Let me tell you why, in the grand scheme of things, I’ll back the BBC to the hilt. It stems from the winter of 2009, when Daniel was quite literally a babe in arms, and on the occasions he had trouble sleeping at night (which was often) we would be beset by a screaming child, thrashing in his bed, at two or three in the morning or any other time of night that suited him. Absolutely nothing would comfort him apart from episodes of In The Night Garden on the BBC iPlayer, which had an inexplicably mesmeric effect. The inconsolable baby would become instantly calm and serene as he stared at the colourful characters and the gentle stories in which they were embroiled. I don’t know how Kay Benbow did it, but after that, I’m willing to forgive the BBC for just about anything.
In The Night Garden burst onto our screens almost a decade ago as the spiritual successor (and, in many ways, direct emulator) of Teletubbies. It featured a beautiful, tranquil forest populated by a cast of happy creatures of varying shapes and sizes. There’s the cave-dwelling Makka Pakka, whose stone-stacking and face-washing borders on obsessive compulsive. There is Upsy Daisy, who has a skirt that flares up, Marilyn Monroe style, when she wants to dance, and a bed that follows her around (which is surely a Dragon’s Den patent in waiting). There are the Tombliboos, who live in a bush in a sort of multi-tiered structure, playing loud music and constantly having to hitch up their trousers. There are the Pontipines – a family of ten, dressed a little like Catholic cardinals, living in a tiny house under a tree – and the Wottingers, their rarely seen, blue-garbed neighbours. Most intriguing of all is Igglepiggle, who doesn’t appear to actually live in the garden, given that he travels there at the beginning of every episode, security blanket in hand. There is thus the speculation that Igglepiggle is some embodiment of the consciousness of the sleeping child seen in the opening credits, perhaps an avatar of some sort. Well, they got the skin colour right.
The formulaic approach to In The Night Garden is part of its charm. The star-swept night sky bursts into flowers just as Igglepiggle’s boat ascends into the heavens, and then we’re in the Night Garden itself, where we are told to hang about while the Pinky Ponk catches up, or run in abject fear from the Ninky Nonk (why? Is it some kind of terrifying self-driving truck intent on running over whichever Pontipine gets in its way? Is this Duel, dressed up for the bedtime hour?). The characters have some sort of inconsequential adventure, they may or may not have a dance on the carousel, there’s a peculiar chant from the Tittifers (stop sniggering at the back there) and then we spend ten minutes saying goodbye to everyone. Nonetheless, particular episodes stand out. There’s ‘Sad and Happy Tombliboos’, in which the Tombliboos play free jazz, which makes everyone in the garden miserable. There’s ‘Mind the Haahoos’, an incredible high octane chase through the garden as the Ninky Nonk weaves in and out of the trees, only narrowly missing the giant balloons that inhabit the spaces in between. And then there’s ‘Igglepiggle’s Tiddle’, in which – oh, you figure it out.
The whole thing is voiced by Derek Jacobi, who does a cracking job, particularly with the singing. In The Night Garden contains the sort of nonsense language that would have made Spike Milligan proud, and those who level criticisms against both the characters’ apparent gibberish and the overall strangeness of the experience have broadly missed the point: this is not for you. It’s for your children, and children love it. They don’t just foist stuff like this upon an unsuspecting audience without checking it over. Kay Benbow knows what she’s doing. The phenomenal success of Teletubbies is testament to that.
“Honestly, though,” said my father, who mostly knows him as Cadfael. “All those ridiculous words. What must Derek Jacobi have made of it? What was he thinking when he recorded it?”
“The money, Dad?” I suggested.
(Side note: how to freak out your children, class 101. You show them the series three episode of Doctor Who in which Jacobi turns out to be the Master. And then you put them to bed with the songs and music from In The Night Garden playing on the iPod. On a loop.)
Anyway: I don’t know why I didn’t think of mashing up In The Night Garden with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s ‘In the Forest of the Night’ when it aired last autumn. Perhaps it was Edward’s recent fascination with the show (that’s In The Night Garden now, not the Doctor Who story, although he does like the tiger). Either way I spent much of Wednesday evening busy with Fireworks (my image manipulator of choice, although at some point I really ought to learn how to use Photoshop). It wasn’t plain sailing: I spent almost an hour getting the one with the Haahoos not quite right, but it is here anyway as an experiment gone wrong, and the rest aren’t too bad. At any rate they made my children laugh. Ultimately, isn’t that why I do this?