If Chicken & Lantern is one of the less fondly remembered animated children’s series that the BBC produced in the 80s, then the blame should squarely be laid on the controversial developments towards the end of its run. Revisiting 1983’s original series we can see a freshness and a lightness of touch that ought to have given the show a classic status to rank alongside its closest rival, ITV’s Orm and Cheep.
The set-up was explained in the heady opening sequence. Chicken (voiced by Prunella Scales) escapes from her rotisserie in a Berni Inn when the mechanism comes loose. Racing half-cooked down the street she bursts through the door of a Spastics Society charity shop only to find it being ransacked by glue-sniffers. Laughing unkindly, the yobs place Chicken on top of a Chinese lantern and set fire to it, little realising that they’ve activated its magical powers by doing so. Lantern (David Yip) ascends into the air, bearing Chicken to safety, and THROUGH TIME ITSELF…
Series 1 Episode Guide
6 x 10 minute episodes (one episode cut to 8 minutes on original transmission)
Transmitted on BBC1, Tuesdays at 4.20pm, 15th February – March 22nd 1983.
Episode 1: Tour de Norse Intended mostly as an introduction to the characters, the plot of the first episode is a slight one, as Chicken & Lantern arrive on a Viking longboat and struggle to avoid detection. The script and performances do a good job of establishing Chicken as compassionate and impetuous, with Lantern a more reticent, contemplative character. Critics of the episode cite the duo’s “inappropriately light-hearted response” to Lantern’s accidentally setting the boat on fire at the end, leaving everyone on board to roast alive. But its advocates — who at the time included Linda McCartney — point out the deliberate echoes of Chicken’s intended fate on the rotisserie, and see this conclusion as a moral keystone of the show.
Episode 2: Its a Crimea Arriving on the coast of the Black Sea in 1855, Chicken & Lantern become entangled in the events of the Crimean War. While the scenes in which Chicken is repeatedly fired from a cannon are played largely for comic relief, the hospital sequences in which Lantern assists Florence Nightingale by floating around the field hospital to illuminate it take a more serious tone, reflecting the programme-makers’ remit to provide educational content as well as entertainment.
Episode 3: Nineteen Poultry-Four When they visit London a year in their future, Chicken & Lantern are appalled to find it’s become a thought-controlled dystopia run by the mysterious ‘Big Clucker’. Many children were disturbed by the claustrophobic scenes of Lantern stuck in the pneumatic tubes that form the postal system of the future, and the ambiguous ending in which our heroes seem not to have made any lasting difference to the world was considered unsettling. A scene in which Chicken is locked in a room to face her worst fears — a hundred and one hot skewers — was cut altogether for being too frightening. Prunella Scales has gone on record opposing the cut, claiming that her humorous cries of “Mind my parson’s nose!”, which she’d hoped would become a catchprase, more than defused the horror of the situation.
Episode 4: Johann Sebastian Beak
This episode, in which Chicken & Lantern arrive in 18th century Leipzig, was to form the basis for O-Level and GCSE Music workshop lessons for a decade to follow. Paul Morley once described Chicken & Lantern‘s theme tune as “The sugary parp of the Roobarb theme sharing a cautious but enthusiastic first kiss with Tales Of The Unexpected‘s tender exoticism, while they both sit astride the epic melancholy of Black Beauty. Basically the best TV theme tune of all time.” And the scenes in which Bach teaches the intrepid pair to improvise a set of clavichord variations on their theme, before it’s finally rendered as a full choral mass, have been known to reduce grown men to tears.
Episode 5: Feast Or Lantern Arriving at the court of King John in mediaeval England, it takes all of Lantern’s ingenuity to manifest as a spooky ghost in time to save Chicken from becoming just another dish on the royal banquet table. This episode is mostly remembered now for the unfortunate scheduling mishap that saw it broadcast on the same day as the opening installment of a Doctor Who story with exactly the same setting. Many children have thus got the two mixed up in their heads, and you don’t have to look far these days to find a YouTube prankster who’s done a video mash-up of Anthony Ainley gnawing on poor Chicken’s leg!!
Episode 6: Eggsactly On Time When Chicken discovers that she’s about to lay an egg, she and Lantern return to the present day where they meet Lantern’s family in Shanghai. What followed was perhaps the most fiendishly complicated time travel plot ever to feature in a ten-minute animated show in the post-Play School slot. The revelation that all of Lantern’s family were Lantern himself, at different points in his timestream, left children thoroughly baffled. And to this day, aficionados can’t agree on what exactly happened to Chicken’s egg, and whether any of the future Chicks (one voiced by a young Sam West in an early TV role) were actually meant to be real. But of course the lasting legacy of this episode was that David Yip quit the series over what he felt was a lack of recognition for the complexity of his multiple perfomances. As we’ll see, this led to a dramatically different direction for Series 2…