Trumptonshire under the microscopeSome thoughts on the programmes and the animation techniques used to make them.
Why ?In 1966 Gordon Murray brought us Camberwick Green as part of BBC television's "Watch With Mother" series. Following on from this success he then gave us Trumpton in 1967 and Chigley in 1969.
The characters of Trumptonshire obviously created a strong impression on the young television viewers of the time, and today, most British adults of around 30 years of age will look back with fond memories at Windy Miller, the Trumpton Fire Brigade, and the little steam engine, and yet many will be confused as to which characters belonged to which programme. This is probably due to the similarity in the three series, and the fact that the characters from one series would often appear in another.
Though the buildings were unfeasibly small - particularly the upper floors, and the characters appeared to wear heavy boots the Trumptonshire trilogy is undoubtedly a classic in children's television programmes. In 1977 BBC Wales thought it popular enough to dub Trumpton and Camberwick Green into Welsh. So what makes the programmes so memorable ?
Probably a variety of reasons: the plots were simple to follow without being silly. The settings were pleasant and brightly coloured. And whereas some other children's programmes used talking animals eg "Hector's House", or normally inaminate objects eg "The Herbs, or imaginary creatures eg "The Clangers", the Trumptonshire characters were meant to be real people with everyday problems. None of the characters had magical powers, so when Mr Carraway's truck broke down Mr Crockett had to tow it to his garage.
Freddie Phillip's songs and music were very important to the programmes. Virtually every character had his or her own song, identifying the character and his/her occupation. In fact, the characters' occupations were a central theme to the series - most of the jobs being practical in nature eg. postman, window cleaner, doctor, various shopkeepers, butler, farmer. Service industries were not well supported. Where was the accountant ? It could be said that the Trumptonshire programmes were all about the jobs people did.
Since the Trumptonshire programmes, several animated series for children hve been produced, based on characters with particular jobs. Many of these have been previously used in one of the Trumptonshire programmes:
Fireman Sam (The Trumpton Fire Brigade)
Windy and his mill have not (yet) inspired any modern children's programmes (only the quirky "Jonathan Creek" lives in a windmill).
There was a susprising lack of young children - Paddy and Mary Murphy Baby Honeyman in Camberwick Green, Winnie at the Chigley Pottery and no children at all in Trumpton. So, strangely, the target viewers would rarely be able to identify with the characters.
The vocabulary was surprisingly advanced
for a programme aimed at a young audience. Captain Flack's command to lower
the fire engine's hoist taught myself and I suspect many other youngsters
the meaning of the word "DESCEND !".
Intros and Outros
Chigley would begin with the narrator chatting to the main character to set the scene, and then the story would begin. It would end with the six o'-clock dance.
Camberwick Green was different in that the beginning of the programme showed a music box on what was clearly a desk. The film then cut to a close up of the music box as the star character rose up, against a plain background. The character's own background would then appear and after a quick chat with the narrator the story would begin. After the main body of the programme the narrator would have another quick chat to draw the episode to a close and the star character would descend into the box once more.
Tim Worthington writes:
I have come across a number of people my age who were frightened as children by the box itself, the accompanying music or (especially) the clown (incidentally, did Gordon Murray give this figure a name?). As Gordon Murray appears to have been a genuinely caring man, it is very possible that he discovered children found these details unnerving and so opted to omit them in future. Strange, I know, but I have read that other programmes (for example Bagpuss) met with this sort of reaction.
Alternately, there is the fact that
the Music Box sequence had to be partially refilmed each episode. Both
Trumpton and Chigley use a greater amount of standardised repeated footage
per episode which required no retouching.
I asked Gordon Murray why the music box idea was not carried on in Trumpton and he replied:
"The idea behind the Camberwick music-box
was that the static figure 'came to life' - and music boxes have always
fascinated me! It was not used in Trumpton as I had the mechanical clock
characters. To have had both would be overdoing it !"
Animation TechniquesUnlike the puppets on strings approach used in "Bill & Ben" or "Thunderbirds", the characters of Trumptonshire appear to move due to the technique of "stop-frame animation". This involves taking a single still picture (frame) and then moving the subject (and/or the camera) by a small amount and taking another still frame, and so on. When the still frames are viewed rapidly in succession, the result is apparent movement. It is really a 3-D version of an animated cartoon, but using models rather than drawn pictures. The technique has been used extensively in many other childrens' series such as Oliver Postgate's "Bagpuss", and Serge Danot's "The Magic Roundabout". Even today the likes of Nick Park (of Aardman animation) and his award winning "The Wrong Trousers" show that stop frame animation is alive and well.
Bob Bura & John Hardwick did the animation for all 39 Trumptonshire episodes. Read their recollections in their interview section.
One of the problems when filming, is that it is difficult to anticipate what the final movement will eventually look like, and this can sometimes produce unnatural or uneven movement. The zoom towards the clock in the opening titles of Trumpton is a little jerky to say the least. It also gives rise to the Trumptonshire characters having a unique walk - almost as if they are wearing magnetic shoes.
To get an idea of the size of the characters
and sets, the characters' heads were made from table-tennis (ping-pong)
balls. This means that an adult character's height would be about 7" or
18cm tall. See "The Cast - where are they now ?"
section for a picture of the last surviving puppet. Most animators seem
to work with this size of puppet - probably because it is large enough
to handle and achieve sufficient detail, yet small enough to allow the
sets to remain of manageable size.
Stop frame animation also gives problems of positioning the subject between shots. For instance in the Trumpton episode "The Greenhouse" the fire brigade are called to pull down a chimney. Look out for the very fine thread used to support the chimney as it "falls".
Steam and running water are difficult to work with, so substitutes are used - look out for the cotton wool which comes out of Bessie's chimney in Chigley, and the "juice" coming from the apple press in the "Apples Galore" episode of Chigley. For the Trumpton series, script writer Alison Prince was asked to come up with 13 stories involving the Trumpton fire brigade, but with the proviso that they should not involve water, steam or fire !
In the "Trouble with the Crane" Chigley episode, Private Armitage dives into the cannal, but does so behind the boat so we don't see him enter the water. Similarly, in the "Cuthbert's Aunt" episode of Trumpton, Cuthbert falls into the duck pond, and we only see him as a head above the water, after he has fallen in. In both cases the difficulty of dealing with the puppet falling into the water and gradually becoming submerged is completely avoided.
Interestingly in the Camberwick Green episode "PC McGary" Windy Miller placates the bees using real smoke, which works well as non-animated technique - but note that there is no other movement in this shot. Even Windy himself is completely still.
One unusual feature of the Trumptonshire characters (which few people notice) is that most of them do not normally have mouths. This simplifies things greatly as no mouth movement is therefore required. To identify the character who is speaking, he or she waves his hands about - all rather clever. On the odd occasion that the characters shout or whistle, mouths are used, for example Sergant Major Grout giving orders to the soldier boys.