd be totally convinced that I didn't just dream the whole damned thing.  Fortunately, this website provides a fair bit of information on the series, thus confirming that I'm not the only person out there who harbours any memories of it at all.

Chips' Comic first aired on Channel 4 in 1983 and was one of the channel's earliest attempts at creating a series for children (a market not typically regarded as their forte, although Pob is still fairly well-remembered).  It followed the efforts of three comic book editors, two human (Inky, played by Gordon Griffin and Elsa, played by Elsa O'Toole) and one canine (Rover, played by Andrew Secombe, who later went on to voice Watto in the Star Wars prequels) to assemble a weekly comic, which was then fed into and published by an intelligent computer named Chips. The big gimmick of the series was that the comic book in question was not, in fact, fictitious - you could actually go out and purchase a copy at your local newsagents.  With hindsight, I'm amazed that I could apparently ever stand Rover - his doggy costume makes the adult skin I live in crawl.

Child of the 1980s speculates that the show was pretty short-lived (its dependence upon the existence of an actual "Chips' Comic", while ambitious, was alas not very practical in the main), although Channel 4 were definitely still airing episodes in the late 80s when I started forming my own TV-related memories (repeats, I presume?).  As for the tie-in comic, I have no personal recollections of ever reading it, but my dad has confirmed that we did indeed buy it, which I'm guessing is how we ended up with a copy of the Chips' Comic audio cassette, featuring songs from the series.  The cassette inlay states that they are, specifically, songs from the second series (broadcast in 1984), so I can confirm that the show did indeed last for more than a single series.  It's a shame that my family apparently didn't hang onto the comics themselves, given that they've become such an obscurity, but just having the audio cassette, and thus something that I can hold in my hands as a physical reminder that, yes, this series was in fact a thing, is precious enough.

The user comments on the Child of the 1980s page appear to confirm my suspicion that this cassette was given away exclusively as a comic book freebie.   As such I'm going to assume that audio cassette is the only format it was ever available in (to my knowledge, there was never a Chips' Comic LP).  The comments left by series writer and co-producer David Wood, which provide some interesting insights into the creation of the show, state that there are actually TWO Chips' Comic audio cassettes in existence, so if anyone can point me in the direction of the one NOT featured here, I would be greatly appreciative.  Searching for "Chips' Comic" on ebay is, unfortunately, a total chore, as it means having to scroll through pages and pages of listings for editions of Fleetway's Whizzer and Chips, typically to find to nothing related to the Channel 4 series at all - like I say, it appears to have vanished without all trace.

The music was produced, arranged and composed by Peter Hope and Juliet Lawson.  Contents of the cassette are as follows:


1. Chips' Comic Title - A few computer bleeps, a couple of cries of "Chips' Comic!" from an enthusiastic group of kids (all of whom must be pushing forty by now - now that's a scary thought), and away we go.  "Chips' Comic, everything you need to know! Chips' Comic, step inside and see the show!  Chips' Comic, clap your hands and here we go!  Let's turn the pages now, let's have some fun!  It's Chips' Comic, for everyone!"  The theme song rounds things off by breaking into this chipper little ragtime coda.

2. Keep Moving - "How to do you get from A to B?  How do you get from you to me?  Fast or slow, and easily?  Keep moving, keep moving, keep everywhere!"  A song dedicated to listing off various  modes of transport, and which of these would be the most applicable to a given situation.  Bicycles get completely snubbed, as do ferries.

3. Air - "What makes the windmills keep turning around?  What takes the pretty kites high off the ground? What sails the boats without making a sound?  They go drifting so gently past me."  A high proportion of songs in this collection seem geared toward encouraging children to consider fundamental aspects of life that they might otherwise be inclined to take for granted, in this case one of the most fundamental of them all, air ("though you can't see it, it's there").   Appropriately light and uplifting, and at times even a little haunting.

4. Underground - "It may seem rather strange, but all these pipes and drains, they keep the water flowing through, it's my job to maintain.  Do you ever stop to think, next time you have a drink, there's someone checking all is well, beneath the kitchen sink?  I am the water worker who is seldom ever seen, I am the water worker, I help keep the water clean!"  Ah, now I did recall that there was at least one track on this album that always made me feel a trifle uneasy as a kid, and this was most definitely it.  The intentions are certainly noble - children are being asked to ponder the various people who work underground for the benefit of those up above, and to consider the wide network of largely unseen wires and workers upon which their daily life depends (in addition to the aforementioned water worker, other examples cited include a tube driver and a coal miner) - and yet the song's rather sombre, claustrophobic tones make the whole notion seem a tad sinister.  They certainly didn't succeed at making any of those underground working environments sound particularly attractive, whether or not that was the intention.  That being said, the song's murky, claustrophobic qualities are what make it appealing to me now as an adult.

Arguably, the verses about the coal miner make this the single most dated song on the album, given the decline of the British coal industry and the subsequent lack of any remaining deep coal pits in the UK.  I'm also very conscious of the fact that, if this song was first broadcast in 1984, then odds are it would have debuted during the UK miners' strike of 1984-1985.

5. Seaside Song - "What are we gonna do today, come with us and get away, isn't it great to be beside the seaside? Walking down the promenade, fish and chips and lemonade, see what we can see beside the sea?" A ditty in the style of a British music hall number, and one which consciously recalls John A. Glover-Kind's "I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside".  A celebration of the traditional British seaside holiday - the sea's much too cold to swim in and it usually rains, but you can always kill time at the amusement hall.

6. Fireworks - "Rockets rocketing overhead, bursting over the trees! Come and see the fireworks in the sky!" A bit of safety advice works its way in ("stand well back we're told"), but overall this is just a song about fireworks and how unabashedly awesome they are, with various whizzes, crackles and fizzes thrown in for good measure. This is a particularly infectious track, and I find it hard not to get sucked in by its energy.  It's another somewhat dated one, thanks to that reference to "indoor fireworks" (my family never used them - were they any good at all?), although a quick google search reveals that they apparently are still available, now being marketed under the "retro" banner.


1. Rover's Song - "He's a dog, though you'd never know, he could be your best friend. You can be a super spy, with Rover's roving eye, with Rover's roving eye." This was from a segment of the programme called "Rover's Report" (thanks to Child of the 1980s for jogging my memory on this one) in which the creepy old canine would head out on a quad bike to conduct field research for Chips' Comic (incognito, as the song implies).  The only non-Griffin or O'Toole track on the album, this one was performed by Martin Jay.  Also, "roving eye" strikes me as a rather curious expression to show up in a song aimed at children, even in the interests of a cute bit of name-based wordplay.

2. Down With Dirt - "Musty, dusty, rusty, crusty, muck and yuck are everywhere.  Slippy, slimy, oh-so-grimy, dirty dirt is always there." A deliberately skin-crawling song about the evils of dirt and the joys of eliminating it.  A real good one to get your kids to sing if you want to them to grow up to be a mysophobe.

3. Night Time - "When the curtains have been drawn, ever wonder goes on?  Ask yourself while lying there, is there anyone awake out there?" A lovely, strangely wistful song about people in various professions who work night shifts.  As with "Underground", the intention seems to be to prompt children to consider the extensive network of human activity upon which day-to-day (or night-to-night) life depends, but it doesn't share the somewhat sinister overtones of that song.  Instead, there's a distinctly melancholic tone to this one which seems to point toward the inevitable alienation that comes from leading such tightly connected and yet largely impersonal lives.  I suspect that gentle and soothing was what they were mainly going for (rest easy, because there are multiple people out there working tirelessly for you), but beautifully sad and haunting is what came out.  This track was always my favourite as a kid, and my adult self sees little reason to argue with that.

4. It's a Colourful World - "What if there was only black and white?  What if there was only dark and light?  I'd mix some paint and I'd colour it bright.  It's a colourful, colourful world, oh yes, it's a colourful, colourful world."  Bit of an art lesson mixed in here (blue and yellow paint = green, white and red = pink), but mostly it's another "don't take things for granted" song, this one centering around how much more attractive the world is thanks to the human ability to see in colour.

5. Keep Fit - "You'll be amazed how much better you'll feel, get up and go, keep yourself fit!  Move to the music, move to the beat! If you keep fit, you'll like it, you'll feel better if you keep fit!" Workout records and videos were a thing in the 1980s, and Chips' Comic got on board the bandwagon with this appropriately energetic number about the virtues of jogging and aerobics.  Let's get physical! 

6. Happy Christmas Mr. Snowman - "It would be fun if you could stay forever, but we know that can't be. And so we make sure we remember you, take you a photograph of you with me."  Doubtless that this one would be handled slightly differently today, as I can't see them being so specific about which religious/cultural holiday they're imposing on their snowman friend.  That aside, it's an ostensibly merry number with some surprisingly sad undertones, a celebration of something which the song openly acknowledges isn't going to last, but the memories of which can always be preserved in some form.

Hopefully, by carefully describing the contents of this audio cassette, I've been able to do something of that nature for Chips' Comic.  On the basis of this cassette alone, it seems a great shame that this series never found its place upon the nostalgia map, because there's some really charming stuff therein.  Riding against it, I suspect, were its unwieldy central gimmick (it revolved so heavily around the publication of the actual "Chips' Comic" that it was hard to show the series out of context of this, as David Wood acknowledges in his comments on Child of the 1980s) and the fact that it came from Channel 4, a channel which never became massively committed to children's programming (although again, people still seem to remember that monkey show they did).  If you were a child living in the UK in the 1980s and wish to dig up a few distant memories, then this cassette is certainly a worthwhile listen, although good luck actually finding a copy.  And if I ever come across something as exciting as a copy of the comic itself, you can be sure that you'll be hearing about it on here.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Babylon (A Sweet Disaster)

In 1989, when Nick Park shook the animation world with his ground-breaking shorts Creature Comforts and A Grand Day Out, he pretty much defined Aardman's style as one of droll, wide-mouthed whimsy.  The quaint, characteristically "very British" quirkiness that exudes from the world of Wallace and Gromit has become synonymous with the Bristol-based animation studio, and while series such as Angry Kid and Rex the Runt are testaments to the variety of different tastes and sensibilities that Aardman have catered to, ultimately it’s Park’s style that continues to dominate their mainstream projects (including their theatrical feature films) and the public's general perception of them. So much so that a lot of Aardman’s weirder, more experimental output, particularly from the 70s and 80s before Park was able to make his mark, tends to get passed over.  A shame, because not only did Aardman produce some really interesting work within that period, it's also fascinating to observe how the studio developed during those early stages, and some of the wonderful little oddities that surfaced as they were in the process of shaping their identity, and in their quest to create animations with primarily adult appeal.

Aardman Animations was founded in 1972 by school chums Peter Lord and David Sproxton (who set up shop in Bristol in 1976), and before Park’s success at the 1990 Academy Awards managed to put them on the map in a big way, their most popular creation was “Morph”, a small, gibberish-spouting plasticine humanoid who first appeared in the children’s BBC series Take Hart.  In 1978 Lord and Sproxton also worked upon a couple of experimental pieces aimed at adult audiences, Confessions of a Foyer Girl and Down and Out, which were produced for BBC Bristol under the banner of Animated Conversations.  The Beeb didn’t take to these, but they later caught the eye of Channel 4 executive Jeremy Isaacs, and led to the commissioning of Conversation Pieces, a series centred upon the concept of taking audio recordings of real-life conversations and bringing them to life via stop motion animation.  Two of the resulting films, Palmy Days and Early Bird, were particularly witty in how they interpreted and represented the audio in question, and traces of the DNA for Park's short about life in the zoo can certainly be glimpsed therein.  We're not talking about those shorts right now, but I’m sure that it'll only be a matter of time before I get around to them.

This entry focuses upon what, as far as I’m concerned, is the unsung masterpiece of Aardman’s fledgling output, before Park’s breakout success re-shaped them and took them in an altogether different direction.  Ironically, Babylon was the very first short that Park himself worked on after joining Aardman (who agreed to provide funding for his then-unfinished student film, A Grand Day Out, in exchange for his services).  Another rising Aardman star who provided animation for Babylon was Richard “Golly” Golieszowski (now Richard Starzak), who went on to create Rex the Runt and would later helm the TV spin-offs for Creature Comforts and Shaun The Sheep.

Babylon was Lord and Sproxton’s contribution to Sweet Disaster, a series of shorts conceived and written by David Hopkins, and broadcast by Channel 4 in 1986.  Anyone who’s checked out my previous entries on the series will know that they dealt with the terrors of nuclear apocalypse, and in Babylon's case, proliferation is the specific issue on the table.  In its present state, the Wikipedia article for Sweet Disaster references the obscurity of the series and backs this up with a quote from Nick Park (taken from an interview with The Onion A.V. Club) about Babylon not having seen the light of day for a long time.  Worth noting is that the interview in question was from June 2000 (around the time of Chicken Run’s theatrical release), and that Babylon has since gone on to be by far the easiest of the Sweet Disaster films to access.  As an Aardman film, Babylon is definitely a bit unloved and lurking in the shadows, and yet it’s enjoyed a limelight which no other film in the Sweet Disaster series can boast, thanks largely to its inclusion on the Aardman Classics DVD released in November 2000.  In 2012, Sleeping Weazel uploaded the short to their Vimeo account, along with two other Sweet Disaster films, and once again I have them to thank for enabling me to share the short itself alongside my coverage of it.

I’ve no doubt that many people, like myself, were introduced to Babylon while watching the Aardman Classics DVD from start from start to finish, and I have to wonder if, like me, they were initially caught off guard by the extreme sombreness of the piece, which is about as far-removed from the whimsical world of Shaun the Sheep and Frank the Tortoise as one can get.  That’s not to say that Aardman hasn’t frequently delved into some fairly dark subject matter (even the world of Wallace and Gromit isn’t all cheese and crackers, what with its array of murderous villains), but it’s hard to envision an Aardman film more downbeat and deliberately devoid of humour than this one.  Sadly, the accompanying booklet to the Aardman Classics DVD provides almost no context for Babylon whatsoever – aside from a passing reference to it being the first Aardman project that Nick Park was asked to work upon, virtually nothing is said about the short in its run-down of the studio’s history, which may account for why it remained such an enigma to me for so long.  Babylon works fine as a stand-alone piece, but as an Aardman film it's a total oddity, and an understanding of the film within the context of the Sweet Disaster series is somewhat necessary in order to fully appreciate it and its place in Aardman history.

Babylon opens with a landscape in utter chaos – a smoggy city in which police sirens and gunfire ring out continuously.  The only creatures who appear to be thriving amid this desolation are the vultures circling in the skies overhead and the well-presented assembly at a grand function taking place in one of the buildings.  Ostensibly, this genteel gathering might appear to stand in total contrast to the havoc outside, and yet right from the beginning there are hints that these people (a gathering of arms dealers) are really just another facet of it.  The title "Babylon" calls to mind the ancient city of Mesopotamia, along with its broader meaning in indicating any place of immense power or luxury that also harbours great vice and corruption, an association that stems from the Biblical references to Babylon in the Book of Revelation, and which points to the apocalyptic theme of the film.  Images of the guests greeting one another and talk among themselves are juxtaposed with further shots of the vultures, and a map of the world with illustrations depicting all manner of weaponry being distributed across the continents.  We also see another, separate character out on the balcony - the waiter of the function, who is smoking a cigarette and observing the vultures circling above him with apparent nonchalance.

Something I have to note about Babylon is just how ambitious it is upon a technical level, given the extensive number of stop motion figures involved (around fifty, according to one source), and the intricacies of the sets (both the dark grandeur of the meeting hall and the desolate urban wasteland outside), all of which was upon a scale that went far beyond anything that Aardman had attempted to date.  Only one character, credited simply as “The Speaker”, has any amount of significant dialogue (courtesy of Tony Robinson, who also supplied the voice of The Speechwriter in Death of a Speechwriter), with most of the communication between characters being conveyed through gestures and mannerisms, and the attention to detail for each individual figure, even the majority who serve merely as background “extras”, is nothing short of stunning.  Despite my earlier suggestion that Babylon is totally devoid of humour, there actually are a number of quirky little background details to be picked out here, in the very greatest of Aardman traditions.  Watch closely and you'll be rewarded by a variety of antics from the minor characters, one of my personal favourites being the gentleman seated next to the Speaker who falls asleep during the latter's speech, and the discreet efforts of his companion to rouse him.

The two most significant characters of the film, besides Robinson's Speaker, are the aforementioned waiter (who might be described as our protagonist, although he has very little involvement with the events in question and acts largely as a passive observer throughout) and a hulking, bald-headed man who has an intimidating presence right from the go.  He is threatening not merely for his hefty physique, but also for his vocalisations, which consist of low, beastly growlings that mark him out as a monstrous being and also give the film an eerie connection to Death of a Speechwriter, one of its fellow Sweet Disaster shorts.  As I noted in my respective entry upon Death of a Speechwriter, the growling noises emitted by this character are identical to those heard during Speechwriter's opening sequence, in which the camera circles the titular character in a manner evocative of a prowling predator.  It might seem a bit of a stretch to suppose that this therefore indicates that it is literally the same character entering and patrolling the Speechwriter's premises, but then there is something distinctly uncanny about the bald-headed man in Babylon.  He serves as the film's central metaphor - a personification of the perils of nuclear proliferation.  As the meeting progresses and his rapacious nature becomes increasingly apparent, we see him swell, quite literally, to monstrous proportions, with devastating consequences for those around him.

The mantra of "peace and profit", chanted by a whispering, disembodied voice, reoccurs repeatedly throughout the film, and is the reasoning that informs the impassioned speech delivered by the Speaker upon the virtues of proliferation.  By this, it is only through the "gentle philosophy of deterrence" that mankind can be protected from the machinations of his neighbour and from his inherently evil self, and the arms dealers, being the real peacekeepers, are therefore entitled to reap the monetary rewards (the relish with which the Speaker delivers the line "and that cost can be high" leaves no doubt as to where his real interests lie).  The Speaker's bombastic claims to be a facilitator of peace are undercut by the atmosphere in the meeting hall, in which the bald-headed man, an embodiment of the greed, corruption and intimidation that fuels the Speaker's philosophy, grows increasingly dominant.  As he terrorises the other guests into signing a succession of deals, the threat merely intensifies, to the extent that the other guests, despite their visibly desperate efforts to deal with the looming peril, are gradually overwhelmed, rendering them defenceless and inert.  As he reaches the climax of his speech, the Speaker regards the bald-headed man, now his sole remaining addresse, with something resembling awe - he is, after all, a monster of his own making.  And, as tends to be the case with monsters, he proves to be the means of his creator's undoing - in the film's most dramatic moment, the bald-headed man, swollen beyond all containment, finally bursts open at the chest and unleashes a literal bloodbath that obliterates the Speaker.

Babylon closes in a similar manner to how it began, with the waiter, one of the few figures left alive, retreating back outside to the balcony to observe the vultures circling overhead, albeit in a visibly more fearful and contemplative mood than when we initially joined him.  The vultures are one of the film's most prominent motifs - they are likely a direct nod to the "loathsome, carrion birds" that are mentioned in Biblical references to to the city of Babylon (Revelation 18:2), and obviously, can be taken as a metaphor of the arms dealers themselves, a link made explicit by the Speaker himself when he refers, with great indignation, to the "communists" who have dubbed them "the vultures of society".  Ultimately though, I suspect that the vultures point toward an even higher level of threat - that of the nuclear annihilation which is presently looming over the world outside.  Their human counterparts vanquished, the vultures continue to hover above the city, anticipating the spoils of a much bigger bloodbath that will shortly be coming to the world beyond the meeting hall.  The lights in the city buildings abruptly fade out, an indication of the darkness that lies ahead.  The words "peace and profit" are repeated yet again, a chilling reminder of the emptiness and futility of "peace" that is enforced purely through the omnipresent threat of annihilation.

Thus concludes Babylon, the forgotten masterpiece of Aardman's pre-Wallace and Gromit era.  Lord and Sproxton demonstrate their directorial prowess, and the character animation is truly outstanding, so it's little surprise that Park and Golly both had bright futures ahead of them, but Aardman never again made a film even remotely like it, so much so that its bleakness will likely prove startling to anyone familiar only with their later output.  Beautifully desolate and wonderfully haunting, it is an excellent entry to the Sweet Disaster series, a fascinating oddity among Aardman's work, and a film that greatly deserves to be regarded as much more than a mere footnote in Aardman's history, as the project that indirectly enabled Wallace and Gromit to get their first adventure off the ground.

Availability: Appears on the 2000 DVD release Aardman Classics.  In the US, it was previously released by Lumivision on the 1993 LaserDisc New British Animation: The Best of Channel Four.