James Millar: Today's politics needs more Clangers from the 1970s
When Harold Wilson was facing the electorate in 1974 we rated politics important enough to teach young kids about it.
There is no shortage of parallels between politics now and in the 1970s. Tiny majorities in the Commons, a national lack of cash, vexing foreign policy challenges, a woman in charge of the Conservatives, a referendum on Europe and not least a rather unpredictable chap in the White House.
But what’s different is that you don’t get election episodes of The Clangers any more. And that is actually a vital change.
I came across the script to the 1974 Clangers election special on a recent visit to Canterbury Heritage Museum. (It’s inevitably threatened by council cuts, locals are staging a spirited rearguard action to save it.)
The Kent cathedral city was home to Firmin Films, the studio that churned a series of kiddy hits including Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and of course The Clangers.
And yes there really was a script. Despite the fact Clangers only speak in whistles the geniuses behind the series always wrote out the words they were supposed to be conveying.
In 1974, with the nation facing a second general election in eight months the BBC decided to explain the constitution and its import to the nation’s children via the medium of a colony of pink space mice. (It makes sense if you remember that absolutely everyone was on drugs back then).
The fascinating script sees Postgate’s narrator explain that all the noise emanating from Britain was “the sound of Democracy at work”. He adds: “That is the proudest moment of the British people – a parliamentary election.”
And he doesn’t stop there. Singlehandedly destroying any argument that TV has not dumbed down in the last 50 years he goes on to provide a definition of political parties for pre-schoolers. He explains that parties “have unity and loyalty and faith in a cause” and they exist to get things done.
There’s no insinuation that it’s all about power for its own sake and politicians lining their own pockets, the sort of tropes repeated on the doorsteps of Stoke and Copeland over the last few weeks.
The script can be dismissed as frippery but I reckon it says something more fundamental about the change in our attitude to democracy and in turn the rise of populism and it’s cheerleading bampots like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.
Back then the world was in flux but there was a near universal trust in politics and democracy to find a way through.
Bear in mind 1974 was only one generation on from the Second World War and only a few years on from politicians averting a nuclear war over Cuba.
The programme contains a pride in our democracy and represents a duty to explain and imbue its values in the young. Today, instead of civic information on Cbeebies there’s Tree Fu Tom arsing around on an acorn.
And while the globe faces a no less complex scenario than in 1974 the reaction is to shrug our collective shoulders at best and at worst talk down politics and write off politicians as venal and selfish.
Schools teach more about politics these days (though I’d argue not enough) because the atmosphere is contaminated by distrust and distaste for the practice. The vast majority of parents in the 1970s would have gone to vote – twice in 1974 – because it was their duty. Turnout in the February election hit nearly 80%.Turnout in today’s by-elections will do well to scrape half that.
Of course the 70s were different times. There was only three TV channels and limited programming for kids. Politicians accrued some respect, but then most people only saw their local MP when he opened the village fete rather than being able to tune in to watch the antics in parliament any time of day. The goings on were recorded in papers of record and reported by titans of journalism – neither of those are commonplace now.
And there’s plenty of things from the 1970s best left in the past – flared trousers, sexual attitudes and supermousse desserts for example.
Yet if children were taught from the youngest age not just how democracy works but that it’s impressive and those that practice it – including voters – deserve some respect for getting off their backsides and getting involved would the ‘drain the swamp’ message of Donald Trump gain traction? Would the UK’s political discourse be improved if the ‘Westminster is wicked’ insinuations of Ukip and the SNP could be discounted?
The Clangers have been resurrected and returned to children’s telly (now narrated by Michael Palin, who – like parliamentary elections - surely embodies all that is nice and good about Britain). If the programme can come back, perhaps its attitude to democracy and citizenship can too.
Picture by PA Archive/PA Images.