As this is the first episode, let’s start with a quick analysis of the opening credits. Happy animals gallivant in the woods until machines destroy their habitat and send them running: simple but effective. One has to question just how big that cement mixer is and/or how small the woods are, but it makes its point. The animals running to a small cliff, facing the horizon and becoming silhouettes within a leafy circle (the show’s logo) is lovely. Ultimately, just like the show itself, the opening credits show hope in a horrible world. And that music! Dennis Cooper’s theme tune is beautiful – powerful without being overwrought and, big bonus, really easy to whistle.
Much like the credits, the show begins with peaceful, bucolic music over drawings of the wood, before quickly turning nasty. Chainsaws slice through trees and a digger is tearing up the landscape. One of the first moving shots is a bird seemingly abandoning its egg-filled nest. It’s a throwaway shot but prolepsis to the seriously grim stuff to come.
The first speaking character we see is Toad (one of many voices provided by the late great Ron Moody), one of the wise elders of the tribe. I say ‘wise elders’…I don’t know how old toads can be, but he speaks like an old man anyway. Within seconds poor Toad is scooped up and apparently buried alive by the nasty digger.
Next we meet a little party surveying the devastation. Badger, another wise elder and another Ron Moody voice, sadly comments ‘our days are numbered!’ as Owl (Sally Grace, brilliantly haughty) reels off a list of the homes they have lost so far, whilst toying with a dead mouse. It must be said that Farthing Wood never ignores the fact that many of its characters are carnivorous and not meant to live peacefully with one another. This gets discussed later in the episode and is a frequent point of tension between characters. We also meet Weasel (Grace again, maddeningly but brilliantly annoying), a squawking little jester who generally gets on everybody’s nerves, and straight-talking, repetition-loving Kestrel (Stacy Jefferson). Farthing Wood pond has been filled in – ‘our last remaining watering hole!’ cries Badger, ‘hard luck on the ducks!’ squawks Weasel. Weasel isn’t bothered because they still have the stream, but even that is little more than a muddy trickle.
We see a rabbit and a hedgehog (the latter balling up at the first sign of trouble, bloody redshirt) and then Fox (Rupert Farley) joins the party. While Farthing Wood is undoubtedly an ensemble piece, Fox is our hero. He might be flawed but he knows how to take control of a situation. He knows that the time is right to call an assembly (‘An assembly, Fox?!’ asks Badger, ‘Isn’t an assembly a bit drastic?’) and he knows how to delegate – ‘that’s my Badger, knew I could rely on you!’. True to his species, Fox is a wily one.
The organisational scenes are a delight – although it can be dark (seriously, just wait until they set out on the road, oh my there are horrors waiting for them out there…), Farthing Wood is still a kids’ show and often really quite funny, finding humour in loud-mouthed Weasel, exasperated Badger, the deaf Voles and bloodthirsty Adder (Jefferson again, all ssssibilance), who is mostly concerned with trying to eat the field mice.
There are a large number of animals, many of whom do not get much screen-time or character. Newts, squirrels, field mice, hares, the pheasants – they aren’t all collateral damage, exactly, but…That being said, there are still little moments which pay off in later episodes. We’ve already mentioned the balled-up Hedgehog, but pay close attention to the bickering Mr and Mrs Pheasant. Yes, he seems like a massive misogynist and there appears to be little affection there, but just wait and see how much emotion eventually gets wrung out of that relationship. What’s that they say about not straying far from the woods for fear of being shot?
Down in Badger’s set for the meeting, the final main character to be introduced is Mole (Jeremy Barrett). Though their relationship is a bit frosty in this episode, Badger and Mole become a brilliant little double act and, of course, this being Farthing Wood, that means tears will be shed later. So many tears.
But wait – Toad isn’t dead! ‘I’m still here!’. A good thing, as we learn that he is the last of Farthing Wood pond’s 47 indigenous toads. ‘We were ssssso certain you’d sssnuffed it!’ says Adder. But no – the last Toad is here to bring hope to the animals. Having been caught in a jam jar and kept in captivity for ages, Toad is at first devastated to find out what has happened to his home. ‘We’re all but finished here,’ Fox tells him, ‘Man and his machines have seen to that’. I wonder how many young people discovered Greenpeace in 1993?! However, he has an idea of where they might find a new home. ‘I knows a place that we could go to!’ Toad tells the assembly, ‘A great little place. Wonderful place!’. White Deer Park, a nature preserve; a place where all wild creatures are protected by humans. Owl is dubious, but the idea galvanises most of the animals.
The news even kicks off a sing-song – ‘WE’RE GOING AWAY, WE’RE GOING AWAY, WE’RE GOING TO WHITE DEER PARK!’ – but not everybody is a fan of the idea. Hare points out that vegetarians will be travelling alongside their natural enemies, leading Badger to reinstate the ‘oath of mutual protection’, whereby animals vow not to eat or menace one another (though Adder metaphorical crosses her fingers as they swear it). He also nominates Fox as leader. With the plan grudgingly agreed to, the animals are sent off to prepare for the journey.
Rendezvous midnight at the great beech…and rendezvous next week here for a discussion of episode two!
Wild Wisdom of the Week – ‘He who dwells in the soil, himself becomes soiled; he who dwells in the light, shall find enlightenment’ (Owl).
Deaths – None! I mean, 46 toads have died but we don’t see it. Savour the last moments of your childhood joy. It won’t last.
Other musings – Badger’s description of ‘men cutting down our trees to build their little brick and glass boxes’ is lovely.