Do You Believe in Rock and Roll?
Animal Kwackers: The Complete Series on DVD
When confronted by Animal Kwackers, an experience more like being dragged from wakefulness into a land of nightmares than a mere programme, I was reminded of a critic whose opinion of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was that “the only analysis it deserves is psychoanalysis.” This seems a reasonable reaction to a programme that features a band of large animals with oversized heads playing hit pop tunes and customised nursery rhymes, especially as the creatures all seem to have some kind of injury over and above their unfortunate swollen noggins.
Boots the tiger has an eyepatch (the loss of his eye is never explained although I suspect slavish worship at the altar of Dr Hook may be the cause), Rory the lion has the slack jaw symptom familiar in stroke victims; Twang the monkey has clearly had a head injury at some point, and Bongo the dog…well I’ll come back to Bongo. One thing they also have in common are wide staring eyes (or eye) that burn through the camera into the viewers’ darkest fears.
As you might expect, the sight of these creatures performing is odd and sets the tone for the programme’s unique atmosphere. If you’ve seen the end of the nuclear war film Threads, where mute humans sit watching an old video of Words and Pictures, then you’ll get the idea. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that just off camera in Threads the hideously mutated Animal Kwackers band are performing Brand New Key to the last of humanity before turning on them savagely.
There’s something about the show that lends itself to fanciful reveries like this, but usually I’m not fan of the “weird shows for kids, the people making them must have been on drugs” form of nostalgia. It’s worth remembering that while some children did find the Kwackers terrifying, the majority loved the show, enabling the band to tour successfully live for ten years, indeed long after the show itself had gone off the air. There was a spin-off album, and they even ended up performing in front of Princess Anne although apparently she was more traumatised by that experience than the kidnap attempt.
Much of the weirdness of the show is in the retrospective eye of the present-day viewer. If we’re rational about it, I’m sure we all realise that Animal Kwackers is a fairly straightforward implementation of Piaget’s ideas about educating children through their preoperational stage of magical thinking as represented in his book The Moral Judgment of the Child. Bongo, Rory, Twang and Boots are textbook tools of cognitive development, helping to ‘build’ the child’s knowledge and moral ideas through observation of the helpful, altruistic actions of the Kwackers. Unfortunately, in the neo-Piagetian landscape we now inhabit, the Kwackers leave us, technically speaking, fucked up and fearful.
There are 37 episodes of Animal Kwackers on this release as two are missing from the archive. This is a shame as one of the missing episodes features the Kwackers doing covers of The Pink Floyd’s Astronomy Domine and Gong’s Radio Gnome Invisible, but aside from this 37 episodes should certainly be enough for most sane viewers as they all follow a rigid format. The opening credits feature the band flying into Popland on their spaceship Discovery and introducing themselves before performing an opening number. Rory then acquiesces to his bandmates desire for him to tell them a story which is interrupted midway by another song before a final track at the end after which they reboard the Discovery and presumably fly off to a post-gig party populated by giant-headed groupies.
The stories invariably feature the Kwackers doing good deeds – they continually state that “Animal Kwackers always know how to help” – but still contrive to be unsettling. One fairly typical example involves the Kwackers stepping in to help another band whose glitter suits have shrunk after being caught in the rain. Twang uses his magic guitar to find the end of the rainbow where they encounter a group of spiders who weave the band a new set of outfits. All this is accompanied by a series of hallucinatory static pictures enlivened by the most energetic rostrum camera work ever witnessed until Ken Morse came on the scene. It’s almost a relief when this phantasmagoria is interrupted by a song, but this relief is usually short-lived especially if Bongo is to the fore.
Bongo epitomises the difference between Animal Kwackers and the superficially similar The Banana Splits Show. He resembles Drooper (even though Drooper was supposed to be a lion), but where Drooper was a blissed out hipster in a psychedelic universe, Bongo has the whispering menace of an escaped serial killer. If Drooper is Woodstock, then Bongo is most definitely Altamont. It seems somehow typically English that a programme that espouses helping your fellow human beings perversely contains truly terrifying moments such as Bongo (in the episode ‘Summer Time’) singing Gotta Keep Working in a voice and style that prefigures Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs by nearly ten years.
The songs are an interesting mix – the early series seem to have a greater number of pop tracks alongside the customised nursery rhymes and original material, but as late as the final series pop hits are still included, one weird instance (in ‘Monkeys’) being when the Kwackers take on The Goodies’ Funky Gibbon. It’s in the same episode where the band hit their musical low point with the didactic and trite Stop You Must Not Steal, which is the Kwacker’s equivalent of McCartney’s Give Ireland Back to the Irish, or Culture Club’s The War Song. On the whole though, the music isn’t bad, especially when the ska and reggae-inflected tracks come to the fore. Unfortunately, it’s never quite good enough to distract you from the visuals, which remain bizarre throughout.
Animal Kwackers is a show that’s always been appropriated by people other than its intended audience. It was a pre-school show that held a lot of attraction for people like me who were at infant school when it started and therefore usually didn’t get to see it. In subsequent years it has been top of the list of “weird” old children’s programmes that archive television enthusiasts were desperate to see. In many ways then, it’s a tribute to the show that even after all that anticipation, it manages not to disappoint. Watching Animal Kwackers is like being in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who episode Blink – whatever you do when you’re watching it, don’t blink. Or Bongo will get you.
Animal Kwackers: The Complete Series is released by Network