Camberwick Green: The Complete Series Review
Strange how disassociations form over the years. There may have ever been one television show to begin with a rotating music box but that it was Camberwick Green wasn't obvious, least not as the years and at least two decades passed. Camberwick Green, however, it is with the black-and-red, hexagonal music box gently turning around on what we assume to the Gordon Murray's desk before it opens and the star of that week's episodes appears. An opening as superb as that of Mr Benn - "Who's he going to be this week? The Red Knight? The Chef?" - Camberwick Green invites its audience to be involved. Guessing who the episode will be about is part of the fun of watching Camberwick Green as well as to say hello and goodbye with the character in the music box waving to the audience as the episode opens and closes.
Like Trumpton, which was actually shown a year after Camberwick Green, the show is set in a small village. Unlike the square of the market town of Trumpton, the focus of the village this time around is the green itself, with the rural setting of Camberwick Green lending itself to stories about normal village life - a doctor, a policeman, a mechanic, a baker, the village gossip and an army garrison outside of town. As one might expect, given the nature of village life - think of a place where warm cider is served on a summer's evening, spinsters cycle to church on a Sunday morning and the thwack of leather on willow can still be heard - the stories in Camberwick Green are of a gentle nature and the narration by Brian Cant helps enormously. Like an Orson Welles for the pre-schoolers of the seventies, Cant's voice is instantly recognisable and just as comforting, bringing with it the feeling of there being a certain rightness about things that is reflected in the charming goings-on in Camberwick Green.
"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 ?" And so begins each episode, with the inhabitants of Camberwick Green coping with a minor crisis. Whether it be the arrival of the postman during the morning parade at Pippin Fort (Peter the Postman), the nesting of bees in the village green (PC McGarry) or a suspected case of Chicken Pox (Dr Mopp). There's even a tale of market forces in Farmer Jonathan Bell, where Bell, the owner of the most modern farm in Camberwick can't sell his eggs locally because everyone is buying the free range eggs produced by Windy Miller. This being a pre-Thatcher era, Farmer Bell and Windy Miller sort out their differences over a glass of cider and agree to settle their differences with the two of them remaining firm friends.
And friendship is what binds the villagers together, with no one ever losing their temper at another. Captain Snort and the soldier boys may get a little confused when their morning parade is interrupted but soon calm down when an explanation is offered. There may be a fussing as village gossip Mrs Honeybun walks between the shops but it's all of a nothing come the end of the day. Poor Windy Miller may even find himself lifted into the air by Mr Dagenham, the Salesman, and his new helicopter but he's safely lowered to the ground and pays his short trip no mind. And Farmer Bell might be a touch annoyed when his truck runs out of petrol whilst racing Windy Miller who's chosen to ride on his trusty tricycle, but it's all settled, once again, over a glass of cider.
Although other characters may come and go, throughout it all is the character of Windy Miller, the owner of Colley's Mill, which is a mile or two outside of the village. Thanks to the world turning against the harmless old farmer due to a suspicion of rural types, not to mention David Jason's objectionable playing of Pop Larkin, the likes of Windy Miller are now seen as potential rapists and murderers but not here. Windy is from the days before the Darling Buds of May and for an audience who won't yet have seen Straw Dogs, where a farmer and his superstitions are nothing to be feared. Windy may whistle in to the sky to bring the wind and he may touch a chimney sweep's collar for luck but he's always there when called upon to lend a hand. Whether that be delivering milk when an accident with a forklift truck smashes all the bottles at the diary or grinding some corn when Paddy Murphy the baker has run out of flour, Windy is always there. However, he's still not adverse to a drop of cider and has his moment of drunken snoozing in Windy Miller after drinking some of his strong cider on a particularly sunny afternoon.
However, hard is the heart that doesn't cheer Windy Miller on when Farmer Jonathan Bell challenges him to a race. Like the hare and the tortoise, the whole village comes out to cheer Windy on and the framing of English village life is complete. This is a beautiful little show and no matter the forty years that have passed since its making, it captured the eyes of my eighteen-month-old daughter, who waved the characters in and out of the show and cheered as the music box opened. That Camberwick Green still has that power to charm shows what a well-written and well-made show it was and that regardless of its treatment here, it really is a classic of children's television.
If you remember the review of Trumpton, you may remember that the main criticism of the set was the wobble in the picture. Unfortunately, this remains in place in Camberwick Green although not to the same extent. Indeed, as much as it's disappointing to see the wobble in place in the first episode - watching it on a television is akin to seeing it projected onto an old sheet that's waving in a gentle breeze - the picture does feature much less movement than did Trumpton or, at least, it's not as noticeable.
However, the other problems remain with this sporting a good deal of damage, a soft, grainy picture and the brightness of the image falling away in the four corners of the screen. By all accounts, the original masters of these Gordon Murray shows have been lost and although there's the feeling that it's better to have them than not at all, a casual buyer may be disappointed by these. Otherwise, the soundtrack is fine but is a touch noisy in places and unbalanced, with it being a little too trebly throughout. There are no subtitles.
With the short featurette on the Trumpton disc, this only gets an Artwork Gallery (8x stills) and a Trailer Gallery (3m31s) that's been brought over from the Trumpton disc and includes the Trumptonshire trio as well as trailers for Trap Door, Lavender Castle, Postman Pat and the Great Dinosaur Hunt and Little Red Tractor - Glorious Mud.
It's still a pity about the picture quality but these archive children's television releases are appearing on DVD in varied form. Some, like The Box of Delights, look terrific but even that's a rare effort by the BBC, who have a wealth of such material but are not capitalising on it. To date, it's some of the Oliver Postgate material - Ivor The Engine, in particular - that seems to have fared best but fans of children's television appear to be the great unreached as far as DVD is concerned with their being a grudging acceptance that it's better to have this material than not. With Chigley due for release in the next month, the Trumptonshire set will be complete and although they look unimpressive, it's sad to think that this might be the very best they'll ever look again.