Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The music of Vernon Elliot performed by the North Sea Radio Orchestra - 22 October 2009, Union Chapel

Sweetie fact: Sherbet Fountains no longer come in a paper tube, they’re in a re-sealable plastic container! Is this a good thing? Are we pleased that the liquorice stick is no longer exposed to air-borne pathogens and can’t be clutched at by a million grubby hands before we use it to shovel sherbety goodness into our gobs? Is it disheartening that we can no longer peel the paper tube down keeping level with the sherbet supply within until it becomes a soggy sugary stump? These important questions were raised last night at the Union Chapel, Islington.

We are gathered in the exquisite surrounds of the Chapel for Marginalised: The music of Vernon Elliot (Oliver Postgate) performed by the North Sea Radio Orchestra. A lot of love and care has gone into tonight’s event. There are dustbin lids and Music Trees decorating the stage (in homage to The Clangers); a cardboard Ivor the Engine puffs out a constant stream of ‘smoke’; and there are sweetie vendors peddling candy striped paper bags containing such delights as the aforementioned fountain, a miniature bag of Chocolate Buttons, Sherbet Lemons, Black Jacks and some rather clammy Cola Bottles. Upstairs in the bar, folks are gathered round a table indulging in a spot of cutting and sticking, creating character masks.

Even more care has been lavished on the musical programme: a selection of musical pieces based on the original scores of Vernon Elliott, the composer who created soundtracks for Smallfilms. If you’re a child of the 60s or 70s, Oliver Postgate’s and Peter Firmin’s Smallfilms will be dear to you. The music will kick off all kinds of nostalgia trips. Jonny Trunk knows this. He also knows that Smallfilms created things of beauty (yes, ‘Bagpuss’ is a thing of beauty) that should be celebrated like any other artform. He is here tonight to introduce each segment of the programme in a sort of eccentric groovy uncle manner. It is he who gets us making the Ivor The Engine ‘shh-tch-kuff’ noise en masse (“starting slowly then speeding up”). Just before the interval, he enthusiastically introduces a three minute audio clip of Oliver Postgate testing microphone sound levels. His love of and enthusiasm for Smallfilms is endearing and infectious.

After an introductory film about the Margins project – the very deserving recipient of proceeds from tonight - the evening proper begins with the North Sea Radio Orchestra playing a fantasia medley of music from Smallfilms. This is accompanied by a charmingly ’naive’ film by Arctic Circle Cinema in which hand-drawn, paper cut-out versions of characters from the programmes are wiggled about on sticks.

For the rest of the evening we are shown clips from the actual Smallfilms animations, one of which, ‘Pingwings’, I have never heard of. The clip we are shown is brilliant and hilarious, the tiny knitted penguins (for that is what the Pingwings are) shuffling about an actual real-life farm in stop-motion. Or hanging philosophically from a washing line, pegged up by the beak. The small girl seen in the film is Josie Firmin, Peter’s daughter. And she is here tonight (now a grown-up lady) selling her pottery. Sweet.

I heard the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s Ivor The Engine Theme and Variations on ‘Freakzone’ earlier in the week and was eager to hear this truly wonderful piece of music again. It’s the most rousing of the pieces played tonight, not least because it features, gasp! a drum-kit, which rattles militaristically, there’s also an excellent sonorously squidgy cello / keyboard sound adding the tiniest tone of foreboding to the music.

‘Land Of Our Fathers’ (yes, the Welsh national anthem) completes the Ivor set and lawks! the audience is invited to sing along with the third verse to create a suitably stirring ‘chorusing in the aisles’ feel. It’s blimmin’ hard to sing – even in English.

There’s a cheer as the Noggin The Nog section is introduced. I never really got into the Nog, being a tad too young when it was being regularly shown, so it’s a pleasure to suck on a sherbet lemon, soak up the atmospheric music and admire the artwork – brooding Nordic vistas, creepy forests and of course the villainously moustachioed Nogbad the bad. Brrr!

The centre piece of the performance is the orchestra playing a live soundtrack to a complete episode of The Clangers. This of course includes some sterling Swanee Whistle work as The Clangers chatter away to one another.

And so to songs from ‘Bagpuss’. The iconic (yes indeed!) opening to every episode is played “Once upon a time, not so long ago…” I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one clamping my jaw shut so I don’t inadvertently chant along with the familiar words. The North Sea Radio Orchestra plays the twinkly theme tune and run it into the ‘We will fix it’ mices’ song. At this point people are almost head-banging (albeit gently) such is their glee. A selection of songs taken from the vaults of the Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ are aired, including the ace ‘Uncle Feedle’ sung by Madeleine the doll sound-alike Sharron Fortnam (I think). It would fit perfectly on any ‘underground folk’ compilation.

And so, with Jonny Trunk encouraging us all to do big Bagpuss yawns, proceedings and brought to a gentle, joyful close.

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