Music of Nature
Barge woman: You’ve never washed so much as a dishcloth in all your life!
Toad: Certainly not, you low, common… fat... barge woman!
—“The Further Adventures of Toad”
It’s fitting that the opening episode of The Wind in the Willows series is titled “The Further Adventures of Toad.” If you asked Toad (voiced by David Jason), he’d tell you he’s the star of the show. And why ever wouldn’t he be? It’s not as if Mole (Richard Pearson), Ratty (Peter Sallis) or even wise old Mr. Badger (Sir Michael Hordern) has any excitement in his life.
Almost a century old, Kenneth Grahame’s beloved story has been translated to a classic Disney film (1946) and a live action piece starring the chaps from Monty Python, but this gorgeous stop-motion animated version is the most memorable. The first season of the show (released on DVD by A&E, with a bonus season two episode as its only feature) expands the familiar themes of enduring friendship and the wonders of nature. Rich and silly Toad, artistic Ratty, shy Mole, and crotchety Badger here consider how they might affect “nature” rather than simply reside in it.
Egotistical and utterly deluded as to his own popularity, Toad’s adventures are by far the series’ best, owing much to Jason’s maniacal performance. If he’s not showing off his extravagant cars and fancy gadgets, he’s recounting his heroism and cunning, unaware of just how bombastically batty he sounds. “The Further Adventures of Toad” flashes back to the 1982 film that preceded the series (released to DVD late last year), featuring Toad in all manner of strife after stealing a motorcar and landing in jail. He escapes dressed as a peasant woman and later battles a swag of evil weasels who threaten his home. We see this story only in snippets, as Toad, now safely returned to Toad Hall, embellishes his tale for a gathering of unimpressed friends. They know all too well his penchant for tall tales and so do we, as the flashbacks (and Ian Carmichael’s narration) directly contradict everything he says.
“Toad did mention,” the narrator says as we watch the fight, “how courageously Ratty had fought the weasels and how the brave Mole had knocked ‘em for six, and how Badger had thumped ‘em and thumped ‘em and thumped ‘em. But mostly he reminded them of how, while others had been doing the actual fighting, he had been in command of the battle.” At this point, Toad is wailing while haphazardly swinging from a chandelier. But even mid-battle and a slippery hand away from his own peril, Toad never loses his enthusiasm.
At the same time, he maintains a certain innocence. Though Badger, Ratty, and Mole are often fed up with their boastful friend, they love him all the same. In episode two, when Toad is kidnapped by the weasels, he decides to up his own ransom from 50 pounds to 100 guineas; he is Toad of Toad Hall, for heaven’s sake. Aware that Toad got himself into this mess, Badger refuses to pay the ransom, but decides to free his friend himself. That’s the kind of thing friends do for each other in Wild Wood.
If Toad’s unfortunate events are almost always played for laughs, Mole, Ratty, and Badger have more serious issues to overcome. In “Mole’s Cousin,” the simple-living Mole wants to impress a rich cousin. It’s a lesson in self-respect for Mole, who resists Ratty and Toad’s attempts to make him over, as well as his home at Mole End. His decision is, of course, the right one. He’s just simple old Mole, you see. Ratty has a similar identity crisis in “Wayfarer’s All.” Dissatisfied with life in Wild Wood, he sees everyone around him as being too concerned with the coming winter to enjoy the last days of autumn. Unable to find anyone to share the remaining sun with him, he embarks on a sea adventure with a mysterious stranger, only to be drawn back to the Wood by his friends, who quickly regret even the possibility of a coming spring without Ratty.
The peaceful lives the denizens of Wild Wood lead are at times enviable, but trials do arise on occasion. These trials all have one purpose, to remind these four friends to live as presently as they can. In “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” Ratty and Mole rescue an otter’s child who went missing on a particularly dark night. They find the baby at “the gates of dawn,” a place deep in the Wood overseen by the mystical Piper, who does his best to keep the animals away from danger. Ratty tells Mole a “noise” led him to the spot where the otter lay, a noise he couldn’t pinpoint. At the end of the episode, a most appropriate is revealed:
And so they slept, for this was the last gift he could give them, the gift of forgetfulness. When they awoke, they would all be happy and lighthearted again, just as though they had never seen the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and as though this noise had only been the wind in the willows.