Over the last year I’ve been bringing the forgotten animated 80s series Chicken & Lantern to a wider audience with these episode guides (Series 1, 2 and 3). And now, as they say, the dramatic conclusion.
It was a year of endings. The fall of communism, the final episode of Doctor Who, and the last time that Sonia would ever straddle the top of the UK charts. But for a few, 1989’s most significant loss was the sad demise of Chicken & Lantern. Their antics had been deemed quaint and irrelevant and their fourth season of adventures was to be their last. The production team tried various controversial creative approaches in the final run of episodes, some wilder than others and not all of them successful, but then they had nothing to lose.
Prunella Scales returned as the voice of Chicken, and the role of Lantern was taken up by Geoffrey Palmer, who brought a certain gruff world-weariness to the time-travelling festival decoration.
SERIES 4 EPISODE GUIDE
6 x 10 minute episodes
Transmitted on BBC1, Wednesdays at 4.45pm, 22nd November – 27th December 1989
Episode 1: Bird Down
In a bravura opening sequence worthy of a James Bond film, Chicken and Lantern make their escape from a Nazi-infested zeppelin high above 1930s New York, plunging through the sky onto the Empire State Building where they battle their way down through Cthulhoid monsters oozing from the walls of the carpeted hallways, finally reaching street level only to get caught up in a dramatic shoot-out between rival organised crime gangs. They race into the sewers, where they outsmart a ravenous alligator, and finally slide down a giant shaft to reach the centre of the earth where we see that our heroes have established a safe HQ that they can safely visit in any time zone. There’s not a word of dialogue up until this point, which greatly alarmed Geoffrey Palmer on his first day of recording. Especially when all that he or Prunella Scales were required to do in the final seconds of the episode was to grunt or scream respectively as the large time scanner screen in their HQ fills with the terrifying face of an enormous fox.
Episode 2: Cooped Up
The bizarre and infamous ‘live action’ episode. Having established a base of operations for the intrepid duo, no time was wasted in setting an entire episode there, and during a power cut at that. Still a great deal of money was clearly saved on animation by having Prunella Scales sat in a chicken suit in a semi-darkened room (lit only by the dim red light of the molten core of the earth, diffusing through the skylight), whispering to Geoffrey Palmer who’s gamely done up in a whalebone corset, red tissue paper and golden tassles as Lantern. Chicken believes that the fox they saw on the screen will be their undoing and their end, and confides in Lantern of the nameless creeping dread that’s haunted her days and her dreams. She fears and welcomes her oncoming death in equal measure, she confesses, finally breaking down into sobs. As a means of introducing existential anxiety to a young audience, it couldn’t be deemed a failure. But then that wasn’t exactly the show’s remit.
Episode 3: Pecking Order
A time travel romp allowing C&L to pay homage to the programme that inspired it, this episode saw Chicken (now back to her flat cartoon self) spliced into chicken-related footage from 70s Doctor Who episodes, as she becomes separated from Lantern, unstuck in time alone, and tries to track down a fellow time traveller to get her home. At first appearing aboard the SS Bernice where she fails to attract Jon Pertwee’s attention from within a crate, she’s then whooshed to Paris in 1979 where she’s hurtled along her own timeline to the point of old age and death, before Tom Baker reverses the polarity to save her. Finally she pops up in a village church where, just as the Master is about to sacrifice her to a Daemon, Lantern (accompanied for no easily justifiable reason by Crow from Saturday Superstore) swoops in over Jo Grant’s shoulder and they all escape to safety.
Episode 4: Home To Roost
In an ill-remembered episode guest-directed by Peter Greenaway, Chicken and Lantern learn a complicated formal dance in an unnamed baroque citadel. These scenes are intercut with abstract, stylised scenes of a future metropolis filled with rotting foxes. The music was alright.
Episode 5: The Four Lanterns
A celebratory episode designed to clear up the confusion around Lantern’s backstory, which saw a return to the Shanghai setting of Season 1’s finale (where all of Lantern’s past and future incarnations live together as a family) and an ambitious attempt to bring all the actors who’d voiced him together. David Yip refused to participate and had to be represented by recycled sound clips from his earlier episodes. Bruce Willis had loved his time on the show so much that he gave his time for free, although as he was now a major star, and busy filming Die Hard 2, this amounted to a quick phone call with no script, during which he said a few phrases he thought his incarnation of Lantern might be likely to utter. So with two of the Lanterns speaking only in non-sequiturs – “No, dear Chicken! You’re doing it all wrong!”; “Suck my fiery wick, mothers!” – and so on, it was left to Burt Kwouk and Geoffrey Palmer to try to carry the complicated plot, which was some sort of absurdly hopeful epiphany in which Lantern reconciled all the contradictory aspects of his psyche.
Episode 6: Outfoxed
The ending was all that mattered. The story that led to it was almost incidental, save that in a metafictional twist that would only become apparent more than twenty years later when I was writing this today, the fox so intent on senselessly killing off our heroes turned out to be called Bertie.
But what sticks in the mind of everyone who sees it is the last few minutes and their terrible imagery. At least we didn’t have to see the worst of it happen onscreen. It was bad enough that Chicken should actually be savaged by the fox, and that Lantern should fall into a threshing machine while trying to save her. They were wise to cut away at the last moment and leave those fates suggested merely by sound effect with the occasional half-chewed wing or mangled shred of red paper flying across the screen. Although even that informed a generation’s trauma. A light-hearted soundtrack was added at producers’ insistence to alleviate the horror, but no-one would now agree that Spitting Image’s The Chicken Song did anything to make things better.
When the children had finished crying – if they ever finished crying – if they looked up at the screen again they would see their heroes, barely recognisable: Chicken just shreds and bits of bone, Lantern smashed and torn, his light sputtering. But that dying light signalled the start of one final juddering flight through time, and our heroes arrive on a sunny hillside by the opening of a cave in Ancient Greece, where a philosopher scoops up their remnants in his arms and carries them to their rest. The camera fixes and slowly zooms in on the firelit shadows on the wall of the cave, where we see that Chicken and Lantern are slowly becoming whole again as silhouettes. Plato (for it is he, voiced by John Gielgud) explains that through their adventures our heroes have become the best of every chicken, and of every lantern, and that they will live on forever, symbolically, as ideal forms. However much comfort THAT was supposed to be. The light in the cave slowly dies and the credits roll while that unforgettable theme tune plays out one last, sad time.