It’s the summer holidays, schools in the UK are out, and that means a higher-than-average chance that you might find yourself seeing some children’s television. As such, it’s the ideal opportunity to celebrate the fact that transport (and railways in particular) have thoroughly insinuated themselves into children’s television.
Aside from the obvious Thomas the Tank Engine TV series Thomas and Friends, you’ll find Brum, Underground Ernie, Driver Dan’s Story Train (no relation) and Chuggington, which if you haven’t seen it might best be described as Thomas the Tank Engine on amphetamines, by which I mean no disrespect at all.
But for this week’s blog entry, we’re heading for 6.25pm when pre-schoolers the country over settle down for some calming television to put them in the mood for bed. It’s time for In the Night Garden.
Or, as noted Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi would put it…
“Igglepiggle, iggle-onk, we’re going to catch the Ninky Nonk!”
I don’t know how much of an international presence In the Night Garden has. I do know that an earlier programme by production company Ragdoll, Teletubbies, became a global phenomenon, so much so that Homer Simpson impersonated a Teletubby in an episode of The Simpsons. But In the Night Garden, shown in the UK on BBC pre-school channel CBeebies, is much more interesting in transport terms.
For those unfamiliar with the programme, its official website is here, and if you just want a brief synopsis, it’s the tale of blue soft toy Igglepiggle and his friends in the Night Garden, narrated in fine style by Jacobi. Each night, on his boat, Igglepiggle goes to sleep and visits the garden, which is populated by a diverse group of other toys, who between them have very small adventures. It’s charming. There’s definitely an entire thesis just waiting to be written on the theological underpinnings of In the Night Garden, the role of the Haahoos, and the importance of the number 5, but I’m afraid this isn’t really the time.
One of the frequent themes of In the Night Garden episodes is catching (or failing to catch) one of the Night Garden’s two modes of transport, these being a flatulent-sounding airship (the Pinky Ponk) and an excitable train (the Ninky Nonk). The latter is this week’s subject.
I don’t normally have a lot of time for “trains” that don’t run on rails (see here), and I really don’t understand why tourist buses in seaside resorts are often disguised as trains:
However, for the Ninky Nonk I am prepared to make an honourable exception, because of its sheer eccentricity and joie de vivre.
The Ninky Nonk runs to no set timetables. It doesn’t have any proper stations. Its progress is so violently rapid, its changes of direction so unpredictable, that its carriages are fitted with seatbelts.
The Ninky Nonk train comprises a banana-shaped red/orange locomotive at the front, pulling four carriages each of a unique design (so there are five vehicles in all – see what I mean about the number 5?). The large pumpkin-shaped carriage is used by the Tombliboos (triplets who live in a bush, enjoy playing music, and suffer frequent trouser-related wardrobe malfunctions) and Makka Pakka (who has OCD and spends his time washing and arranging the stones he finds in the Night Garden). The tiny house-shaped carriage is used by two families of miniature peg dolls, the Pontipines (who like picnics) and the Wottingers (to whom we are frequently exhorted to wave). Carriage three is singer/dancer Upsy Daisy’s, decorated internally like something from Country Living magazine (this will be lost on non-UK readers, sorry) and although she often invites Igglepiggle to travel with her, he also has use of the final carriage. This takes the form of a sedan chair without the poles, but more particularly we can tell it’s Igglepiggle’s because it’s the same shape as his head.
The Ninky Nonk has some key technical advantages that would be extremely useful to real-world train operators. When it gets bored of running along the ground, as it frequently does, it can run up and down tree trunks and along branches. Such use of the third dimension (if you’ve ever seen the movie Minority Report, you’ll be familiar with this not-yet-available technology) would be very useful to train operators who are running out of track space on busy commuter networks in big cities. That said, the Ninky Nonk frequently undertakes its “branch line” excursions, if you will, in an inverted manner which comes at the cost of some degree of discomfort to its passengers.
But most importantly, the Ninky Nonk has some real scale variance problems. This can be quite disconcerting for adult viewers (children seem either not to notice it, or not to be bothered by it). At one moment, the Ninky Nonk is running up a tree trunk, or dancing in front of Igglepiggle, clearly no taller than Igglepiggle’s leg. The next moment, the Ninky Nonk has become much larger, as indeed it has to be in order to actually accommodate Igglepiggle and the other characters on board. Think of the advantages on the real world railway of a train which is able to increase in size, thereby ensuring there is enough space on board for passengers, or shrink down, thereby ensuring that it takes up less platform capacity at busy terminus stations.
As an aside, I wonder whether any real-life train operator has ever considered using vinyls to decorate one of their trains as the Ninky Nonk. That would be amazing…
In the Night Garden is very popular amongst pre-school children. As well as such useful life lessons as playing together nicely, listening to stories, understanding that people are different from each other and have differing interests (and that that is nothing to be afraid of, but indeed to be celebrated) In the Night Garden also introduces children to the concept of public transport as early as it is possible to do. And that, I think, is to be celebrated.
A line drawing of the Ninky Nonk to colour in, at the CBeebies website. Remember to ask a Grown-up for help, as the webpage says.