In State of Emergency, his comprehensive tour of early ’70s Britain, the historian Dominic Sandbrook suggests that in that decade, British children shared more of a common culture than they had done at any time previously. Whatever their class or regional background, the kids of the ’70s all had a stake in the same playscape, and delighted in the same toys; the space hoppers, Chopper bikes, Scalextric sets and Sindy dolls that appeared as if by magic on cold Christmas mornings. More significant was the spread of cultural artefacts, which had expanded from the ’60s diet of pop music and soccer to include television shows. By 1971, television sets were available in the living rooms of 90 percent of British households, with reception increasingly offered r in color. This reach, made possible by a growth in hire purchase arrangements, meant that even the poorest sections of society could participate in a democratized and polychromatic televisual culture.
These technological and economic developments also gave the kids’ TV of the ’70s the gift of longevity; the combination of popular reach and color production future-proofed them against the next few decades of innovation and ensured a market for reruns that would last until the beginning of the 21st century. Consequently, while the black and white animations of earlier periods, such as Andy Pandy (1950), Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1953) and A Rubovian Legend (1955) were certainly remembered, and to a certain extent, nostalgized, the colour cartoons of the late ’60s and ’70s remained current and viable to several consecutive cohorts.
There is a sense that this phenomenon is peculiar to animation. While the children’s programming of the ’50s and ’60s included such long-runners as the story-telling show Jackanory (1965-1996) and magazine program Blue Peter (1958-present), these live-action shows were constantly made anew. Later editions, while recognisably the same program, were as distinct from earlier episodes as Goodfellas is from White Heat. The result is that while every generation of kids from the ’70s to the ’90s had its own Blue Peter, they shared the same Roobarb and Custard.
The cycle of repeats meant that even as new programs were devised, those of the ’70s never really went away to be forgotten or preserved as cultural museum pieces as their predecessors had been. Instead, they formed a growing and vital canon, dominated by the work of independent production companies such as Smallfilms, whose ’70s halcyon days produced beloved institutions such as The Clangers (1969-1972), and Bagpuss (1974). Another example is Cosgrove Hall, which made Chorlton and the Wheelies (1976-1979), Danger Mouse (1981-1992), and Count Duckula (1988-1992). It’s notable that, in recognition of the changed televisual landscape, Smallfilms spent part of the ’70s producing color remakes of their earlier hits Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog, ensuring that they too could be enjoyed in perpetuity, as long as they were not in monochrome.
This living nostalgia is detectable in the anticipation felt by new parents at the joy of revisiting these old shows with their children and delighting in them over and over. It’s even more acute as a reactionary conservatism that kicks in when they discover, on reaching that part of the TV guide that they had spent their teens and their 20s skipping, that many such programs are still being made, but in a radically different way. Staples form the ’80’s such as Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends, The Wombles, and Fireman Sam have been remade in pristine CGI, eschewing the stop motion in which they had previously been rendered, and perhaps losing a little of their charm along the way.
Of course, complaints about the style of animation are as nothing when compared to the horrified discovery that the theme music of these cartoons has also been changed, their jaunty instrumental melodies having been replaced by rhythmically violent updates, sung or rapped in chorus. Still, the smaller ears in the household remain deaf to protests that “this was different in my day, you know,” and even the larger ones start to accept the change, eventually.
Complainers who cannot be soothed by their children’s enthusiasm should perhaps abandon their nostalgia for specific programs and look a little bit closer at the EPG where they may find undiscovered treasures. Sarah and Duck, made by the independent production company Karrot Animation, is something of a throwback to the golden age. Like its contemporary, Peppa Pig, the show avoids obvious computer gimmickry (though processors are undoubtedly used in its production) and offers a pleasingly lo-fi, deliberately imperfect animated world.
Sarah and Duck’s charms are not limited to its mode of presentation. Like the best of its predecessors, the show makes a virtue of finding dazzling wonderment in the everyday. Its protagonists, the curious young girl Sarah and her pet mallard Duck, inhabit a world that reflects the spatial limits of the average pre-schooler and in which certain environments, among them home and garden, the bus and the shop, loom large in their minds only to be expanded through the sweet expedient of imagination. Their adventures blend the ordinary with the fantastic so skilfully that when a trip to the fairground results in Sarah and Duck befriending the moon, we’re happy to go along for the ride. It’s a reminder that the mundane vistas of our day-to-day lives are filled with the potential for astonishment if you’re young enough to still see them as new.
The show rewards attention to detail with recurrent visual motifs in the background (lemons are a favourite, as are, inevitably, ducks) and a smattering of tiny reminders that this is our world refracted through childlike imagination. The bus that Sarah rides is powered by a rear-mounted fan propeller, while the PA system in the shop simply describes the place as “The Big Shop”. This is the real world as children see it, their imaginations taking over where understanding fails them and handy labels overextended into definiteness.
Appropriately, each seven minute episode avoids narrative directness in favour of skipping through happenstance. The episode “Woollen Music” follows Sarah and Duck as they meet their friend Scarf Lady (her name another example of childlike metonymy), who, after the youngsters harvest wool from a weeping woollen tree, knits them a fully playable trumpet and drum. These are then accidentally shrunk in the wash, allowing Sarah to use the trumpet as a rudimentary microscope to observe a gang of insects who then use the miniaturised instruments to take part in a swing jazz jam session that closes the episode. This is a butterfly narrative, zipping from point to point of interest as a far as a wandering imagination will take us.
The swing jazz, music from the youth of the present generation’s great grandparents, signals another of Sarah and Duck’s quaint quirkiness, the use of unexpected musical references. In a later episode, “Strawberry Soufflé”, Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers is used to soundtrack an aerial dance that takes place in a giant pink soufflé that resembles London’s Albert Hall. Characters, among them Scarf Lady and the sentient moustachioed rainbow (stay with me here) that our heroes met a couple of episodes back, join them in a delightful parade that demonstrates the width of wonder. The colours, among them yellow, pink, white and green are rather more muted than we might expect from a modern cartoon, but the result is no less striking. The joy here comes not from visual overload but from a surfeit of imagination.
A light structure is provided by narration from veteran Shakespearean (and occasional screen villain) Roger Allam, whose warm, grandfatherly tones add to the sense of gentle comfort, and doubly so when he makes his frequent incursions into the narrative itself. He provides Sarah (and the quacking Duck) with conversation and words of instruction and encouragement and represents a disembodied parent figure that accompanies them on their otherwise unescorted trips around their world. His tender prompts offer a touch of the guiding metaphor that has been the hallmark of children’s stories ever since they were transmitted orally.
These positive reinforcements are implicit in the pair’s adventures. In one episode, Sarah and Duck meet and come to the aid of an umbrella that dislikes the rain. In another, Duck goes to great lengths to cheer up his companion when she is unwell; recruiting a gang of anatine associates to form a chorus to serenade her from outside the doctor’s waiting room. The lessons never feel forced or intrusive, and instead form part of the show’s general warm coziness.
Sarah and Duck is a cartoon of quietly insistent charm that takes joy as its raw material and delivers it as its output. If there is a canon of British children’s animation, then it deserves its place in it and, like its fellows, to be repeated for the pleasure of children as yet unborn. What is certain is that Sarah and Duck is a delightful program for young children to enjoy from the comfort of their parents’ laps as they see it for the first time together. Yes, it is something of a throwback to an earlier age but that doesn’t matter to young children and neither, for all that, should it matter to us.