"Pugh, Pugh, Barney, McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub." Gibberish? No. These are the names of the firemen, called out by the narrator as the stop-motion characters slid down the pole in the children’s TV show Trumpton. I didn’t have to look these names up; I still remember them from watching this show as a small child growing up in England in the 1960s and '70s.
I‘m pretty sure the members of Radiohead grew up watching Trumpton and Camberwick Green, too. The video for their latest single "Burn the Witch" basically takes the plot of 1973 film The Wicker Man and transposes it into Trumpton. In the original, Mayor; Mrs. Cobbit, the florist; Windy Miller, the... er.. miller; and Chippy Minton, the carpenter go about their daily business of life in a quintessential English town. In the music video, they’re more interested in witch ducking, building gallows, drinking scrumpy, conducting pagan rituals, and baking bleeding deer pie.
The shows of my childhood out-strange this music video
The joke, it would seem, is that the video transforms a light children’s show from my past into a surreal psychodrama. But what’s strange about the new Radiohead video is that it’s not that over-the-top. If anything, the shows of my childhood completely out-strange "Burn the Witch."
In addition to the jerky stop motion of the Trumptonshire, there was also The Magic Roundabout. The show aired just before the 6 o‘clock evening news. As soon as it ended my brother and I would always start fighting. The Magic Roundabout was kind of Seinfeld for kids: it was about nothing. The eclectic cast of characters includes Dougal, the dog; Brian, the snail; Ermintrude, the cow; Dylan, the hippy rabbit (who was unashamedly and perpetually stoned); Florence, a normal girl and the only sane character in the whole show; and Zebedee, who had a red face, a mohawk, mustache, and a spring instead of legs. The motley crew would have various crazy adventures that never made any sense, even to a five year old. The show ended when Zebedee said "Time for Bed," which was also my cue to punch my brother, starting our ritual evening fight, followed by my mother shouting, "Just wait til your father gets home!"
If The Magic Roundabout was weird, Roobarb and Custard Too was borderline insane. Rhubarb (the dog) and Custard (the cat) were quarreling enemies who got into various spats while the birds in the garden egged them on. All of the voices were provided by the narrator Richard Briers, a charming, quintessentially English actor whose calming voice acted as a smooth counterpoint to the insane, jerky, shaky, manic marker-pen animation. Roobarb and Custard Too also aired just before the 6 o’clock evening news, meaning it had a similar effect on its young audience as drinking two cans of Red Bull just before bedtime.
The cartoon equivalent of drinking Red Bull before bed
The success of Roobarb and Custard Too clearly went to the team’s head. Their subsequent show Noah and Nelly pushed the boundaries of surreal children’s TV just a little bit too far. I actually can’t tell you what Noah and Nelly was about because I absolutely have no idea. All I remember was Noah had a pirate accent; he and his wife wore rain hats (it rained all the time which is the only part of the show that felt grounded in reality); and they travelled around in an inflatable arc full of animals, and various household appliances came to life, and everyone drank lots of tea.
The video for "Burn the Witch" is an exercise in dark nostalgia that is explicitly unsettling with its satanic imagery and human sacrifice. But Thom Yorke and his chums could have kept it really simple and just played the song over real episodes of Trumpton. That would have totally screwed with our childhood memories and probably made us question our entire upbringing.
But for those of you who didn’t grow up in a small English town and want to experience true home county's angst, I suggest putting on your favorite Radiohead album while watching a mashup of The Magic Roundabout and Noah and Nelly on a loop. And then remind yourself that generations of British children grew up watching these shows for real. It explains a lot.