Sep 08

Let’s make our way to the Garden of the Night

Do You See + FT8 comments • 2,323 views

I’ve talked about In The Night Garden – one of the BBC’s current flagship childrens’ programmes – enough in the pub to justify a post focusing on it and its strange cosmology. The show is produced by Ragdoll, who are staggeringly wealthy thanks to the international success of Teletubbies. As FT coding guru Alan has pointed out, ITNG combines the ‘tubbies ethos – lots of nonsense talk, buckets of repetition, basic characters in a cosily unreal environment – with a heavy dose of old school, Oliver Postgate style Kids’ TV. The show’s “Pontipines”, for instance, are tiny clothes peg people who emerge from their tiny house to scuttle and squeak in a way that’s directly reminiscent of Bagpuss‘ mechanical mice.

This immediately makes Night Garden more attractive viewing for nostalgist parents like me than Teletubbies, whose gentle gobbledigook is crack to the one-year old mind but harder going for Dad and Mum. The budget’s noticeably higher too – ITNG looks extremely classy, and in a further sop to middle-class parental sensibilities it even has a proper theme tune. As the programme is meant for a slightly older audience than Teletubbies, there are even actual stories, though they’re glacially paced: a typical episode has a character losing something, then asking every other character in turn if they’ve found it. Since each character has their own theme song and special dance the half hour fills up quite quickly. As yet, though, I’ve not seen an episode which has the near-random wonder of some bits of Teletubbies – those Winsor McCay moments when (for example) suddenly Tubbyland would fill with water and three ferries would sail through it and then vanish. Existence and events are less arbitrary for ITNG’s audience, and the show follows suit. But luckily, it puts its wonder elsewhere.

What makes Night Garden strange isn’t the action of the episode, but the location. I’m not really talking about the Night Garden itself, beautifully realised though it is (a sort of toddler Portmeiron, complete with giant bouncing balloons), but the metaphysics of the show. Each episode starts with a different child being lulled to sleep by a parent, who tells them about the show’s hero, Iggle Piggle, who is himself going to sleep in the tiny boat which seems to be his only home. The boat is adrift on an endless sea in an endless dark – we don’t know where it’s going, or why, only that as each episode begins Iggle Piggle is furling his sail and lighting his light, and as he falls asleep the stars above HIM turn to flowers in the Night Garden.

The week’s jolly adventure then happens, and at the end the inhabitants of the Garden go to sleep, leaving Iggle Piggle awake and alone in the darkening Garden. The kindly narrator tells him not to worry, and we pan out to find him asleep and drifting in his boat.

So to recap: Iggle Piggle is a kind of universal child adrift in a sort of womb-sea of the collective unconscious, a deeper layer of which turns out to be the Night Garden, where he can play but never truly belong – and which children can’t access directly, only through this sailor intermediary. To make the sea scenes more haunting, they’re filmed in stop-motion compared to the smooth film of framing scene and Garden. This has the effect of increasing their weird unreality for the viewer.

Judging by the success of ITNG it’s struck a chord among kids and parents – my one-year-old adores it – but what strikes me is that the show doesn’t need the framing seascape at all: on paper it would work just as well to have Iggle Piggle be a paid up member of the Night Garden crew, and simply have the child dream about them. The sea scenes – which are always the same and very short – take us into another place entirely, tapping into something much more primal that won’t soon leave the memory of this generation of kids.


  1. 1
    Alan on 25 Sep 2008 #

    All this and no mention of Jim Woodring! MakkaPakka, the Pinky Ponk and the Ninky Nonk all look like they’ve strayed from a Frank comic. (ok, some of the less psychotic pages)

    There’s a definite visual difference between Iggle Piggle in the boat and in the night garden. It could be just a quirk of production – the title sequence made early on with a puppet – but I see the IP in the garden as IP’s dream version of himself – slightly taller, thinner, smarter looking somehow.

    IP is the only one of the 3 main large characters that doesn’t say his/her name (pokemon style), with just a sort of squeak/baby gurgle sound instead. Do girls identify with IP as much as Upsy Daisy then?

    i have yet to see an ep with the Wottingers (the ‘blue Pontipines’!)

    (how much do i love the theme tune)

  2. 2
    Emma on 26 Sep 2008 #

    Well our 14 month old is currently 110% bewitched by the pontipines efforts to catch the Ninkynonk and therefore I can use the computer without him wailing & dribbling on my knees :)

    I don’t know what it is about the theme tune but it makes me quite teary.

  3. 3
    pink champale on 26 Sep 2008 #

    …further to the further sop to middle class parental sensibilities, the narrator is derek jacobi.

    there’s something quite odd going on with scale too. most of the characters are of markedly different sizes, makka pakka is only half the size of the tombliboos for instance, which is no doubt meant to mimic a young child’s experience of the world being that you’re always relating to people and objects of radically different (and surely for a young child entirely random) sizes. this i think works really well, but i’ve never quite got my head around what’s going on with the train thing (the ninky nonk?) which most of the characters seem to ride in at various points but is also seen trailing around at knee level at other times. but perhaps i’m getting into comic store guy territory.

  4. 4
    Tom on 26 Sep 2008 #

    I guess the Ninky Nonk’s radical shifts in size are to do with a child’s understanding of pushing a train about on the floor while at the same time imaginatively ‘riding’ in it….?

    I like the size changing thing too!

    And yes Jim Woodring – can’t believe I forgot that! Of course a lot of his stuff is an exploration of dream logic too, can’t remember whether Frank is intended as such tho. There are some brilliant dream strips in JIM tho – “the bomb that never stops exploding” and suchlike.

  5. 5
    Alan on 26 Sep 2008 #

    the scale is confusing. i think those giant daisies are meant to be normal sized daisies, and everything in the night garden is teensy. though ninky nonk shakes around like a small model, it is always portrayed as larger than the main characters when they are in frame together. upsy daisy IggleP and the tombliboos all shot are at the same size, it’s just the actor in makkapakka that is doing everything on green screen when interacting with the others.

  6. 6
    Pete on 26 Sep 2008 #

    What are the chances that this thread will go the way of the LazyTown one with people perving over certain characters. Is there anyone to perve over In The Night Garden.

    And is there a Night Gardener.

  7. 7
    pink champale on 26 Sep 2008 #

    tom – yes! that’s a great explanation.

    another of the (slightly self conscious) ‘quality’ aspects of this is the nicely archaic use of language – “isn’t that a pip?”. between ITNG and thomas the tank engine, my three year old has the vocabulary of bertie wooster.

  8. 8
    Anime on 27 Nov 2008 #

    ITNG- is really a great programme. A great entertainment for kids.

    Tom Randy

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