My two younger brothers and I have shared some very different television obsessions over the years, and being outnumbered and surprisingly outdone by their ability to control the set even at the ages of 3 and 6, I endured some questionable children’s TV programming growing up. Power Rangers and Pokemon being the most tiresome for a pre-pubescent girl more into Beanie Babies and Clarissa Explains It All. However, one of their after-school favourites I secretly delighted in was Pingu. I’d like to think now, as a newly graduated scholar of Film & Television, that from a very early age, I was drawn to the artistic marvel of clay-mation and the energy and patience that goes into creating the highly technical, intricate animation. But alas, I doubt this was the case. In fact, on re-discovering Pingu I’m pretty certain the core of my pleasurable viewing experience was the same back then as it is now – it’s bloody hilarious.
For those who don’t know (sort it, now), Pingu is a stop-motion, clay mated television series that follows a community of anthropomorphic penguins living in Antarctica. The central family’s son, Pingu, is the title character and main protagonist. He gets up to plenty of mischief with his penguin pals, his cute baby sister Pinga and his boisterous seal friend, Robby. Yup, he had a name folks! The issues addressed in the show are often typical of your children’s TV themes – lessons learnt, playing nicely with siblings and friends, the importance of listening to your parents etc etc. The comedy comes when Pingu frequently behaves like a little diva, throwing tantrums and getting extremely pissed off with his mates. But as expected, everything always works out in the end.
According to my research, there have been 157 episodes made since 1986. Who knew?! Notable titles include, Pingu Goes Fishing, Pingu Delivers The Mail, Pingu The Chef and Pingu’s Lavatory Story – my personal fave. You know the one; Pingu goes out on his wee sledge to the sweet shop with Pinga, they drink far too much fizzy juice, both have bladder issues then Pingu ends up pissing all over the bathroom floor. There are tears and embarrassment. His mother then builds Pingu his very own set of steps up to the loo so not to repeat his little accident. The closing moments show him perched on his toilet thrown, blanket over knees, reading a magazine. Like. A. Boss. Even now it seems I’m still sucked in by the juvenile, slapstick humour and the absurdities of the situations Pingu finds himself in. From the way he barks at Pinga, his drama-queen reaction when he spoils the bathroom floor and the brilliant moment when he tricks his Dad out of the bathroom who runs through the house with his plasticine arse out. The episode depicts this flightless cretin at his very best – bossy, demanding and bratty, creating havoc and hilarity.
Though he lives in the bleak surroundings of Antarctica, Pingu still manages to have some hefty adventures. Pingu in the Ice Cave is particularly harrowing it has to be said. Whilst out playing ball with his pal Pingg, they accidentally kick it under a small alcove. As they walk into the gap to retrieve it, the ground below suddenly gives way and they plunge down into the cavernous underground lair! I swear, when I was little, this episode made me shit my pants a bit. I think it had something to with the fact I watched a horrific episode of 999 around the same time about a boy that got trapped whilst pot-holing with the scouts. He was stuck in a minuscule cave filled with water for 9 hours!! Still haunts me…Back to the peril of Pingu and Pingg. They eventually escape the cave of course, but not without a classic moment of tension when the rope carrying Pingg begins to droop, hanging him precariously over a dangerous abyss!! All in all, an episode of high-drama in the South Pole and whether I want to admit it or not, that same pang of relief as they climbed back into their safe snowy surroundings was still faintly (very faintly ok?!) present.
What cannot be ignored is, of course, the show’s unique, made-up penguin language; an incomprehensible warble of gobble-de-gook made up of honking, crooning, blurbing, bleeping and blooping with the occasional decipherable word that could pass as English. The noises are nothing short of ridiculous but for me, both then and now, they are the show’s most entertaining attribute. It’s also a genius move by the creators seeing as kids from every linguistic background can follow the story thus making it easier to sell on globally. Got some brains amongst all that Play-Doe! These days, the nonsensicle jumble of words makes way for humorous threads on YouTube suggesting what the penguins could be saying. User ‘Wonadewona’ is convinced that in Pinga is Born, “His mother 100% at 40 seconds says..’Oh loadsa marijuana!'” You wonder if the makers did include the occasional controversial whisper for their own private hilarity and the pleasure of grown up fans like me, revisiting a little more worldly wise and maybe a little stoned themselves, just like Pingu’s maw. But in every situation, whether he’s sad, happy, cross, excited or just saying hello, Pingu’s trademark ‘MURP-MURP’ is still guaranteed to have me in stitches. Pinga knocks over his toy building blocks – MURP-MURP! Robby appears – MURP MURP! When delivering the mail, the Nathan Lane of the South Pole, Punki, kitted out in amazingly camp colourful striped trousers and a hipster quiff, swings open his front door, sings gallantly and flattens Pingu’s poor wee beak -MURP MURP indeed!
Obviously, there are some issues re-watching as an adult. During some episodes, admittedly I got a little bored. Even if there is only 5 minutes to get through. (Can we just paused one second to reflect on that please? 5 minutes. I mean, I know things seem double the size and twice the length when you’re a bairn – school dining halls, the walk through the green bit to get to the swings, roller-blading to the end of your street – but I could have sworn each one was at least half an hour long…). Pingu the Icicle Musician has the potential for greatness with it’s magical setting of hanging icicles, sparking and shining, creating a physical musical instruments from the organic, wintery land that surrounds these curious young raggamuffins. But honestly? Nothing much happens. They’re kicking a ball about, a recurring theme, end up in the cave and hit a few notes off some icey spikes. The end. There’s not even a MURP MURP!
Another thing…What bugged me in the nineties still bugs me now. In the external shots of the igloo houses, you can quite clearly see that they are rather on the small side. Cut to inside, and they’re palaces! Complete distortion of proportions and extremely misleading for kids! Even when you see Pingu building an igloo in, wait for it, Pingu Builds an Igloo, he puts together the snow blocks standing in the middle, with the structure reaching not much beyond his head. Then once it’s finished he goes inside with this friend and BOOM! it’s turned into a White House of an entirely different nature! I get the reasons why – easier to build the smaller houses but it’s inconsistent and very annoying!
Those last two points are only minor, however, and all in all the trip down memory lane was a joyous one. I’m pretty sure I hold a personal bond to Pingu that is no doubt making a good piece of children’s television seem like a pioneering masterpiece. I am aware that it has become a bit of a cult classic amongst many of my peers (when a friend recently posted the photo below on Facebook during some Pingu reminiscing, it attracted quite a bit of ‘liking’ attention) but whether that’s specifically the humour, the childhood associations, the timelessness or the nostaliga, I don’t know. I’m going to say all of the above. I do know that on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed my entertaining jaunt back into the snowy wonderland of Pingu and am certain my kids will get the MURP MURP! treatment one day.