"Here is the clock, the Trumpton clock. Telling the time, steadily, sensibly; never too quickly, never too slowly. Telling the time for Trumpton."
Those words, spoken by the instantly recognisable voice of Brian Cant, can effortlessly transport a whole generation back to their childhood. And not just those who were children in the 1960s and '70s, but their parents too, who would sit with them to watch Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley.
This week the creator of the "Trumptonshire Trilogy", puppeteer and stop-motion animation pioneer Gordon Murray, passed away at the age of 95. But rather than mourn his passing, let's celebrate his enduring work, which helped define the childhood of hundreds of thousands of British TV viewers.
In the 1960s children's TV was still a fairly new concept and presented in grainy black and white. Then, on January 3rd, 1966, came the first episode of Camberwick Green, a 15-minute stop-motion animation children's programme, and the very first to be aired in colour – a boon for the privileged minority with a colour TV set!
Over the next three months it would introduce a cast of characters including Dr Mopp, Windy Miller, Mrs Honeyman, PC McGarry (Number 452) and the cadets of Pippin Fort, run by Captain Snort and Sergeant-Major Grout. Each episode introduced a new character, appearing from inside a musical box to the words: "Here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside. Can you guess what is in it today?"
Almost all of the villagers in Camberwick Green had their own songs and travelling songs, all sung by narrator Brian Cant. The stories were simple, about ordinary people doing everyday things, and conjured up an idyllic village community where, even when things went wrong, everything worked out fine in the end.
The 13 episodes included a lot of repeated sequences, mainly to cut down on the time it took to make each episode using the painstaking stop-motion process. But the repetition also proved popular with young viewers, who enjoyed the comfortable familiarity and learned the various songs and phrases. It's a principle still used today in TV programmes for very young viewers.
The success of Camberwick Green led to Trumpton, first aired between January and March 1967, and then Chigley, running from October to December 1969. Introducing new villages and new characters, they followed the same format of 13 episodes, each lasting 15 minutes, written by Gordon Murray using the same team of animators and narrated by Brian Cant.
Collectively known as the Trumptonshire Trilogy, their settings are thought to have been inspired by the East Sussex villages of Wivelsfield Green, Plumpton and Chailey, though Gordon Murray never confirmed that for fear of the area being "inundated with tourists". Whether any of the characters were inspired by real life is not documented!
Perhaps best-known was the middle series, Trumpton, in which all but one episode featured the local fire brigade and its memorable roll call of "Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble Grubb." They responded to all manner of Trumpton emergencies but, much to the frustration of fire chief Captain Flack, hardly ever a fire. Only in one episode are they called to put out a fire, after a broken rocking horse is put on a bonfire by rag and bone man Raggy Dan, unaware it has carpenter Chippy Minton's life savings hidden inside. Answering the fire station telephone, Captain Flack exclaims: "A fire! A real fire!"
The final series, Chigley, included lots of guest appearances by residents of the nearby villages of Trumpton and Camberwick Green, again allowing for prudent 'recycling' of previously recorded sequences and songs and reducing the need to film new ones. However, there were some new characters, including local aristocrat Lord Belborough and his faithful butler Bracket, who spent much of their time running their private steam railway.
Each episode ended when the six o'clock whistle sounded to mark the end of the working day at Cresswell's Chigley Biscuit Factory and the whole village converged on Winkstead Hall for a dance as Lord Belborough played his vintage organ. If only real life was quite so predictable!
The popularity of the three series, comprising just 39 episodes in total, is evident in the fact that they were still being repeated on the BBC right up to 1985, and then on Channel 4 from 1994 to 2000. And so we say a heartfelt thank you to Gordon Murray and his wonderful fictional world of three small villages whose characters, songs and animated sequences somehow conjure up a happier and simpler time.
• For those keen to relive their childhood, digitally restored DVD versions of all the episodes from Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley are now available from various online retailers.